WHETHER YOU are in Robertson or Rawsonville, Franschhoek or Philadelphia, if you listen closely, the refrain is the same everywhere: South African wine grape producers have been exposed to rising input costs and decreasing profit margins in the last few years. This obviously puts enormous pressure on their profitability.

The current total area planted to vines considered, it is also worrying that the industry has been unable, since 2005 already, to replace 5% – approximately 5 000 ha – of existing vineyards annually. This is evident by looking at the total plantings and uprootings over the past 10 years, with plantings having decreased from 3 349 ha to 2 095 ha since 2011 and uprootings increasing from 4 059 ha to 5 369 ha over the same period. The 20-year guideline for the economic lifespan of a vineyard, especially for red grape varieties, is also not feasible anymore – an economic lifespan of 15 years being more realistic now.

Given that the predominant age of Cabernet Sauvignon is between 16 to 20 years, and that of Chenin Blanc and Colombar more than 20 years, creates further cause for concern. Still, in spite of this, the industry is still able to produce large to record harvests by means of improved and adjusted viticultural practices.

To give profitability a boost, there are a number of technical practices specifically pertaining to vineyards that can be applied. Pruning practices, canopy management practices, fertilisation and irrigation must be carefully managed. In an attempt to increase production, for example, bud loads can be increased during pruning through different pruning methods. For vineyard canopy management the focus must be on light in the canopy and suckering, topping and defoliation actions that prevent the canopy becoming too dense and infertile. And when fertilisation and irrigation are discussed, utmost attention needs to be given to ensure that this is in line with wine objectives.

Short-term solutions are just that, however, short term. And when one looks at the total value chain of wine, the challenges in the wine industry are only surmountable with long-term solutions that require significant financial investment, loads of energy and resolute commitment.

On vineyard level in the longer term, producers must consider alternative trellising systems in particular. The advantages are legion, and include increased production, decreased labour costs, better sunlight penetration, more balanced vigour, better quality and higher production.

Yet to farm really profitably, the harsh realities of a non-profitable vineyard block must also be taken into consideration. In short, the experts explain, every block must be evaluated. Make a list of what you can and must do to save costs. But if your calculations do not add up, uproot the block. Don’t spend more time, energy and costs on it and rather focus on blocks/vineyards that you can actually improve.

Skilled labour also earns a high premium these days. Seeing that the wine and brandy industry strives towards a preferred employer situation and skilled labour can drive up profits, the Learner Management System (LMS), which was recently launched under the Winetech flag, simply makes sense. It now makes it possible for all progress around training and development to be captured in one central place and forms part of a comprehensive learning and development strategy emanating from the Wine Industry Strategic Exercise (Wise).

Planting of new vineyards should also enjoy preference now. But given the drought crisis and profit margins being under pressure, meticulous planning is needed to grow quality grapes and drought-resistant vineyards that ensure more flavour, acidity and intensity. Noises are especially being made about new Grenache clones and grape varieties like Assyrtiko, Verdelho, Vermentino, Aglianico and Touriga Naçional, which are well suited to our changing climate and growing conditions. New vineyards that are planted, must however be in line with market requirements, trends and the correct technology applications. Instant solutions could possibly fend off crises, but the wine and brandy industry is not an instant industry.

Long-term decision-making must take priority to ensure that the industry moves in the right direction. Adding value is going to be decisive. Enjoy this issue of WineLand that focusses on the vineyard, the people who cultivate it and the industry plans to make it sustainable and profitable.

Till next month,

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