High temperatures, low rainfall hits South African wine industry

South Africa may have had its lowest rainfall in more than 100 years in 2015, but there is some positive news about the drought 

The El Nino weather phenomenon has caused weather to be drier and hotter than usual across much of southern Africa, in turn leading to a harvest of grapes and berries that are far smaller and richer in flavour, a local wine expert told dpa.

"The smaller grapes and berries that are being observed in all regions could lead to very good concentration, colour and flavour – eventually very good wine potential," said Francois Viljoen, the viticulture and soil science manager at Vinpro, an organization representing 3,600 South African wine producers.

The bad news is that the 2016 harvest is expected to be smaller than usual, with recent fires in the mountainous areas of the Western Cape burning the peripheries of vineyards and reducing the crops even further.

"The declining harvest can be attributed to the dry, very hot conditions that prevailed in December and January," said Viljoen.

There are also concerns that the country's wine cellars may be pushed for space as grapes ripen at an accelerated rate, he added.

Damage to the grape harvest, caused by the fires that broke out in the Stellenbosch wine producing area east of Cape Town in mid-January, is still being assessed. But local wine producers do not expect the impact to be significant.

Frans Smit, the cellar master of Spier estate in Stellenbosch, says that from 34 degrees Celsius upwards, a vine stops accumulating sugar.

"It effectively goes into self-preservation mode, so the current high temperatures mean the grapes being picked this year are being picked earlier than usual and have a lower sugar content," he says.

"The vines have smaller bunches and smaller berries, meaning wines of this vintage will likely feature stronger tannins, increasing their ageing potential."

The yield will definitely be smaller this year, says Smit, which will influence the price of wine due to "limited quantities and limited availability."

South Africa, home of the indigenous Pinotage grape, is the seventh largest wine producer in the world, according to industry body Wines of South Africa (WOSA), exporting around 422.7 million litres in 2014.

Some 99,463 hectares of vines producing wine grapes are under cultivation in South Africa over an area of 800 kilometres in length.

The country's most widely grown white variety is Chenin Blanc, comprising 18 per cent of all vines, with Cabernet Sauvignon the most popular red variety.

While costs could go up for the country's wine drinkers, it is people on the breadline in South Africa who are hardest hit by the extreme weather of recent months.

According to The South African Weather Service, the country recorded its lowest average rainfall in 2015 since records began in 1904.

The drought has devastated farms across South Africa and raised the prospect of sharp increases in the price of foods like maize meal, a staple for the country's poor.

Producer group Grain SA said last week South Africa may need to import as much as 5 million tonnes of maize this year after the crop in 2015 fell by a third to under 10 million tonnes.​

"I suspect that the price of bread will go up in double digits," Johannesburg-based economist Mike Schussler said, estimating that food inflation could surpass 10 per cent in the coming months.

"Yellow maize has also been going up, and that plays a role in chicken and milk prices. I suspect that will have a very big knock-on effect."

Last update: Sun, 24/01/2016 - 22:05

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