SA's slow grape harvest will produce 'remarkable wines' – and ease lockdown's oversupply

Business Insider SA
South African wine
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  • South Africa's 2021 grape harvest is expected to produce "remarkable wines" due to slower ripening rates, according to industry body Vinpro.
  • The slow harvest, which extended to late May in some regions, is the result of cooler weather throughout the season.
  • This allowed grapes to "reach optimum ripeness".
  • It's also allowed wineries some extra time to get ride of oversupply resulting from lockdown's alcohol bans.
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South Africa's wine producers will receive a much-needed boost from the 2021 harvest which, in addition to being significantly larger than last year's, has been unusually late. This is expected to improve the wine's quality and has given the industry more time to handle oversupply issues stemming from lockdown's alcohol bans.

The South African wine industry was battered by alcohol restrictions enforced during varying stages of lockdown throughout 2020 and early 2021. While outright prohibition totalling almost 19 weeks was the most devastating, curfews and travel restrictions have also damaged the sector.

It's estimated that the wine industry, which also suffered through a five-week ban on exports, lost more than R7.5 billion in sales revenue in 2020, according to the managing director of Vinpro, Rico Basson.

The prohibition of alcohol also led to a dire oversupply of wine. At the end of 2020, producers had an oversupply of approximately 300 million litres of wine.

This oversupply, equivalent to the total amount wine sold in South Africa in 2019, added further pressure to producers who scrambled to negotiate offtake agreements ahead of the new year's harvest.

Producers who couldn't sell their wine were forced to rent extra cellar space and offload grapes at a cheaper price as juice concentrate. With the third alcohol ban only lifted in early February, concerns regarding oversupply ahead of the harvest season – which usually takes place between February and April – were renewed.

Luckily for South African wineries, nature played its part in delaying the harvest and bought the industry time to sell off some of its surplus. The late 2021 harvest was delayed by two to three weeks.

"Some producers are even harvesting late in May, which is very unusual for South Africa," said Vinpro viticulturist, Etienne Terblanche, during the group's 2021 Wine Harvest Report on Monday.

This late harvest is due to unusually cool weather conditions which persisted throughout the season and resulted in grapes ripening at a slower rate while developing exceptional colour and flavour.

"The late and slow harvest was definitely worth the wait," says Conrad Schutte, a consultation service manager of Vinpro.

"Wine lovers can really look forward to remarkable wines from the 2021 crop. The cooler weather enabled producers to harvest their grapes at exactly the right time, and viticulturists and winemakers are especially excited about good colour extraction, low pH levels and high natural acidity in cases where vineyards were managed effectively, which all point to exceptional quality wines."

The exceptional quality of this year's harvest as described by Vinpro, which represents 2,500 South African wine grape producers and cellars, is coupled with higher yields. The crop is estimated to produce 1,461,599 tonnes of grapes which is 8.9% larger than the 2020 harvest, according to the South African Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS).

"The larger wine crop will require careful planning from wineries and marketing teams to sell, not only in a responsible, but also in a sustainable manner," says Basson.

Standout wine-producing regions which are listed by Vinpro as harvesting "exceptional quality" grapes include the Cape South Coast, Olifants River, Robertson, Stellenbosch, and Swartland. Farms in Worcester recorded some of the latest harvesting times in 2021, "bringing with it a larger wine grape crop and remarkable wines."

Some crops in the Northern Cape were damaged by frost, but only at an early developmental stage, allowing time for the vines to recover.

Although most grape-growing regions experienced minimal rainfall during harvest time there were also almost no characteristic heatwaves which, together, allowed the grapes to "reach optimum ripeness".

(Compiled by Luke Daniel)

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