A moist chill clings to the autumn air in the Gibbston valley. The early morning mist is rolling back from rows of exhausted vines still clothed in bedraggled rags of rust and gold, all they have left after producing one of the most generous harvests in the valley’s 37-year grape growing history.
A group of overseas visitors has stopped for photographs, attracted by the colours but blissfully unaware of the drama that has played out on this patch of land in the preceding months.
The winemaking year does indeed have all the elements of dramatic theatre – conflict, emotions, action, pathos, humour, tragedy – and sometimes a happy ending. It’s a three-act play (Spring, Summer, Autumn) where the actors perform on an open-air stage exposed to the fickleness of climate and the audience is often left guessing long after the final curtain.
The real stars of this show are the vines themselves. In Gibbston’s case some of them are seasoned performers, commanding this stage for more than 30 years, giving their all for a growing international audience. In the end though, they are only as good as the supporting cast – the viticulturists and back stage teams who coax and flatter, pandering to the every need of their leading actors.
There’s a new script every year but often it has to be re-written so cast and director have to improvise. Winter is the down season when broken props are fixed and the stage is set for a new opening in spring. But there is little time for rehearsal and the performers will have to rely on stagecraft to carry them through many uncertainties as the plot unfolds.
In theatrical terms the 2018 growing season and ensuing vintage ran the gamut of dramatic genres. Acts I and II were pure musical, uplifting and heart warming with soaring melodies and feelgood lyrics. By the end of January the region had recorded the hottest and driest summer on record.
But while a box office bonanza was predicted there was growing concern about the stress beginning to show among the key players. If the intense heat continued without the balancing influence of cool nights, there was a good chance the fruit would not reach physiological ripeness. This was rapidly becoming a suspense thriller.
Then at the beginning of February, towards the end of Act II enter the hero, initially cleverly disguised as the villain, and the plot took an unexpected twist. It rained. The special effects man delivered a spectacular 140mls (nearly three months rainfall) in just seven days. Normally this would have meant disaster and the cheerful musical could have ended as dark tragedy. But the rain cooled the temperatures, soaked the parched ground and revived the stressed vines without causing any damage.
Act III saw one of the earliest harvests on record and a bumper crop for the region. It seemed this drama would after all, have a happy ending. But wait. Before the final curtain can come down there’s an Epilogue, and that’s happening right now, off stage, in the wineries. Is there a final twist to come?