SA wine industry faces most challenging year ever - expert

Cape Town - This year is the most challenging the South African wine industry has ever faced, according to Francois Viljoen, head of viticulture and soil science at VinPro.

Viljoen expects 2018 will bring one of the smallest crops in more than a decade, mainly due to the impact of the prevailing drought in the Western Cape. He pointed out that the wine industry in Europe and California in the US was also impacted by weather conditions.

The significantly smaller crop expected will bring huge consequences for the wine industry value chain and also impact consumers, in his view.

"My hope for the wine industry is that, with declining vineyards and the expected smaller crop, prices will improve," he said at the annual Nedbank VinPro information day for the wine industry.

VinPro represents 2 500 South African wine grape producers, cellars and wine-related businesses. It provides strategic direction and specialised services, and drives people development.

"Unfortunately, many vineyards were neglected on a number of farms as water was given to more profitable crops. In the Olifants River area producers even abandoned some vineyard blocks entirely. This is a drastic step, but what else can you do with just 17% of your usual annual water supply?" he asked.

Wine farmers are trying to combat the impact of the drought with good canopy practices and by focusing on their more profitable vineyards. The recent hot weather can also cause permanent damage to vines, he cautioned.

"Since 2007 we are uprooting more than we are planting each year and we have seen an acceleration in this trend," said Viljoen.

He estimates the local wine industry has seen a reduction of more than 6 000 hectares of vineyards over the last ten years.

"The inevitable is starting to happen: severe stress in our vineyards. If a vineyard is not irrigated properly, the berries cannot develop to their proper size," said Viljoen.

At the same time, he said a great deal can still happen over the next six to eight weeks of the harvest period, depending on the weather.

"We learnt a lot during the season, for instance that certain cultivars are not suitable for certain regions. We will have to start thinking differently about this in South Africa. The impact of climate change is a reality. (The use of) water in agriculture will change. Wine farmers should think of new cultivars, more suited to South Africa's conditions," he explained.

As part of VinPro's Gen-Z vineyard project, a study is being made of how five new cultivars are responding to local conditions.

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