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South African harvest slumps to record low

Published:  07 May, 2019

The South African wine grape harvest in 2019 hit a record low thanks to a drought and fluctuating weather conditions. However, winemakers are positive about the quality of the resulting vintage.

The 2019 crop returned 1,225,620 tonnes of grapes, according to industry body Sawis (South African Wine Industry Information & Systems), a drop of 1.4% on last year.

It’s the second year in a row the crop has shrunk and 2019 delivered a record low since 2005, when 1,171,632 tonnes were harvested. The 2019 harvest, including juice and concentrate for non-alcoholic purposes, wine for brandy and distilling wine, is predicted to amount to 951.8 million litres at an average recovery of 777 litres per tonne of grapes.

“It has been a trying year for our wine grape producers and wineries,” said Francois Viljoen, viticultural consultation service manager at Vinpro, which represents 2,500 South African wine grape producers, wineries and wine-related businesses. “A decline in area under vines and challenging weather conditions contributed to the smaller harvest.”

Viljoen said although most regions received good rainfall the after-effects of the preceding three year drought were still visible and vineyards and soils will need time to recover.

The Northern Cape, Swartland, Paarl and Worcester regions produced larger crops than last year, but from a low base following big losses in 2018. Breedekloof and the Cape South Coast region had smaller crops, in line with average productions.

Robertson and Stellenbosch also produced smaller crops, but the Olifants River and Klein Karoo regions were hit hardest for the second consecutive year due to the drought.

“The drought was still lingering during the post-harvest period, which meant many producers couldn’t apply crucial post-harvest irrigation,” added Viljoen. “As a result leaves fell early and vines couldn’t accumulate the reserves needed to carry them through the season, which in turn affected the berry set and growth.

Severe weather fluctuations during bud break and flowering, followed by cool windy conditions during set, contributed to less and uneven bunches and smaller berries.

“2019 tells the tale of two harvesting seasons, the first easy with good weather conditions and great grape analyses up until the end of February, and the second challenging, characterised by slow ripening following cold, rainy weather in March,” said Viljoen.

On a positive note, Viljoen also said smaller grapes deliver a greater concentration of flavour which should deliver better quality wines.