21 March 2022

If you’re reading this, chances are you are someone who loves wine or at least enjoys drinking a glass now and then. But how often do you think about the expertise and arduous labour that goes into creating that bottle of wine you bought to have with dinner tonight?


We spoke to our cellarmaster, JD Pretorius, about how harvest plays out at Warwick, what it takes to make great wine, and what it means to be a true wine lover.



So, JD, let’s get right into it. What makes the grapes at Warwick so special?


Deep, rich soils with high clay content and a lot of buffer water capacity… that’s what makes our grapes at Warwick so unique.


Grapes have got a great way of showing their region. Warwick is on the Northern end of Stellenbosch, the furthest you can be away from the ocean, so it’s a warmer region. That’s why we specialise in cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and chardonnay, which shines through in the wines; they’re bold, powerful, and have personality and structure.



What does a typical day during harvest look like?


It’s like one of those memes where you’ve got ‘what my parents think I do’ and ‘what I actually do’ [Laughs], but in all honesty, a lot of planning, admin and paperwork.


In harvest season, my primary focus is making the call on when we are picking. High-level planning and management are also required from a workflow point of view, so I check in on the progress multiple times a day. The primary focus is to ensure that systems are in place and everyone knows what they need to do. It’s not like distilling beer where you can bottle throughout the year; you have six weeks and one chance to do it right.





















There is probably a lot of pressure on you when you’re the guy who needs to make that call. So, how do you know if a grape is ready to pick and what varietal is usually harvested first?


Generally speaking, white grapes come in before the red grapes. The only anomaly is pinotage grapes; they come in early in the season. It also depends on where the grapes grow, the age of the vineyards, whether they are irrigated, if the grapes are happy, and which style of wine you are making.


We determine ripeness by two things; we look at the chemistry, which involves the sugar balance, for example, and how the grapes are tracking. Then, there is the taste of the grape, which also gives a lot away. For instance, in a sauvignon blanc, you can taste the tropical fruit flavours and then the grassier green pepper flavours, depending on the change in the season.



In January, Vinpro reported that South African wine grape producers expect a smaller grape crop, mainly due to a decrease in vineyards, high disease pressure and heatwaves in certain regions. What has the crop been like at Warwick, and what in your opinion makes a harvest successful?


Well, I can already tell you that we have a much higher yield than last year, which is exciting.


A successful harvest season for us is divided into two things; the physical size of the crop and the quality of the grapes. The bigger the crop, the more economical the farming will be. You can also very quickly get a feeling for the season regarding what type of wine is being produced. You get far more complexity, richness, and texture with longer seasons as it has developed longer.



What were your expectations going into harvest this year, considering so much has changed after the pandemic and lockdown restrictions?


In 2020 we were told to put our tools down and go into lockdown during our first full harvest. That was a disaster. Then, we had a very quiet year in 2021, with fewer external interests like wine tasting, dinners, entertainment, travel, and a closed tasting room.


This year has been quite a challenging season as well. In the lead up to the 2020 harvest, we had an icy spring and quite a cool summer until Christmas. And ever since then, it’s been boiling.


Flowering was late due to the late spring we had; before that, the budburst, your initial sign of growth, was about ten to fourteen days later than the year before. So, you know your season will be later than the previous one.


It’s like a concertina; your season just squeezes because the endpoint doesn’t change. It’s just your starting point that comes in a little bit later. So, we knew it would be a challenging season from a weather point of view. It’s nothing we haven’t seen or experienced anything before, but other seasons have been easier.



On a lighter note, how does it feel when you get to open a bottle of wine after a highly demanding harvest?


The great thing about winemaking is that you can track the progress throughout. Yes, it’s great when it’s finished, labelled, and beautiful, but you get to see how the product comes together. And seeing that process is most exciting.


That finished product, labelled and palletised, depending on the variety, can be a payoff after years in the making. And you get to share the bottle of wine you had a hand in making with people.



Such a great payoff! That brings us to our last question; what would you want a first-time Warwick wine drinker to know?


A first-time wine drinker should know that wine should be simple. [Laughs] There is no need for complexity and artistry all the time. Generally speaking, wine should be easy, fun and enjoyed with friends and family.


We try and make wines accessible for anyone, newcomers and connoisseurs alike.


There are no rules, and there is no formula. We all have our preferences. Look out for the traits you enjoy.



JD, originally from the Freestate, has been with Warwick for three years after joining in 2019. He recalls a school tour in Stellenbosch years ago, where he visited the Department of Viticulture and Oenology:


“I just remember walking around campus thinking, this is it. Everything, the wine cellar under the faculty, the smell of wine, I knew that was where I wanted to be.”