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VinPro Study Tour

Four South African specialists embarked on a week-long study tour to explore the French take on issues such as scarce wine industry labour and adapting to compete in the global wine market.

Two delegates from VinPro – Francois Viljoen, VinPro consultation service manager, and Johannes Mellet, viticulturist for the Robertson region – recently gave feedback on a study tour in July, on which they were accompanied by Pellenc CEO, Philippe Bohn and BAP Wine Works owner, Wynand Haasbroek. They also shared some of the latest terroir research that was discussed at the 10th International Terroir Congress – a prestigious wine science symposium held in Hungary.

Playing in the big economic league

France has the fifth largest economy in the world after the US, China, Japan and Germany. As a developed country, the average salary is about €34 or R500 per hour. Workers in France only work 35 hours per week, but have the second highest output alongside Norway in Europe. Labour is very expensive, yet very productive.

With a wine industry dating back from 600 BC, France now has between 800 000 and 900 000 hectares of vineyards and produces about 20% of the world’s wine. Between production of 20% and consumption of 14%, France imports about 6% of its wine to other countries. This makes France the third largest exporter of wine.

The most prominent red varietals are Grenache, Shiraz, Carignan, Cinsaut, Mourvèdre, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The most prominent white varieties are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Chenin Blanc.

According to Johannes, very little mechanically pruned vines were encountered during their visit and in cases where mechanical trimmings were applied, technology such as the TRP machine is used for trimming. “Specific farm necessities is subsidised by the European Union and government to a maximum of 50%, and specific cellar equipment also up to a maximum of 50%,” he explained. As a result, winery facilities are improved dramatically and are able to compete internationally.

Labour and mechanisation

Labour in France is very expensive and as a result of strong labour unions, workers work only 35 hours per week. The minimum wage is €1 112,65 per month in the worker’s pocket, but the total cost of employment for the employer is about €2 044,38 per month (R29 643,51 per month or R200 per hour).

Because labour is so expensive, the owner does most of the work in the vineyard. “Most grapes are mechanically harvested and all equipment for mechanisation is designed so that one person can link up, use, detach and clean it,” Johannes explained. Only the latest and best mechanical utilities are used.

Furthermore, production costs will always vary depending on the size of the vineyard and the owner’s personal compensation, and for that reason it has a big impact on the total production cost. French cooperative wineries’ production costs are usually €2,500 per hectare (R36 000 per hectare). Estates’ production costs will normally be higher because more labour is used, therefore €3,500 per hectare (R50 700 per hectare). Establishing vineyards totalled €10,000 per hectare (R145 000 per hectare). Production and establishment costs are therefore much more competitive with South Africa than what one would expect.

10th International Terroir Congress

The study tour group from VinPro, Pellenc and BAP Wine Works attended the 10th International Terroir Congress in Hungary. The conference consisted of 43 formal lectures on various vine and technology issues, 54 posters and exhibitions as well as four visits to vineyards and wineries of the major regions.

“The focal points were climate change studies, new varieties that are resistant as well as old native selections,” said Francois.

Other topics of discussion were viticultural/climate zoning, irrigation, terroir influences, soil chemistry versus grape, wine analyses and rootstock.

“During the visits to the vineyards and wineries in Hungary, it was apparent that labour remains a problem in spite of the reasonable unemployment percentage – yet people do not want to work the vineyards,” explained Francois.

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