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Wildfires Burn Through Top South African Vineyards

Melvyn Minnaar
Posted: January 24, 2000

As South Africa's harvest got under way last week in the hottest summer in 40 years, massive wildfires fueled by strong winds caused heavy damage to some of the Cape's premium vineyards. After five days of intense firefighting, winery owners report losses in high-altitude vineyards but are optimistic that this year's production will not be too seriously affected.

With temperatures hovering near 105 degrees F in mid-January, the height of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, blazes were sparked easily throughout the Cape. In the prestigious Stellenbosch and Constantia wine regions, fires hit several top wine estates that border the mountainous veld, where flames swept through 22,000 acres of forest in a matter of days.

In Stellenbosch, Gyles Webb's Thelema vineyards were the first to feel the brunt of the inferno, which started on the Franschhoek side of the Simonsberg Mountains on Jan. 15. Despite calling in water-bombing helicopters, Webb's highest vineyards of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were burnt. As a result, Thelema -- which makes about 25,000 cases of wine per year --will produce smaller quantities of both varietals this year.

Further west along the mountain, the fire swept through outlying vineyards of several premium red wine estates: 40,000-case Rustenberg, 8,500-case Delheim, 30,000-case Kanonkop, 30,000-case Uitkyk, 10,000-case Lievland and 20,000-case Warwick. Overall production loss is expected to be around 20 percent.

At Warwick, more than 17 acres of Pinotage, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc were destroyed, while at Kanonkop, about 25 acres of Pinotage were damaged. One of Rustenberg's top Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards was singed. Delheim's loss is estimated at more than 20 percent, including spoilage to its prized Vera Cruz vineyards.

Beyers Truter, winemaker at Kanonkop, said that he is unable to determine the true extent of the damage just yet. "Some of the vines are in a state of shock, and we do not know whether they will survive," he explained. "If they need to be replanted, this could translate into a loss of 3 to 4 million rand [about $485,000 to $650,000] over years."

In the Constantia valley, closer to Cape Town, the vineyards of Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia and Steenberg were under threat, but firefighters and water-bombing helicopters contained the damage.

Fighting the fire put severe strain on the labor force just as the farms were battling to quickly bring in the fast-ripening grapes amid the unusually hot weather conditions. Now workers also must prune damaged grape bunches. The full effect of the blaze on the difficult 2000 vintage won't be clear for a few more months, until the harvest is completed and the first wines are bottled.

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Learn more about South African wines:

  • Oct. 15, 1999
    A Closer Look at South Africa

    Check out recent ratings of Thelema, Kanonkop, Rustenberg, Delheim, Lievland andWarwick.

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