SA Wine Harvest 2018: Big challenges in the vineyard, big surprises in the cellar

Wine grape producers and cellars in South Africa are positive about the quality of wines from the 2018 harvest, despite challenging conditions resulting in one of the smallest crops in more than a decade.

According to the wine industry body Vinpro, the 2018 harvest, that is at 1 220 920 tonnes, 15% smaller than in 2017, was initially expected to be even smaller.
“The 2018 harvest season was really challenging, due to a prolonged drought which some believe to be the worst in 100 years, and accompanied by water restrictions and frost damage in some areas,” says Francois Viljoen, manager of Vinpro’s viticultural consultation service.

All regions except the Breedekloof reported a smaller wine grape crop, with the Olifants River region being hit hardest due to a water allocation amounting to only 20% the region’s normal allowance from the Clanwilliam Dam. In addition to water shortages, some vines in the Breedekloof, Worcester and Robertson areas were affected by frost damage in September and October 2017. The Northern Cape region, where water supply was sufficient, also had a decrease in production as vines recovered poorly from frost damage earlier in the season.

The dry weather throughout the season did have its advantages as vines were healthy, with little or no pests and diseases being recorded in most regions.
“The South African wine industry is already very diverse due to the variation in climate and terroir between the respective regions. But this year it was exceptionally difficult to generalise as the conditions would differ significantly from one region, and even one farm, to the next, depending on access to water, the prioritisation of other crops on the farm and how the vineyard was managed to cope with the drought,” said Francois.

The amount of grape bunches looked promising at first, but the berries were much smaller than usual, which affected the total tonnage. “Smaller berries usually have good colour and flavour intensity and this, along with cooler weather during harvest time relieved some pressure on vines and bode well for quality,” says Francois.

“We feel very positive about the prospective quality of the grapes from the 2018 harvest as this is one of the most important issues that we are focusing on as an industry,” says Siobhan Thompson, CEO of Wines of South Africa (Wosa).

South Africa is the eighth biggest wine producer world-wide and produces about 4% of the world’s wine. The wine industry contributes R36 billion to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs nearly 290 000 people.

Total crop size:

The 2018 wine grape crop is estimated at 1 220 920 tonnes according to South African Wine Industry Information and Systems (Sawis) at the end of April 2018. This is 15% lower than in 2017.

The 2018 wine harvest – juice and concentrate for non-alcoholic purposes, wine for brandy and distilling wine included – is expected to amount to 948.3 million litres, calculated at an average recovery of 777 litres per ton of grapes.