Bad weather saps South Africa’s wine grape harvest

Wine grape crops continued to shrink in 2019 with the South African wine industry seeing its worst harvest in over a decade due to the shrinking area under grapevines and a three-year drought.

According to the 2019 South African Wine Grape Harvest Report, the year’s output of 1 225 620 tonnes is 1.4% smaller than last year and the country’s smallest crop since 2005.

The report was issued by Vinpro, an industry body that represents more than 2 500 wine producers, in collaboration with the South African Wine Industry Information & Systems.

Read: World’s biggest winemakers rebound to bottle biggest vintage in 15 years

Francois Viljoen, viticultural consultation service manager at Vinpro, says 2019 tells the tale of two harvesting seasons: “The first is easy, with good weather conditions and great grape analyses up until the end of February. The second is challenging as it’s characterised by slow ripening following cold, rainy weather in March.”

Sweet, sweet wine

Weather fluctuations during the flowering and set periods of the crop resulted in berries and bunches, which are smaller and lighter. At the same time, Vinpro says vineyards are ageing and farmers who are facing financial difficulties planted fewer vines than they uprooted. As a result, the wine grape area has shrunk by nearly 6% in the last five years.

The areas hardest hit by the drought are the Olifants River and Klein Karoo regions for the second consecutive year.

But the smaller the berry, the sweeter the juice, according to Viljoen. He says that despite their size, smaller berries have a greater concentration of flavours, good acidity, sugar and elegance.

“Wine lovers can expect good quality wines from the 2019 vintage,” said the report.

Sector contributes billions to GDP

The South African wine industry contributes R36 billion to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs nearly 290 000 people. The country is the eighth-biggest wine producer globally, accounting for 4% of the world’s produce.

A combination of limited carryover stock from 2018 as well as the second year of low harvest volumes means that wine prices will remain “steady and robust” in 2019 on the back of increases seen in 2018 of 24% on average for bulk wine and 5% for packaged wine in the market.

“While global competition remains strong and pricing will depend on availability, especially from South Africa’s counterparts in the southern hemisphere, the industry now needs to maintain this upward shift in price-point per litre,” said Vinpro in the State of the South African Wine Industry report.

Farmers taking strain 

While there has been a slight increase in profitability for producers, with the return on investment averaging 2%, up from 1% in 2017, South African wine grape producers are still facing financial strain.

Vinpro’s annual production plan survey found that the majority of wine grape producers were, on average, not achieving the net farm income of R30 000 per hectare needed to farm sustainably.

“This has been the norm for more than a decade, which has contributed to many wine grape producers not replacing older, unproductive vines when uprooted,” said the report.