In the run-up to the 2021 wine grape harvest, South African producers and wineries are working together to try and minimise further negative consequences arising from varying restrictions on alcohol sales from March this year. Whatever the challenges, the focus remains on quality.

The words “disaster recovery plan” have often been used when talking about the strategy to rebuild wine-related businesses following a five week ban on alcohol exports and the intermittent 19 week ban on local sales as the country moved through its respective Covid-19 alert levels.

Interventions include applying for financial relief from government, stimulating demand locally, internationally and through wine tourism while curbing illicit trade, and then finally reducing supply.

According to Vinpro and SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Information & Systems), the industry currently has an estimated 250 to 300 million litres of uncontracted wine, which is almost equal to the annual local wine sales and can potentially put serious downward pressure on wine prices.

However, Covid-19 can’t take all the blame. At the Nedbank Vinpro Information Day in January this year, Vinpro MD Rico Basson said the industry needed to sell an additional 100 million litres in the course of 2020, while maintaining quality and price. The previous years’ drought led to reduced supply and resulted in higher wine prices. In turn, the higher price points drove both export and local sales volumes down at a time when the Northern Hemisphere was recovering in terms of volume. By the end of 2019 South Africans were experiencing financial pressure, which affected consumer spend, including wine sales.

Then came Covid-19 sales restrictions and the current surplus has left many wineries concerned that there may not be enough capacity in cellars for the 2021 harvest to be taken in from mid-January next year.

While wine industry bodies have been working closely with various producer cellars and distilleries to find alternative uses for this year’s wine surplus, and talks are underway with manufacturers of fruit concentrate to take in a portion of the 2021 harvest, wine grape producers and cellars are also taking stock of their vineyards and making changes in the way in which they prepare for the 2021 harvest.

Cellar and vineyard considerations

In the context of this, a forum of viticulturists from across the South African wine industry recently discussed the 2021 harvest. While larger cellars are restoring former wine tanks or purchasing additional tanks in preparation of the new harvest, smaller wineries have to employ other ways to manage cellar capacity. This includes uprooting unprofitable vines and adapting vineyard practices to reduce costs and maintain quality while managing crop size.

At a time when finances are under pressure, producers need to determine whether they are keeping certain vineyard blocks that are costing them more than the income they bring in. According to Vinpro senior agricultural economist Pierre-André Rabie, the Vinpro Production Plan Survey – a financial benchmark among primary wine grape producers – enables participating producers to analyse profitability right down to each vineyard block on the farm, region or industry as a whole.

“We can determine which blocks aren’t producing due to its age (too old or too young), which are experiencing problems with vigour or yield, and which do not cover their day to day expenses because they are not producing the quality needed to earn good wine grape prices,” he says. Vineyard blocks that do not produce good yields or great quality, or for which the producer does not have a buyer, could be shortlisted for uprooting.

“Many larger producer cellars are making plans to accommodate the 2021 harvest, and grape producers who deliver to these cellars do not necessarily need to reduce their crops. But why would you decide to keep on a vineyard that’s not making you any money?” asks Gert Engelbrecht, Vinpro viticulturist for the Olifants River region. Uprooting unprofitable vines will also ensure proper water supply for the remaining profitable vineyards to obtain even better yields and quality.

In the Robertson region, Vinpro viticulturist Hennie Visser says the emphasis remains on quality. “At a time when producers would normally want to pursue volumes, because they know the average wine prices will drop due to the larger supply, we strongly recommend that they keep on doing what’s needed in terms of inputs and practices to ensure smaller volumes, but high quality grapes, as premium wine prices are expected to remain stable,” Hennie says.

Conrad Schutte, manager of Vinpro’s consultation service says that private cellars and smaller wine estates have especially pruned for quality over the past few months.

The term “green harvesting” – the removal of bunches from the vine before they have ripened – has also been mentioned as a way to reduce the crop and enhance the overall quality at the same time. According to Francois Viljoen, manager of Vinpro’s Gen-Z Vineyard Project, green harvesting can be done at two stages. “Firstly, at pea size, remove all bunches on short and weak shoots, as these shoots with a smaller leaf area will not be able to ripen bunches optimally. The second stage would be at 70% to 80% véraison, during which you would drop all bunches that has less than 50% colouration than the rest, as these bunches won’t catch up with the rest, and will contribute to an overall lower quality.

The grapes are then thrown between the rows to dry out, and not driven out of the vineyard to reduce costs. “We don’t, however, recommend leaving the grapes under the vine, as this could lead to rotting and create a breeding place for various other diseases which could have a long-term effect on the vine,” Francois says.

Some producers are investigating the option to mothball selected vineyards. Experience within South African conditions indicate a long road to recovery for these vineyards, with producers even spending more resources on vineyards in the future in order to get them back to formal production status.

Cutting down vineyards that are infected with grapevine trunk disease or severe Eutypa infections could also be an option. This practice worked well during the drought period and enables producers to retrain new vine growth on the existing trellis system. Any bunches are also removed from new growth lowering the total yield. Resources spend on these blocks are usually less than a fully productive block.

Crop control practices such as mothballing and uprooting vines, however, should only be considered as a last resort says Conrad. “First determine whether cellar capacity will in fact be a challenge in your case, and whether you will be able to collaborate with neighbouring cellars, restore former tanks or invest in additional storage space. Then determine whether you have any unprofitable vineyard blocks that need to be uprooted. Finally look at alternative practices to reduce input costs or volume. Whatever you do, don’t compromise on quality and always keep the long-term sustainability of your vineyard in mind.”

For specialised advice in the vineyard, contact Vinpro’s regional viticulturists at the contact details here.

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