Wildfires Threaten Prime South African Vineyards

Weeklong fire on the Western Cape burns vines and blankets the region in smoke during harvest
Wildfires Threaten Prime South African Vineyards
Smoke descends on the vineyards behind the Groot Constantia winery in South Africa. (Courtesy Grant Newtown)
Mar 9, 2015

Five days of fires raged across the Cape Peninsula in South Africa last week, threatening wineries and vineyards in the Cape Point and Constantia wine regions and destroying more than 12,000 acres of vegetation in Table Mountain National Park. Firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control, with the help of winery workers, but not before it burned some vines and blanketed many more in smoke, right in the middle of harvest. Winemakers are worried about smoke taint in their wines, but are grateful no one was hurt.

After weeks of hot, dry conditions in the Cape Town region, the fires began March 1, burning a large area of fynbos, the Western Cape's indigenous shrub, and heather, and destroying a boutique hotel. Next the blaze spread to Noordhoek, where Cape Point Vineyards is situated. According to their general manager and winemaker Duncan Savage, he and his team were caught off guard by the fire's speed. “I left the cellar at 11 p.m. on Sunday night, not seeing even a glow of a fire or any smoke near us," said Savage. "Three hours later when security called me in, it was already raging out of control and all we could do was watch it burn.”

Strong, changing winds accelerated the spread, encouraging the fire to jump across roads and fire breaks and making it extremely difficult for firefighters to bring under control. Matt Day, winemaker at Klein Constantia, watched the blaze approaching their farm and neighboring Buitenverwachting, when it suddenly changed direction, engulfing the top of the Klein Constantia vineyards in flames.

Day says they’ve lost the top few rows of vines from most of their vineyards, while Lars Maack, owner of Buitenverwachting, reports damage is mostly confined to one block of Pinot Noir. “It was a young vineyard and the vines are almost certainly too far gone to be able to recover,” he said. Cape Point Vineyards expects a probable 5 to 10 percent loss of vineyards, although Savage is reserving judgment until next year. “Our vines are tough—they struggle against hectic winds every year—so you never know,” he said.

At other wine farms in the Constantia region, such as Groot Constantia and Steenberg, vintners report the fire damaged surrounding fynbos, fences and forest, with the vines only suffering some leaf-scorching. But the next challenge is likely to be the effects of smoke on the grapes. Most farms had already harvested the majority of their white grapes, but most of the red grapes are still on the vines, as are those used to make sweet wines such as the iconic Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia.

Day remains confident about the Vin de Constance, explaining that the Muscat vineyards used for this wine were a long way from the fire, so they weren’t badly affected. But he does think he likely will use less skin contact than he normally would. Over on the other side of the mountain, Savage is less sanguine about the small block of Sémillon which makes Cape Point Vineyards' occasional dessert wine. “The noble rot had been looking really good this year, but now the grapes are all scorched,” he said.

All the winemakers say that potential smoke damage to the red grapes is causing the most concern. Although treatments are available to remove smoke taint, they are not always 100 percent successful, and it seems likely that farms will find alternative uses for damaged grapes rather than including them in top wines.

The wineries further round in Constantia Nek—Eagles’ Nest, Constantia Glen and Beau Constantia—benefited from winds blowing the smoke away from the vineyards, according to Constantia Glen’s winemaker Justin van Wyk. He's hoping they avoided most, if not all, effects of the smoke.

But in Cape Point, Savage could barely see his vines at one stage, and at Steenberg Vineyards, general manager John Loubser wryly said that they will be cutting down on their use of oak this year: “JD Pretorius, our winemaker, claims that this year is going to be no oak, but lots of smoke!”

Wildfires and smoke taint are not new to the region. Stellenbosch winemakers confronted similar issues in 2009. Most area winemakers are waiting to see what happens over the next couple of weeks as the grapes are brought into the wineries. The general feeling is that most farms have been lucky—there have been no deaths or injuries and minimal damage to property, and a combination of planning and prompt action by firefighters has saved the region from a serious disaster.

Many of the firefighters were volunteers, their numbers swollen by farm staff who worked throughout the night fighting the blazes before returning to the vineyards and cellars to try and continue with the normal demands of harvest. “All the staff have been incredible,” said Savage. “Not just from our farm but the other farms as well. Plus there’s been amazing community support from so many people who brought food and drink to the firefighters and who have raised huge amounts of money to fund the helicopter water drops which ultimately saved our farm.”

The fire continues to smolder, and all the farms are on high alert, monitoring outbreaks and soaking down the many thatched buildings in the region, including the original Manor House on Groot Constantia, which is over 330 years old. And the harvest continues, with winemakers throughout the Cape hailing the fruit as some of the best ever, making the potential losses in Constantia and Cape Point particularly frustrating. “But you always get thrown some curveballs in winemaking” said Loubser.

Maack agrees. “If we do get smoke damage, it’s only a short-term problem. We’re just thankful it wasn’t any worse.”

Disasters Fires South Africa News

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