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Harvest report 2024 at Glenelly

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Cellar Master Dirk van Zyl reports “ with all the grapes in the cellar and the last few tanks to be pressed, it’s a good time to reflect on this special vintage”.

After rain arrived in late February 2023, it continued unabated into winter,
leading to an early winter that was both very wet and cold. Slightly less rain in
July and August, a few warmer days in August, and the good cold unit build-up
in the preceding months led to bud-break occurring around 10-14 days
earlier than normal. Just as the vines were growing nicely, September delivered
227mm of rain! This caused some flooding on the farm, but we were lucky not
to have had any significant damage. In the vineyards, the full surface ground
cover of cover crops and weeds also prevented any significant erosion and
ensured we captured as much water as possible.

As September ended, we also saw the end of any significant rainfall for the
year, with virtually no rain from October to December. However, 2023 still
ended as one of the wettest (if not the wettest) on record, with a total rainfall
of 980mm. We thus started the season with great soil moisture, which we soon
found out was very needed, as the months leading up to harvest saw far more
wind than normal. The wind, coupled with dry and warm weather, quickly
dried out soils and moderated growth significantly. This effect was especially
true on our higher-lying vineyards, on steeper slopes.

The season stayed early, with flowering and veraison also occurring between
10-14 days early in most blocks. The cold and wet early spring (September)
negatively affected the set and flowering of especially the earlier cultivars,
resulting in a significant drop in yield.

Hot weather at the end of December and January meant there was no
slowing down the season, and so harvest started on the 16th of January, a full
2 weeks earlier than the preceding 2 years. The next 2 weeks saw us bringing
in all our Chardonnay, with the last Estate Chardonnay picked on the 31st of
January, one day earlier than the start of the 2023 harvest. While it was the
smallest Chardonnay crop to date on Glenelly, the quality was very exciting.
We decided early on not to focus too much on sugar content but rather to
pick based on flavour and fruit ripeness. With the warm weather, we saw a
sharp decline in acid, but by not waiting for an “ideal” sugar level, we were
able to bring in all the grapes with healthy acidities. Overall, in the wines, we
have quite low alcohols and beautifully linear acidities that are well balanced
by great fruit and mouthfeel.

We had a small break as we waited for the first reds and on the 5th of February,
we brought in the first Merlot, followed shortly by Cabernet Franc on the 8th.
The Merlot blocks were all a little down on yield compared to last year, but the
Cabernet Franc was down massively (40%), showing just how sensitive those
steep slopes are to a dry and windy season. Fortunately, the quality of the
grapes was incredible and made up for the loss in yield. I cannot recall seeing
Merlot and Cabernet Franc juice colour so intensely after only a couple of days
on the skins. As ferment got underway, Léhandri and I soon realized that with
the small berries and thus higher skin-to-juice ratio, we’ll have to be extremely
careful with extraction. We kept to 2 pump-overs per day, but the time of the
pump-overs was generally 50% less than in previous seasons. This, coupled with
a low fermentation temperature of around 22°C for most of the ferment, has
ensured we have very fine and densely packed tannins, but with no harsh or
coarse tannins. After ferment, we also removed the juice from the skins far
quicker than normal, as once again, the evolution of tannins was faster than
normal and any longer could lead to an over-extraction of seed tannin.
We did two picks of Syrah for our Rosé – the first on the 5th of February from
block 26 and the second on the 12th of February from block 24. The quality of
the grapes was outstanding, but real care had to be taken during pressing, as
the colour extracted very quickly.

The first Syrah for red was picked on the 15th of February, and the rest followed
within a week. We saw loads of ripeness at very low sugar levels this year, with
some blocks showing the typical Syrah shrivelling at 23°B already. As with the
rest of the crop, we decided not to aim for any sugar levels, but pick based on
taste, phenolic ripeness, and “gut feel”, and so our Syrah’s all came in at quite
low sugar levels. As usual, we played around with some whole bunch,
submerged cap, and destemmed components and after not being overly
excited by them during ferment, they are all shaping up nicely now!
The day after the Syrah finished, we started picking Cabernet Sauvignon, with
blocks 4 and 7 coming in first. These two blocks always form the heart of Lady
May, and so we were very happy to get almost 4 tons more from them this year
compared to 2023. It was a bit of stop-start harvesting on the Cabernet
Sauvignon’s as the nights started to cool down significantly and we had two
little spells of rain (not enough to cause any damage, just enough to pause
ripening). By this stage, we had completely stopped grape sampling and relied
exclusively on taste and observations in the vineyard. The Petit Verdot followed
in between the Cabernet Sauvignon. All the Cabs and Petits continued the
trend of tiny berries, and so equal care had to be taken with their extraction,
but I believe the quality we have in the cellar is truly exhilarating. The tannins
are generally dense but very finely packed. We have great acidities, and the
wines are on average much lower in alcohol, with the majority sitting in the
range of mid- to high 13’s to low 14’s.

We also did a few experiments this year. The first being a Chardonnay
fermented in Flexcube, with the idea being that the shape and breathability
of the vessel will bring texture and mouthfeel, while the lack of oak will preserve
fruit and freshness. A little like a “poor man’s” amphora or concrete egg! We
picked the bottom of block 30 for this, normally the least inspiring Chardonnay
from the Estate, and I’m happy to report that it worked far better than we
could have imagined! I can see this adding to both Estate Reserve and Glass
Collection and so, next year expect to see a few more fermenting Flexcubes!
We also trialled a whole berry Merlot ferment in upright 500L barrels. Here we
used Merlot from the uppermost rows of block 16, situated at around 280m
elevation on a very steep South-East slope. The bunches and berries were
minute. It’s incredible to see how differently the tannins are showing on this
batch, and it will be very interesting to see how this wine develops over the
next 12 months.

Our final experiment is a continuation of something we experimented with last
year – co-fermenting Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. This really
was the biggest revelation to come out of the 2023 harvest, and it has
continued to work incredibly well for us. The Petit Verdot adding so much
character and texture to what would normally be pretty standard Cabernet
Sauvignon, elevating it to strong Lady May contenders! We find that by doing
the co-ferment, we are able to utilise far more Petit Verdot than we could in
the past, so this really is a big win for us! So, to conclude, a vintage that started
off extremely wet, dried off (and then some) by mid-season, was small and
early, but above all – exciting! What a privilege to work with fruit from this
incredible site, and hopefully, we were able to capture the essence of the
vintage and the site in the wines. Only time will tell! Thank you for the incredible
effort from Heinrich and his team in the vineyards and all the hard and
meticulous work from everyone in the cellar!

Cheers to 2024!