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Winemakers in South Africa's Stellenbosch Assess Wildfire Damage

Exclusive images of the blaze; With dozens of acres destroyed, top wineries face a small crop and financial challenges
Photo by: Justin Sullivan
Firefighters rush to try and contain the fire on Simonsberg.

Cathy Marston
Posted: January 28, 2016

Last week's fires in the Simonsberg region of Stellenbosch were some of the most serious and destructive of recent years, damaging vineyards at some of South Africa's most prestigious wineries. "It's by far the worst and the longest fire I've ever fought on the Simonsberg," said Victor Sperling, owner of Delheim.

Damage assessments are still coming in, but confirmed vineyard losses include 24 acres at Kanonkop, 12 acres at Rustenberg and 10 acres at Thelema Mountain Vineyards. In addition to burned vineyards, grapes in other parcels may have been affected by smoke taint. A staff member at Uitkyk Wine Estates reported that close to 96 acres may have been impacted by smoke taint. All of that means a smaller crop, in a year when yields were already low thanks to a severe drought. Growers also face the cost of replanting vineyards.

"We've got 52 acres of vineyards that we can't use this year," said Gyles Webb, owner of Thelema. "The fire just came whizzing down at such speed—it was really frightening how fast it was. It's a real shame as one of the areas damaged is a Sauvignon Blanc block of 23-year-old vines, which we'd used for our first Reserve Sauvignon last year and that's gone. We're going to be short on Sauvignon this year for sure."

Murray Barlow from Rustenberg says that he is unlikely to make some of his top wines this year. "We are fairly certain that the Peter Barlow Cabernet vineyard and the Five Soldiers Chardonnay block have been badly affected by smoke, although we will wait and see. That's in addition to a beautiful Cabernet vineyard which goes into the John X Merriman blend that was totally destroyed." Of Rustenberg's 276 acres of vines, Barlow estimates that up to 123 may have been impacted by smoke, and production shortages could stretch over the next three to five years.

For Johann Krige, owner of Kanonkop, the frustration of losing 60 tons of Merlot and Pinotage is compounded by the fact that the latter was part of an experiment that has now been interrupted. "This used to be a bushvine vineyard that we were converting to stok-by-paaltjie trellising [the one-vine-per-stake method of planting typical in France's Northern Rhône]. We hoped it would mitigate the strong winds we experience on this side of the mountain, and now we will have to start it from scratch."

But Krige remains philosophical about the damage. "I always maintain that Abrie [Beeslaar, Kanonkop's head winemaker] has to show the vintage in his wines. This year, he's really got his work cut out for him."

It's not just the loss of the vineyards that has affected the wine farmers. While the region's indigenous fynbos vegetation relies on regular fires as part of its growth cycle, much of the land destroyed by the fire was managed timber forest. Delheim Wines, for example, owns 370 acres of forest, virtually all of which has been destroyed.

"We lost about $200,000 worth of timber—80,000 trees," said Sperling. "And this is the second time it's been wiped out before we could harvest it and actually get some return on investment. It's just not worth replanting. We can't carry on when this could easily happen a third time and, unfortunately, that's going to mean job losses in terms of people managing the forest and also at the local sawmill as well." There are suspicions that the fire was caused by arson—also the suspected cause in the Elgin Valley fires that burned 7,000 acres two weeks ago.

With the South African rand currently plummeting in value, a week of such devastation could be too much to bear for some of these farmers. But they remain fairly upbeat. All of them pointed out the incredible spirit shown by the community in helping fight the fires. "It was beautiful to see the wine community supporting us day and night," said Sperling. "You'd look up and there would be a winemaker from the other side of Stellenbosch on his tractor which he's brought over, fighting the fire with us side by side."

Wildfires on Simonsberg:

The fire spread quickly. Thelema Mountain Vineyards. Fighting from the air. Night falls. Lost forestland. Drought raises the danger. A long night's fight. Vines under threat. The morning after. Assessing damage. Lost crop.

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