South Africa’s 2020 wine grape crop is expected to yield exceptional wines.
The industry is busy harvesting the last few thousand tonnes across eight of its 10 wine regions, thanks to a last-minute concession from the South African Government to continue harvest and winemaking activities during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown from 26 March until 16 April 2020.
According to an estimate released by the industry body SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Information & Systems) in the third week of March, viticulturists and cellar producers expected the wine grape crop to be only somewhat larger than a small 2019 wine grape crop, but still smaller than the five year average of 1.36 million tonnes.
“Although there is great variation in crop size due 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 botrytis rot and ongoing drought in certain areas,” says Conrad Schutte, manager of the wine industry body Vinpro’s viticultural consultation services.
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,” Conrad says.
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.
Harvest may continue, but sales banned
When the South African Government published its COVID-19 lockdown regulations on 25 March 2020, all wine industry activities were prohibited, including the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages (which includes local sales and exports) from midnight on 26 March until midnight on 16 April 2020.
However, through advocacy by various industry bodies, Government made a last-minute concession just hours before midnight on 26 March 2020 that “harvesting and storage activities essential to prevent the wastage of primary agricultural goods” would be regarded as essential services that may continue during the lockdown.
Vinpro, the representative body for close to 2 500 South African wine grape producers, wineries and wine-related businesses, said that the industry is grateful to Government for the concession and called on its members to adhere to the regulations, including strict hygiene controls during transport and in the workplace, as well as ensuring that all staff members are in possession of the necessary permits to travel for work purposes.
Meanwhile local sales, exports and the distribution of alcoholic beverages are still prohibited during the lockdown, including the delivery of online wine orders.
“We have a full grasp of the severity of the global COVID-19 pandemic and support President Cyril Ramaphosa on his decision to take extreme measures to ensure the nation’s safety,” says Vinpro MD Rico Basson. “However, the ban on exports and capacity constraints at our main ports will especially have a significant effect on the survival of the South African wine industry, and more importantly, the livelihood of the close to 300 000 persons employed by the value-chain.”
Around half of South Africa’s wine production is exported. Vinpro, SA Liquor Brand Owners Association (SALBA) 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 the weekend.
Difficult times drive collaboration
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 pandemic lockdown has once again showed 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,” Rico says.
South Africa offers exceptional quality
Despite a myriad of challenges the industry has faced, WoSA CEO, Siobhan Thompson says one of the most heartening elements for the South African wine industry has been the increased recognition the country has seen 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 across the globe.
“Our focus is still on the premiumisation of our wines, across the board,” Siobhan says. “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’ve 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. 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.
Siobhan 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,” Siobhan says.
The official 2020 South African Wine Harvest Report will be issued on 5 May 2020.