Culture: South African Winemakers Share Glimmers of Hope Amid the Likely Smallest Harvest in Over a Decade
“My father used to say, ‘The vineyard doesn’t forget easily,’” recalls Jeanette Bruwer, a fifth-generation custodian at Springfield Estate in Robertson, South Africa, in the Western Cape. She’s referring to the 2023 harvest, which, according to a May report released by the South African Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS), experienced a 14.2% decline in yield from 2022. In terms of volume, the 2023 South African harvest may prove amongst the smallest in more than a decade.
Some winemakers have even reported more pronounced declines. Chris Albrecht, winemaker at Bouchard Finlayson in the Western Cape’s Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, reports that his 2023 white crop was 20 percent less than average, though his Pinot Noir vineyards produced a “balanced crop of expected size.” The vintage, he says, became “more challenging as it progressed.”
According to the SAWIS report, the 2023 harvest was impacted by competing forces: heavy rains and cool weather in February and March, as well as load shedding—part of a widespread energy crisis in South Africa related to Eskom, the country’s national power utility. The outdated power grid has struggled to keep up with demand for almost a decade now, the combined result of a lack of maintenance and higher demand. It often shuts down for hours each day—sometimes on a planned basis and sometimes not—forcing farmers to go without electricity. Escalating load shedding reached an apex this past year.
“A lot of the farmers are dependent on irrigation,” Bruwer notes. “So if you haven’t got electricity, you cannot irrigate your vineyards.” Despite a wet end to the harvest season, the winter months still proved dry enough to require substantial irrigation. Eskom’s load shedding was enough of a problem—particularly in the Northern Cape, where dryland farming is dependent on irrigation—to impede the 2023 harvest. Plus, the 2023 South African Harvest Report characterized average winter temperatures as “higher in all the wine grape producing regions” with rainfall in winter “noticeably lower,” contributing to vine stress and yield issues long before the harvest rains.
Some winemakers who were able to harvest earlier in the season were fortunate, says Michael Langenhoven, winemaker of Mont Rochelle Hotel & Vineyard in Franschhoek, also in the Western Cape. “It is not the cooler weather that impacted the crop size, but a lot of rain during the last stages of ripening that caused a lot of rot,” Langenhoven explains. Winemakers who made the decision to harvest early, or who were growing more white varietals than red, likely escaped the season unscathed, he notes.
The growing season had some benefits, though: The recent cooler weather in February and March, which delayed ripening, was actually beneficial to the quality of some grapes. “The grapes ripen very slowly, which means that phenolic ripeness is at lower sugar levels, and the analysis of the wines is much better,” Langenhoven says. Although overall yield on the 2023 harvest may be down, the grapes that were harvested may be of very high quality. Many winemakers agree; despite a slimmer-than-average vintage, Chris Albrecht feels positive about the harvest. “There were some varietals and production areas that performed above average and [are] showing great potential,” he says.
But for grapes that did not have enough time to achieve full ripeness, February and March’s relentless wet weather—particularly bruising on parched soil, which often fails to absorb rainwater adequately—was unwelcome. It caused downy mildew and unwanted botrytis on red varietals in some areas, where, Bruwer says, grapes are almost uniformly harvested by machine.
“If you could bring in everything before the rain set in, you were really lucky—and other people lost a lot of juice, firstly to small berries, secondly to downy mildew and botrytis,” she says. An additional disease called slippery skin also impacted the grapes. It forces the berry to dislocate from its skin, arresting ripening and lowering yields.
Still, the prognosis of the South African wine market moving forward isn’t as bleak as the numbers might indicate, says Allister Kreft, CEO of Under the Influence, a South African wine distribution and education company.
“I believe the quality grapes and wine from the 2023 vintage will move through the system toward bottled wine production, sustaining our bottled wine export markets,” he says. “I think that what’s going to happen is that the majority of the pressure is actually going to be on the bulk side of things,” he says.
South Africa, Kreft notes, sells about 60 percent of their volume in bulk wine, or wine that is produced and put into large containers and bottled for overseas markets. The United States, he says, is a substantial market for bulk wine shipped from South Africa. But he has some hope for that market, too.
“The quality of the product is there, it’s exceptional,” he says. “I hope that some of the impact is to actually draw some of that bulk wine into more bottled, more premium products.”
Last Updated: July 21, 2023