South Africa's 2018 Wine Harvest Is Smallest in Over a Decade

Severe drought has shrunk yields; top winemakers are adapting and say quality remains high
South Africa's 2018 Wine Harvest Is Smallest in Over a Decade
Andrea and Chris Mullineux faced drought conditions and lower yields in Swartland. (Charles Russell)
Apr 13, 2018

With the 2018 Southern Hemisphere harvest wrapping up, South African vintners are looking at the smallest crop in 13 years. Strict water-conservation rules—a result of a multiyear drought that has recently placed the city of Cape Town in danger of literally running out of water—have meant tight limits on irrigation, dramatically impacting vineyard yields.

The Cape's large bulk-wine industry, which accounts for about 60 percent of South Africa's wine exports, has been most severely affected, but boutique producers focused on high-quality wine have been impacted as well.

Drought cycles are nothing new in South Africa, however, recent significant population growth and economic development has amplified the pressure on an already taxed water table.

According to Francois Viljoen, head of viticulture and soil science at VinPro, a nonprofit organization that represents South Africa's wine industry, the South Africa Wine Industry Information & Systems company has predicted that the drought conditions will result in 2018 being the smallest crop since 2005. On average, harvest volumes are predicted to be down 20 percent compared to 2017. Bulk-wine producers tend to irrigate the most, so they'll be most heavily impacted.

That's the big picture. Each of the 10 major wine regions in the country have been affected differently by the drought. Furthermore, the impact of less rainfall is not only region-specific, but dependent on microclimates, whether grape varieties are drought-resistant, and whether the vineyards rely on irrigation or not.

"Certain varieties and soil types benefit from less rather than more irrigation, while some soils have greater water-retention characteristics," said Kevin Arnold, who farms on the rugged slopes of the Helderberg at Waterford Estate. Waterford has 150 acres of vines growing in six different soil types. Twenty years ago, the Waterford team strategically planted drought-resistant, Mediterranean varieties such as Mourvèdre, Tempranillo, Barbera, Grenache Blanc and Sangiovese. "That decision literally saved us," said Arnold.

Morne Vrey, winemaker at Delaire Graff Estate on the Helshoogte Pass above Stellenbosch, buys fruit from various areas. He said that areas with clay-rich soils had fared better than sandier vineyards in the same area. "In the Swartland, yields were down as much as 40 to 50 percent. Younger vineyards suffered the most, especially irrigated vines. It was humbling to see how well the old vines were surviving in the drought. With their deep root systems their yields were down but showed fewer signs of stress."

Chris Mullineux, from Mullineux & Leeu Wines, confirmed that yields in the Swartland were down 50 percent, on average, this year. "There are challenging times ahead, as the volumes are so low. Prices for grapes, bulk and premium wines will increase," he said. But he tried to look on the bright side. "Most important, the quality of the wine is looking good in the cellar."

J.D. Pretorius, winemaker at Steenberg Farm in Constantia, reported that cooler areas such as the Constantia valley had been less affected, as they don't rely so heavily on irrigation and have much lower yields than heavily irrigated vines. "The Constantia Valley has had a fairly average-size yield, about 10 to 15 percent down on 2017, [an above-average year]."

Farmers have had to rethink vineyard management as well as water management in cellars. Many cellars have introduced recycled water systems where run-off water is captured in storage tanks. Others have sunk boreholes in search of groundwater. As a result of the water shortage, more farmers are investing in dry-farming measures and drought-resistant vine varieties from Spain and Italy.

The drought is also accelerating a trend toward downsizing the industry. More vineyards are being uprooted than planted in recent years. "There are fewer producers due to declining profitability, and there is less area under vine," said a spokesperson for the trade group Wines of South Africa (WOSA). Farmers are switching to table grapes, apples, pears and citrus, which don't need cellar space, are less labor-intensive and less risky.

According to WOSA, bulk-wine prices have already risen 30 percent, which has a knock-on effect for bottled wines. Up until last year, there had been a surplus of bulk wine. That is now sold out. Siobhan Thompson, CEO of WOSA, believes that in the long term, the drought may have a silver lining for the wine industry in the Western Cape: "With challenges always come opportunities."

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