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SA’s grape harvest larger than 2016’s despite drought, but innovation is key to survival

The extreme drought in the Western Cape has, until now, not had a major effect on the wine industry, but adequate rainfall is needed this winter for good vine performance and crop yields for the coming season, wine producer body VinPro says.

The Western Cape is the midst of a devastating drought, which threatens the viability of the entire agricultural sector.

VinPro said that despite the drought, the 2017 harvest was 1.4% bigger than the previous year, with healthy grapes, intense flavours and colours promising great wines. The body, however, warned the predicted long-term drying trends in the Western Cape would have serious implications for the wine industry, and farmers would have to find innovative ways to remain viable.

Wine is one of SA’s largest agricultural exports, with the county,’s nearly 100,000ha of vineyards, mostly situated in the Western Cape near the coast, accounting for about 4% of the world production.

Next season’s potential harvest is dependent on various factors such as the size of the current year’s crop, post-harvest irrigation, reserve levels built up during winter and the season leading up to the next harvest. The looming risk of veld fires damaging vineyards in the Cape Winelands is also greater during dry conditions, VinPro said.

“The dry, windy conditions resulted in healthy vines that needed fewer chemicals to keep pests and diseases at bay,” said Francois Viljoen, VinPro consultation services manager.

“Vineyard growth was not too vigorous, which decreased labour inputs. Due to the harvest remaining on par with 2016 and a projected increase in demand, stock levels are expected to be the lowest in five years at the end of 2017.” Viljoen said farmers needed to come up with efficient ways to use water.

Studies done by the Department of Water and Sanitation show that most of SA’s water is used for agriculture, with more than 60% of all available water going into the sector for irrigation.

“With 95,775ha in the Western Cape under wine grapes, we — as an agriculture community — need new ways of thinking about water without compromising economic development. Measures such as a cut in quotas, the drilling of boreholes, the installation of grey water systems and using water tanks to harvest rainwater simply aren’t enough,” said Viljoen.

“It’s not only the lack of irrigation water that has an impact on the vines, but also the variance between minimum and maximum day and night temperatures. Vineyards, like fruit trees, need cold units to build reserves, and with the current fairly warm daily temperatures, this has not happened sufficiently.”

In the longer term, producers will have to look at quality, drought-resistant vines that produce more flavour, acidity and intensity, but have lower water needs, said Nico Spreeth, the CEO of Vititec, an organisation that focuses on the development, production and marketing of vine plant material.

“These include new clones of Grenache and cultivars such as Assyrtiko, Verdelho, Chenin Blanc, Vermentino, Aglianico, Cabernet Sauvignon and Touriga Nacional, which are suited for SA’s growing conditions and changing climate…. Currently the industry is aligning its research activities to address the above objectives,” Spreeth said.