Henry Hopkins analyses the latest SAWIS statistics about vine plantings in South Africa

This year’s crop is the smallest since 1986, but the quality of the grapes is exceptional. With regard to human control, there were also positive trends and the good news is that these changes are in tune with the worldwide pattern of less, but better, and a preference for red wine.

Firstly, more vineyards were uprooted than planted recently. Secondly, more than 80% of these were red cultivars, especially Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. In white cultivars the spotlight is moving from Chardonnay in the direction of Sauvignon blanc, which lends itself to a bigger variety of styles and quality levels.

With these trends, the South African wine industry is indicating that it has begun to rid itself of the dragging and distorting consequences of statutory control, which in the past was the cause of production orientation and a strong demand for rebate wine; as well as a co-operative pooling system which was not quite conducive to individuality; and lastly, the emphasis on the local market and the huge demand by wholesalers for average quality white wine. The country is now an old wine country in the process of entering a modern phase.

The “big shake up” in the mid-90s pointed at a few obvious market trends in First World countries. Improved technology and good income prompted the baby boomers to take leave of their jug and box wines. Unique and differentiated styles, increasing emphasis on cultivars and strong brand promotion urged them to buy better quality but less quantity. The result was that by the mid-90s, world-wide production and consumption were about 20% less than before, while the total income from wine kept increasing!

The logical conclusion from this, and one that prompted other New World countries to react, was that the sales of higher quality wines were increasing. There was also a clear switch to red wine and a decrease in the consumption of spirits. South Africa was a little slow to catch on, but better late than never.

Recent figures issued by the SA Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS) indicate that from 1998 to the end of last year the country made good progress with regard to the planting of red cultivars. In that period the total plantings increased from 22% to 32% of the total. This is encouraging, although one should not disregard the fact that its main competitor, Australia, is now planting 55% red varieties (in California, the figure is 56% and in Chile, an impressive 70%).

Something which may be less important, but should still come as an interesting surprise to South Africans with their acute awareness of Australia, is that it is not Australia, but California who avails of the biggest area planted to wine grapes in the New World. They now have 190 000 hectares; which means that since 1998 they have acquired an additional 17 000 hectares. Australia has 123 000 hectares, South Africa 105 500 and Chile (who planted 10 000 hectares in the last two years) 85 300. But thanks to the huge domestic demand in the USA, most Californian wines are sold locally and the country is not such a big competitor on the European markets where South Africa trades mostly.

Which are the most planted varieties and where are they situated California’s 41 500 hectares Chardonnay is the winner in that country, although the combined Cabernet and Merlot plantings exceed that surface.

The biggest plantings of a single red variety is Australia’s Shiraz, amounting to 32 000 hectares. Australia and Chile both have 26 000 hectares Cabernet and California has the most Merlot, namely 19 000 hectares. South Africa still has rather limited plantings of these varieties, namely 8 824 hectares Cabernet, 5 630 hectares Shiraz and 4 887 hectares Merlot, but then Pinotage, of which none of the other countries has significant plantings, amounts to 6 500 hectares.

Argentina, never to be overlooked as a South African competitor, concentrates increasingly on Malbec and may begin to put it on the market as a specialist cultivar for the segment of consumers looking for something besides Cabernet and Shiraz.

People who had high hopes that Ruby Cabernet might prove to be the solution in warmer areas, will be disappointed to learn that the variety is not making any progress anywhere, perhaps because of poor set, and bearing less than expected in warm conditions. Interestingly it constitutes exactly the same percentage of the total vineyards in three countries (South Africa, Australia and California), namely 1,9%. In South Africa it is still being used mainly for its colour.

The only quality cultivar of which South Africa has approximately the same quantity as its New World competitors, is Sauvignon blanc. The 5 436 hectares exceeds that of Australia and compares well to California and Chile (who, at 6 500, has the most). The enthusiasm of South African producers for Chardonnay is something of the past for the time being, possibly due to the fact that large volumes were made according to the exact same recipe, resulting in surpluses in some cases.

With regard to vines uprooted and planted, the SAWIS report says that while the uprooting and planting were balanced from 1989 to 1995, and more vines were planted than uprooted in 1995 and 1999, the trend was recently reversed: 6 042 hectares were planted last year, but 8 013 uprooted. It is only in the Olifants River where hectares planted to vines now exceed previous figures. Stellenbosch and Malmesbury have the least replacements and show the biggest nett loss of vineyard surface.

The enthusiasm in the Olifants River may be ascribed to the increased planting of red wine cultivars in the region, where vines may be farmed more profitably than in other regions due to higher yields. Shiraz and Ruby Cabernet are now the most popular choices for new vines in that region.

Cabernet was the most popular in Paarl, Stellenbosch, Malmesbury and Robertson, while Shiraz was the cultivar of choice in Worcester and the Little Karoo. Sultana plantings still constitute the majority of new vineyards in the Orange River.

Stellenbosch now has 55% red grapes, followed by Paarl (44%) and Malmesbury (41%).

In total Shiraz was the most planted red variety (1 535 hectares), closely followed by Cabernet (1 438 hectares). Of the white varieties, Chenin blanc (174 hectares) constituted the biggest new plantings.

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