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Drought after-effects cause record harvest low in South Africa

The 2019 wine grape harvest in South Africa is expected to hit its lowest level since 2005 caused by the after-effects of a three-year drought, industry body VinPro has reported.

According to estimates from trade organisation SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Information and Systems) published by VinPro, the 2019 South African grape crop is predicted to total 1,225,620 tonnes. This is down by 1.4% on the total recorded last year and is the lowest harvest since 2005 when a total of 1,171,632 tonnes of grapes were taken in.

This is the second consecutive year in which the South African wine grape harvest volume has fallen.

While the 2018-19 season recorded good rainfall, the impact of the preceding three years of drought was evident. It is expected that vineyards and soils in certain regions will take some time to recover from the prolonged dry spell.

In 2018, South Africa produced 9.5mhl of wine, down by 1.4 mhl compared with the 2017 total, according to the OIV. This placed the country ninth in terms of world production, behind Italy (54.8mhl), France (49.1mhl), Spain (44.4mhl), the US (23.9mhl), Argentina (14.5mhl), Chile (12.9mhl), Australia (12.9mhl) and Germany (9.8mhl).

Fluctuating weather conditions throughout the season, together with lingering drought at the end of the previous season, are said to be the reason for the low harvest volumes predicted for 2019. The country experienced uneven weather patterns during budbreak and flowering followed by cool and windy conditions during fruit set, leading to fewer bunches and smaller berries. Rain showers during this period also led to crop losses due to outbreaks of diseases such as downy mildew.

While there was warm weather in the run up to harvest, berries struggled to catch up and harvesting began later than usual. Cool and wet conditions were experienced in many regions at the end of February and March, particularly affecting late ripening varieties which struggled to accumulate sugar.

Among the regions hardest hit in 2019 were the Olifants River and the Klein Karoo regions. Robertson and Stellenbosch also produced smaller crops than those recorded in 2018, according to predictions. However, the Northern Cape, Swartland, Paarl and Worcester regions produced larger crops than last year, albeit from a low base following big losses in 2018. Breedekloof and the Cape South Coast region are predicted to have somewhat smaller crops too.

Despite the reduction in volume, VinPro reports that winemakers are “positive” about the quality of wine from the vintage.

Commenting on the news, Francois Viljoen, viticultural consultation service manager at Vinpro, said: “It has been a trying year for our wine grape producers and wineries. A decline in area under vines and challenging weather conditions contributed to the smaller harvest.

“The drought was still lingering during the post-harvest period, which meant many producers couldn’t apply crucial post-harvest irrigation. As a result leaves fell early and vines couldn’t accumulate the reserves needed to carry them through the season, which in turn affected the berry set and growth.

“2019 tells the tale of two harvesting seasons – the first easy with good weather conditions and great grape analyses up until the end of February, and the second challenging, characterised by slow ripening following cold, rainy weather in March.

“We saw once again this year virus-free vines which are managed well do much better than others in terms of both yield and quality. We encourage all wine grape producers to follow suit.”

In more typical years, South Africa has occupied the position of the eighth biggest global wine producer, generating around 4% of the world’s wine. The industry contributes R36 billion (£1.9 billion) to the South African GDP and employs around 290,000 people.

For an overview of the season in the country’s wine regions, please see below.

Breedekloof: A crop close to that of 2018, despite a challenging harvesting time and unevenness that made it difficult to determine ripeness.

Cape South Coast: A smaller, but “exceptional quality” harvest, as this region was not affected as severely by the drought as other areas.

Klein Karoo: A very challenging season, with yields even lower than the previous two years due to the continued drought and hail damage in some areas.

Northern Cape: A “blessed 2019 season”, with higher yields per hectare and promising quality.

Olifants River: A second consecutive smaller harvest following a record low in 2018, due to the after-effects of the drought.

Paarl: Somewhat bigger yields, however from a low base following a much smaller 2018 crop, due to the preceding drought and weather fluctuations.

Robertson: A challenging season led to a big drop in production for the second consecutive season, but quality remains high.

Stellenbosch: Despite good rainfall, the region was still affected by the preceding drought and realised a much smaller crop for the second year in a row.

Swartland: Larger than a very small 2018 wine grape crop, with promising quality.

Worcester: A surprisingly larger wine grape production following a smaller crop in 2018, with good quality wines on the way.

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