SA wine makers hit from all fronts

Cape Town - Stock levels of SA wine will likely be the lowest in five years by the end of 2017, according to Francois Viljoen, manager of the viticulture consultation division at VinPro.

This is due to a smaller harvest and an increase in local demand. The harvest period started last week and a lot can still happen in the next eight to ten weeks until it has been completed.

VinPro represents 3 500 SA wine producers, cellars and industry stakeholders.

The drought has been the biggest dominating factor in the wine industry. Dams are critically low and there are worries that it might impact irrigation.

"The drought can still have a significant impact on the 2017 vintage, which is currently at least still managing to hang by a thread," said Viljoen.

"We expect about the same crop at this stage than last year, but the drought will have the last word. The drought reminded the wine industry how dependent we are on water and rain. So, we have to be brave and do innovative things to overcome these challenges," said Viljoen.

VinPro's Gen-Z long-term project is an example for him of an effort to cultivate an increase in the use of the latest technology and in line with consumer preferences. It also aims to convince producers to try out innovations in harmony with resources. The planting of heat and drought resistant cultivars is an example.

"Vineyards are still looking remarkably good, but no winemaker will say no to rain at this stage. It is important that we have a good and cold winter otherwise we will have big problems," he said.

Factors like heat, drought, black frost, wind and a decline in area under vines have caused wine producers and viticulturists to expect a harvest close to last year’s size of 1.4 million tonnes.

On the upside, good quality wines can be expected from the current harvest. It is because of the dry, windy conditions, which resulted in healthy vines, uneven bunches and smaller berries with greater colour and flavour intensity.

READ: Is SA ready for a new era in wine trade?

No good news

In looking back at last year, Viljoen said nothing in 2016 was good news for viticulture in the country. Not only did winter arrive late, but it was very short. On top of that it was the second year in a row where about 40% less rain was received compared to long-term figures.

Spring 2016 was one of the driest springs ever and it was cooler than normal. This saw uneven budding in numerous vineyards and uneven growth at the beginning of the season.

The summer of 2016 arrived late – only in December - and with the heat the southeaster wind arrived two months late.

"Luckily this did not cause much damage, but it did slow down general growth of vineyards," said Viljoen.

"On a positive note: dry weather brought low incidents of disease, resulting in healthy vineyards and less use of chemical input was necessary. General vineyard growth was more in balance."

The planting of vines has decreased since 2006. In 2005, for instance, 5 000 hectares were planted compared to only 2 000 hectares in 2015.

"In 2014 we had our biggest wine crop ever in SA. Producers got the average yield to increase since 2010 due to better management methods and by planting cultivars with higher production capability," said Viljoen.

As for the different wine production regions, Viljoen said the Northern Cape is expecting a similar crop to last year, while the Olifantsriver area expects better yields. The Swartland region has had a bad year in 2016 though. The drought is taking its toll in the Swartland, but there is optimism that the crop still might be better - although down on the 2015 crop.

In the Little Karoo there was a record crop in 2016, but it is expected to be smaller this year. Paarl, Wellington and Franschhoek are expecting slightly smaller crops, while Robertson is expecting a normal crop. Stellenbosch is expecting a slightly smaller crop for the third year running.

The Breedekloof is expecting a smaller crop, while Worcester had a record crop in 2015 and is expecting a smaller crop this year.

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