Rustenberg’s flagship wines among the casualties of Stellenbosch fire

A MONTH AFTER the last flames to sweep over the Simonsberg in Stellenbosch had been extinguished, there were still no official reports as to the full extent of the damage and loss suffered on this special stretch of the Cape winelands. Thankfully there were no human casualties, but the fires were devastating, with farms in the path of the inferno left totting up the costs as the 2016 harvest got underway. And among the hardest hit was Rustenberg in Ida’s Valley, where this year they will not be able to make the Peter Barlow Cabernet and Five Soldiers Chardonnay that count among South Africa’s most fancied wines.

According to VinPro, which provides services to over 3500 grape growers and wine cellars, the fire started on 19 January along the south-westerly side of the mountain, above the town of Pniel. “From there,” recalled viticultural consultant Conrad Schutte, “it spread across the entire mountain, causing significant damage to the vineyards of several well-known wine estates – including Thelema, Uitkyk, Kanonkop and Rustenberg – before it was finally brought under control on 22 January.”

VinPro’s early estimates suggest that close to 82 hectares of vineyard were affected, which could cost the industry close to R20-million. Schutte said it would be difficult to determine the total damage caused, varying as it does from vines that were completely destroyed to scorched leaves and smoke taint. “Previous fires have taught us that some vineyards that seem to be severely damaged recover remarkably, while others do not make it, even though they appear to have survived. Only time will tell.”

According to André Morgenthal, communications manager for Wines of South Africa (WOSA) which promotes exports, the farms worst affected also included Plaisir de Merle, Zorgvliet and Delheim – the latter in terms of the loss of the forest, one of the biggest privately owned plantations in the Western Cape.

Feedback from some of the top producers was as follows:

“Delheim lost about 95% of our entire pine plantations and most of our natural Fynbos vegetation,” said Victor Sperling. “It takes about 25 years for the pine trees to reach commercial maturity, so it is a massive blow for us. The estimated loss in revenue stands at about R3.5-million. We were fortunate that we had minimal damage to our vineyards, but some Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer blocks suffered partial scorching… The smoke taint will be a challenge for our winemaking team to overcome, but fortunately there are ways and means of managing this in the cellar.”

Kanonkop Estate suffered “approximately five to six hectares of vineyards burnt and/or scorched. This equates to some 50 tons of grapes,” said Johann Krige, referring to Merlot and Pinotage blocks. “The support all round was amazing… The damage could have been much worse.”

Rustenberg Wines’ Murray Barlow reported that of the total of 112 hectares under vine, they had lost about five hectares to the fire: two hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, two-and-a-half hectares of Chardonnay and half a hectare of Sauvignon Blanc. “Much of our infrastructure close to the affected areas was damaged, including fences, vineyard poles and wires, pump-houses, electricity cables and water pipes…” Of major concern as the delivery of grapes to the cellar got into full swing was avoiding smoke taint in the wines – some 30% of total plantings having been exposed to smoke during the blaze. For this reason, Rustenberg will not be producing the site-specific Five Soldiers and Peter Barlow wines this year, with both blocks having been surrounded by fire. “Luckily the vineyards were not burnt, as was the case in the year 2000. This will be the first year we will not produce a Five Soldiers and only the second time we will not produce Peter Barlow since we began producing these wines.”

Thelema Mountain Vineyards: “We were hit quite hard, lost about 100 tons of fruit, and will probably have to pull out a few vineyards” – Thomas Webb.


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