Wine industry in bittersweet situation with harvesting allowed, but exports denied

3rd April 2020 By: Marleny Arnoldi - Creamer Media Online Writer

Wine industry in bittersweet situation with harvesting allowed, but exports denied

South Africa’s 2020 wine grape crop will still yield exceptional wines despite uncertainty at first considering South Africa’s lockdown practices, says industry body Vinpro.

The industry is harvesting the last few thousand tonnes of crops across ten wine regions in the country, owing to a last-minute concession from government for the industry to continue harvesting and winemaking activities during the country’s lockdown ending April 16.

Data by industry body South African Wine Industry Information & Systems shows that, in the third week of March, viticulturists and cellar producers expected the wine grape crop to be only somewhat larger than the small 2019 wine grape crop, but still smaller than the five-year average of 1.36-million tonnes.

The official 2020 South African Wine Harvest Report will be issued on May 5.

Vinpro viticulture consultation services manager Conrad Schutte says although there is great variation in crop size this year owing to the geographic distribution of the South African wine industry, the estimated crop size can, in general, be attributed to smaller berry sizes, the prevalence of the botrytis rot and ongoing drought in certain areas.

He explains that the occurrence of wind during the growing and ripening periods in certain regions contributed to smaller berries, which gave rise to lighter crops and lower juice recoveries.

“Smaller berries also have greater flavour and colour concentrations, which will be reflected in exceptional quality in the wines.”

Vinpro further reports that while the ongoing drought in the Klein Karoo region still had a negative effect on the crops recovered in this region, the Olifants River region that was hit particularly hard by the drought in previous years, did surprisingly well thanks to moderate ripening conditions, adaptations in cultivation techniques and vineyards that have recovered better than expected.

However, when the South African government published its Covid-19 lockdown regulations on March 25, at first all wine industry activities were prohibited, including the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages for the duration of the lockdown.

Through advocacy by various industry bodies, government then made a concession just hours before midnight on March 26, when the lockdown started, that harvesting and storage activities could continue to prevent the wastage of primary agricultural goods.

With local sales, exports and distribution of alcoholic beverages still being prohibited, it will have a significant effect on the survival of the South African wine industry and, therefore, the livelihoods of the nearly 300 000 people employed by the value chain.

Around half of South Africa’s wine production is exported. Vinpro and other associations – South Africa Liquor Brand Owners Association and Wines of South Africa (Wosa) – have put together an exporters task team to strengthen ongoing deliberations with government, which they hope to resolve before April 6.

GROWING THE INDUSTRY

Vinpro MD Rico Basson says South African wine grape producers are innovative and have done a lot over the past few years to adapt to various difficult situations, including changing weather patterns, a challenging economic climate and political uncertainty.

“The Covid-19 lockdown is again showing how the South African agricultural community has come together, determined to continue the harvest in difficult circumstances, and with restrictions, to bring in the last grapes for 2020.

“In these unusual conditions, producers and agri-workers have set the example of what this Rainbow Nation embodies by acting swiftly to implement extra security measures and making sure they comply with the regulations as stipulated by government,” Basson highlights.  

Wosa CEO Siobhan Thompson says, despite a myriad of challenges the industry has faced, one of the most heartening elements for the South African wine industry has been the increased recognition for the quality of its wines.

Whether it be in ratings from the likes of Tim Atkin MW, or top scores from international competitions such as the International Wine & Spirit Competition and Decanter World Wine Awards, she says South African wines have consistently shown stylistic flair and exceptional quality, which resonates with wine drinkers globally.

“Our focus is still on the premiumisation of our wines, across the board. While our offering is still extremely competitive in the global market place, our producers have realised that they have been underselling themselves and in order to level the playing field, we have had to increase our pricing to bring it in line with that of our competitors.

“We have upped our game in terms of quality and it is therefore only to be expected that our pricing needs to follow this trend.”

While the Covid-19 outbreak may have major effects on not only the wine industry, but many others, there is likely to be a major shift in the way the industry does business.

Thompson says virtual tastings may become the new normal as producers turn to online applications such as Zoom and Houseparty to engage with their importers, agents and even their consumers across the globe.

She believes this will allow the South African wine industry to increase its reach and could potentially lead to a rise in new markets that have been previously unexplored.

“We need to embrace this change and see the opportunity that lies ahead.

“As an industry, we have always remained positive, and will continue to do so, despite our current challenges. Once normality returns and we are back to business as usual, our producers will be ready to continue with the sale and promotion of South African wine and hopefully, in years to come, we will remember this period as one that gave us the time for introspection, to regroup and to come back even stronger than we were before,” Thompson says.