What does Bellingham stand for?
As a historic wine brand first established in 1693, with three ranges falling under the umbrella of Bellingham, namely the Homestead, Founders and Bernard Series, there’s a lot to be said about this winery that has stood the test of time.
According to Bellingham’s Chief Winemaker, Richard Duckitt, Bellingham is about independence and consistency: “Over the years, we have nurtured long-term relationships with our growers, enabling us to source the best vines for the styles we make. We then use these grapes in our own equipment from our cellars, meaning we can make the wine we feel is best for what we want to do. In essence, we can express ourselves in each wine.”
This innovative approach is one of the key reasons Bellingham has scooped an impressive collection of wine awards over the years (including one of the 3 Best Red Shiraz Blends in South Africa at the 2017 Shiraz Challenge), and why the 2019 vintage is on its way to delivering some promising results.
The Drought Disclaimer
However, despite general winemaking optimism (a particularly welcome South African trait), this year’s vintage comes with some preliminary disclaimers attached to it. After all, due to the ongoing drought, the Cape’s water crisis has hanged over the vineyards like a dreary shadow for the past 3 years.
“Last year’s crop was very small because of the drought. This year, after a good winter rain, one of the biggest challenges we have seen is the unevenness in the ripening of the berries. Due to the hot weather and limited rain, some berries stay sour, hard and green while others ripen and darken in colour normally. “You want to avoid unripe berries as it can lead to green flavours in the wine”, explains Richard.
To counteract this, the team have to have a more hands-on approach – quite literally – increasing the amount of time spent hand-sorting the grapes and using a special Pellenc grape sorter throughout harvest.
The Tempo of Harvest
Despite the challenges, harvest kicked off with a bang, with the first pickings of Verdelho, Chenin and Pinotage coming in at the end of January. Due to heat earlier in the summer season, by late January, everything started ripening at the same time.
But by mid-harvest, according to Richard, the rainfall that occurred in March in some regions of the Western Cape necessitated greater inputs to control disease. The upside of the cooler weather was that everything could slow down and allowed harvest to finish off at a reasonable tempo.
As always, the weather patterns during harvest have a massive impact on not only time of picking, but also the quality of the overall wine. For the 2019 vintage, the pH levels were excellent, with Chardonnay showing a ph level of 3.3 – excellent for freshness and integrated flavour development thanks to the natural acidity present.
With yield quantities being on the forefront of most winemaker’s minds, Richard explains that yield is very subjective in context with irrigation and region. “As Bellingham has different areas where we harvest, we tend to find that some areas were up while others were down in yield. We were 20% down on our Chardonnay. In fact, the majority of our crops were smaller, with reds such as Shiraz and Pinotage struggling in particular. On the whole, we were down between 15% – 25% over the entire vintage.”
Yet, what is important to remember is that Bellingham produces high-quality, limited bottlings, meaning that a bigger crop does not necessarily mean better in this case. “For us, sometimes a smaller crop is more advantageous for quality. For the Bernard Series, we do a lot of vineyard management where we actually reduce the crop for quality reasons.”
The Freedom To Play
With the privilege of producing fine wines comes the freedom to play around in the cellar and experiment.
“Every year we try something different. This year we’ve experimented a lot with cultured wild yeasts on Chenin Blanc. We’ve also done a fair amount of natural fermentation on Chenin Blanc and trialled it on a little bit of Viognier and Grenache. Then we’ve got a whole bunch of different trials at different NTU levels, which means the solid content in the grape juice varies from very clean to quite opaque, so it gives you a whole spectrum of different mouth feels. There’s also a new concrete tank in the cellar, with which we are going to do some proper, old school punch downs – a first for us, and I’m very excited about this.”
While experimentation is encouraged, Richard makes it clear that Bellingham strives to strike a balance between a continually adapting product that is still consistent when compared to its predecessors.
“We’re known for the creative side of winemaking that lets us try completely out of the box things. It’s part of what makes us different and the fun part of it for me” he adds.
The Biggest Reward
When asked about his overall feelings regarding harvest 2019, Richard doesn’t take long to formulate his concise answer:
“The biggest reward is to walk around, to taste and see how these lots have progressed and how incredible some of them have turned out. I’m particularly looking forward to our Chenin Blanc, Viognier and Pinotage – I think they will be something exceptional this year.”
When asked what in particular makes him so confident about these varieties, Richard explains that the whites are showing excellent ripeness and acidity. “We’ll have brilliant fruit, richness and mouthfeel complemented by the freshness.” Meanwhile, for the red wine like Pinotage, there’s an unprecedented tannin ripeness that is going to provide beautiful tannins structure and no harshness.
“For me, the reds have amazing tannin structure, great colour and concentration. They stand out as very well rounded, juicy and drinkable at quite an early stage,” ends Richard.
As harvest 2019 comes to a close, the work doesn’t stop for Richard and the team. However, despite the ongoing challenges of the water shortage, uneven ripeness and diminished yields, Bellingham continues to face each challenge head-on, with an attitude of turning it into an opportunity to express not only themselves but the times, through their wine.