How Do You Harvest Grapes and Make Wine in a Pandemic?

Vintners across the Southern Hemisphere face harvest amid disease and government-mandated shutdowns

How Do You Harvest Grapes and Make Wine in a Pandemic?
Workers were able to harvest in South Africa, but wine sales are banned for now. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
Apr 7, 2020

While wineries in Europe and the United States face shuttered tasting rooms and restrictions on vineyard and cellar work during the COVID-19 pandemic, their counterparts south of the equator face an even more daunting challenge: harvest.

Each country has a different set of challenges, but a few are consistent—how to pick and vinify grapes while keeping workers safe, and how to sell wine in a world economy that is dramatically different than it was just a month ago.

South Africa

On March 15, South African vintners were working hard in their vineyards and cellars to complete the 2020 harvest. The same day, President Cyril Ramaphosa's government declared a national state of disaster in reaction to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Ten days later, the government ordered all "nonessential" businesses to cease operations; alcohol production was deemed nonessential and banned for three weeks. While agriculture was considered essential, officials failed to include the wine industry as part of agriculture.

While it was no surprise that wineries would have to close tasting rooms, especially after a Dutch tourist who took a wine tour in the Cape tested positive for coronavirus, no one expected a complete shutdown, suspending production.

"Our industry body took a decision late afternoon that wineries must bring in the crops and process," said Jean Engelbrecht, proprietor of Rust en Vrede in Stellenbosch.

Thankfully, within 24 hours the government changed direction. "They've released a statement saying all harvesting and cellar work is considered essential," said Mick Craven of Craven in Stellenbosch. The government added that harvesting and storage activities are essential to prevent "the wastage of primary agricultural goods."

"The rules are changing a few times a day right now," said Andrea Mullineux, who works with her husband, Chris, at Mullineux in Swartland and Leeu Passant in Stellenbosch.

Despite the change, sales of wine are banned until April 16, though the government recently relented and is now allowing wine exports. Industry veteran Ken Forrester of Stellenbosch believes anti-alcohol forces are at work. "Someone or some people in government are particularly alarmed about alcohol as a social lubricant," said Forrester. "Their solution is to simply ban all sales, transport, orders, anything to do with alcohol. Bad idea."

Government ministers have stated that measures to ban alcohol and cigarettes are meant to curb unnecessary socializing in bars during the lockdown period. The nation has more than 1,745 confirmed cases as of April 7.

"Sales have come to a standstill, for the next three weeks or even more," said Samantha Suddons, who together with her partner Ryan Mostert run the Terracura winery in Swartland. As a response, Suddons has done a few virtual tastings on Instagram with other people from the wine industry.

Many are worried about the economic consequences. "Lots of people live hand to mouth here. The impact of this three-week lockdown will be huge," said Chris Alheit of Alheit in Hemel-en-Aarde, who together with his wife Suzaan farms vineyards in many different regions around the Western Cape.

Luckily, there will be a complete harvest this year. Engelbrecht says that his winery is up 25 percent in quantity from last year. "Vineyards are done! Only winery work now," he said, with a sense of relief.

Argentina

Drought conditions and extreme heat punctuated the growing season in Argentina, leading to one of the earliest-recorded harvests in Mendoza. "By the end of the second week of March, 85 percent of the harvest was completed," said Paul Hobbs of Viña Cobos. Most vintners began picking the first week of February and expect to wrap up by early April.

That proved a blessing as the coronavirus spread. As of March 20 a mandatory nationwide quarantine period was instituted, which is expected to last at least until the middle of April. There were 1,628 confirmed cases in Argentina as of April 7, but wineries haven't experienced hiccups widely as a result. Hobbs said vintners were fortunate that restrictions did not appear until the harvest was nearly complete.

Laura Catena, managing director for Catena Zapata, echoed Hobbs. "We have been able to harvest at the normal pace without significant problems," she said, noting that although there are very few cases in Mendoza, vineyard and winery teams have established strictly enforced social-distancing precautions.

Hobbs said in addition to adjusting to new safety protocols at a time of year when wineries are already operating at full capacity, the 2019-2020 season was one of the most challenging for Viña Cobos in its 22 years. "The intense heat and drought added to the complexities," he said. "In some cases, vines responded by producing exceedingly small clusters with BB-size berries."

Both Hobbs and Catena say quality is high, but Hobbs is estimating a 40 percent decrease in revenue for the year. The cause? A combination of the pandemic-triggered recession's impact on Latin America and Argentina's dire economic situation.

Catena echoed that. "Importers are asking for delayed payment terms, which is challenging because it is nearly impossible to obtain credit in Argentina due to inflation and high interest rates."

Chile

An early harvest may be the best boon Chilean vintners received this year. "We are facing an unprecedented and highly dynamic situation," said Marcelo Papa, technical director at Concha y Toro, of navigating harvest during a pandemic.

As of April 7, Chile has more than 5,110 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The government declared a preventative quarantine for parts of its capital, Santiago, as well as nationwide curfew requirements. Papa said despite restrictions in some areas, wineries have been given permission to finish harvest but have been asked to expedite. "Viña Concha y Toro teams have developed specific plans to guarantee that all installations have appropriate strategies in place to protect our employees and maintain operational continuity," said Papa. "It was very helpful to start earlier and to have a big percentage of the harvest covered by this time."

In cooler, coastal areas some started as early as the first week in February. The central valleys came in in three-to-four weeks later. Most predicted being finished by early-to-mid April compared to mid-May of a typical year.

Another bit of good news, according to Montes president Aurelio Montes, is quality. "Low yields, high concentrations, and new wines showing great potential," he said.

Montes said most of the red wines are showing fantastic quality, particularly Cabernet. But wineries already face a challenging sales environment. "We forecast that sales will have a loss of 20 percent by the end of the year," said Montes. "We think that the worst days are still to come, and we will have to react and solve whatever comes in the future."

Australia

"This year we thought that devastating fires across Australia and the intermittent [104° F] days might erect the sturdiest winemaking hurdle," said Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago. "And then a sub-microscopic demon quietly landed on our island continent's shores."

Australian winemakers that counted themselves lucky for dodging fires and smoke are now faced with harvesting under coronavirus protocols. As of April 7, the country had 5,895 confirmed cases. "The hardest thing is the change of practice from getting up and going to see people or walking around the cellar," said Barossa winemaker Louisa Rose. "In normal circumstances we are a very gregarious team who work together to make wine that's meant to be enjoyed together."

For some remote regions, the isolation is intensified. Virginia Wilcox is the winemaker at Margaret River's Vasse Felix winery. The government has banned inbound travel to the region, in the remote west of the country. "So we feel a level of peace of mind to focus on getting through our winemaking priorities," she said. "When we are not making wine, we are self-isolating at home, like everyone else."

Gago is pleased with the quality of the grapes, and offers a historic perspective. "Wine has been made around this world of ours across thousands of years, in good times and bad. Some great wines were made under duress during both World Wars."

With tasting rooms closed, South Australia wineries had been relying on sales from selling their wines to go. South Australia's Police Commissioner Grant Stevens has shut this practice down, identifying wine retail sales as nonessential travel and a potential risk for coronavirus transmission. As a result, wineries have focused on telephone and online sales and delivery options.

As James March, CEO of the Barossa Grape & Wine Association, explained, "Unfortunately, Barossa does have a COVID-19 cluster of 34 cases, linked explicitly to two groups of visitors to the region (from the U.S. and Switzerland) who were traveling in the area before self-isolation directives from the authorities came. South Australia Health is trying to reduce any nonessential travel, to allow them to contain the cluster."

Mary Hamilton of Hugh Hamilton Wines in McLaren Vale said the shutdown has given her new perspective. "In reducing contact with the winery, and thereby also the wines, I find myself more than ever needing to trust," she said. "Trust that wine is made in the vineyard, trust that the people I work with will do all that I would do in their place, and ultimately trust that in two years' time, when these wines are released, that the world is a better place and we are still going strong 185 years on."

New Zealand

On March 22, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced "alert level four," essentially putting the country on lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The next day, David Babich started picking grapes in Marlborough. "Normally our top threat or concern is weather, but this year weather is queued as number three," he said, putting it behind pandemic concerns and the shutdown. "Our approach is to go hell for leather and get the crop into tanks. I am still very nervous."

New Zealand winemakers consider themselves lucky to be deemed an essential business by their government, which gives them an opportunity to continue with harvest. But there are strict safety protocols. Wineries with more than 20 staffers need a COVID-19 manager, records are kept for each person's living arrangement and workers living off-site must send photos of their daily routine to prove they are socially isolated. Start and finish times, as well as breaks, are staggered to ensure people don't cross paths. These measures are slowing down harvest for some.

"We treat everything that comes into the winery as potentially contaminated, including humans," said winemaker Jen Parr of Central Otago's Valli. Parr described her team working in "small bubbles," communication limited to phone calls and sharing photos, taking turns working in different vineyards.

Parr adds there's a welcome sense of camaraderie. "A local has helped the local industry source masks and hand sanitizer. People are sharing ideas over group forums. You can almost feel the virtual hugs."

But the challenges create plenty of unease. "The pressure, anxiety and the unknown, uncertainty, have compounded everything," said Allan Scott winemaker Josh Scott in Marlborough. "I'm usually pretty optimistic, but I was pretty broken on Thursday morning at first light. How were we going to get the grapes in? How could I keep my staff in a job? Would there be anywhere to sell the wine? There is so much going on."

On the bright side, vintners are reporting the grapes and wines are looking good. Scott said, "In all honesty the quality is amazing, although I admit we have picked a couple of blocks slightly earlier than I normally would."

"All in all, I think 2020 looks a lot like 2019," suggested Babich. "Unusual to get two such similar vintages in a row. Well, the same except for the killer virus threat."

More COVID-19

See More

Harvest During COVID's Second Wave: Spanish Wineries Fight for the 2020 Vintage

Sep 14, 2020

Champagne Grapples with COVID and Slumping Demand

Sep 11, 2020

Tom Seaver, Hall of Fame Pitcher and Napa Vintner, Dies at 75

Sep 2, 2020

Harvest in a Time of Flames and Pestilence—Another Challenging California Vintage

Aug 27, 2020

South African Winemakers Exhale as Sales Prohibition Ends

Aug 18, 2020

News COVID-19 Disasters Economy Harvest Argentina Australia Chile New Zealand South Africa 2020

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