South African wines could be smoked out by fire and lack of rain

Drought, fire, high temperatures and strong winds have wreaked havoc in the Western Cape’s farming sector, with the fruit and wine industries suffering substantial losses. The province will need a substantial bailout if its farmers are to survive, it was revealed at a briefing on Wednesday. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

The Western Cape government needs over R80 million to assist drought-stricken farmers, while the regional fruit production sector has suffered losses amounting to R720 million, journalists and members of the province’s Standing Committee on Economic Opportunities, Tourism and Agriculture heard on Wednesday.

The wine industry, which contributes R36 billion to the national economy and makes over 4% of the world’s wine, has suffered losses of a further R20 million. The combination of heat, strong winds, low rainfall and fires have played havoc with the province’s farms, prompting calls for the national government to declare the region a disaster area. The season’s fires have burnt well over 60,000 ha of farmland, with over 6,000 citrus trees and 8ha of rooibos tea destroyed in the Citrusdal/Cedarberg area alone. Vineyards, pipelines, orchards, electric cables and other infrastructure were also destroyed, incurring massive costs for farmers and municipalities alike. Hortgro told the standing committee that the R720m loss would have a “devastating humanitarian impact”, as food prices would rise beyond the reach of the most vulnerable.

The Ceres, Wolseley and Berg River areas were the worst affected, suffering water shortages, major heat waves and crop losses, the committee heard. The drought, extreme heat and strong winds resulted in small fruit – and therefore a decrease in packable fruit – as well as sunburn and a change in pest control and diseases, which led to increased costs. Proposed long-term solutions included regaining access into Thailand, increasing dam sizes, and increasing investment in production infrastructure. According to a presentation by Western Cape Director of Sustainable Resource Management, Andre Roux, August and September 2015’s rainfall, the lowest recorded in 83 years, resulted in crop failure in many areas in the West Coast District. Crop losses varied from 50% to total crop loss in some areas. Agricultural output and employment was likely to drop, and consequently more people would be exposed to food insecurity and vulnerability, Roux added.

Meanwhile in the West Coast and Central Karoo, livestock production is seriously affected due to lack of grazing, and feeding needs to be supplemented with purchased fodder. An assessment is underway in the two districts to determine exactly how much financial aid is needed, although current projections estimate around R88 million for five months.

Stellenbosch, which has around 170 wine farms – the greatest concentration of wine farms in South Africa – has experienced a 33% drop in rainfall during the winter of 2015, with surrounding regions experiencing similar conditions. VinPro told the committee that the South African wine industry, which employs some 300,000 people, saw a 15% decrease in production in 2015, and that although wine producers managed to keep the increase in the cost of wine production to 8%, it would most likely rise to 10 – 15% in 2015. This – in combination with drought and the series of recent fires – was likely to result in further losses. In addition, the fires have a potential impact on the international reputation of South African wines.

“The international demand for South African wines has declined owing to fears of smoke damage,” Beverley Schäfer‚ chairperson of the Standing Committee said in a statement. “This, despite the fact that local winemakers have the facilities to treat the grape for smoke damage, thus eradicating the impact on the flavour. It is critical that government communicates this to international consumers.”

Oenologist, Viticulturist and SAWIS Wine Judge, Lieze Norval, told Daily Maverick that smoke taint was not necessarily a nail in the coffin for South African wines, and that fire damage should be the primary concern for now. Firstly, she said, it’s important to note the areas that were recently affected. Simonsberg, for example, is a prominent wine area – Tokara, Thelema, Simonsig, Muratie, Rustenberg and Glenelly – which are all internationally known, and Elgin is a wine area that is rapidly gaining respect for its Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and is also the home of Appletiser. According to Norval, there have been serious fires that affected well-known wines in the past, and these wines have remained in demand.

“These top farms will not release wines that will damage their reputation,” she said. “Smoke taint is something real – grapes absorb the smoke into the thin waxy layer that is there to protect the grape. I have not heard of removing it, though I know that as a winemaker you can work with it. Think coffee Pinotage, where the flavour is not from smoke taint, but from oak barrels being exposed to flame. As a winemaker it is possible to work with the flavour, unless it is extreme. But I think the physical loss which translates to financial loss to replace equipment or a completely ruined vineyard is of far greater concern than the possible taint from smoke in the wine.”

The good news, said Schäfer, was that there was not an immediate threat to farm worker employment, although in the long term jobs could be on the line if indebted farmers exited the industry. In order to qualify for additional funding from the national treasury, however, the province must be declared a disaster area by Cabinet. Thereafter, Treasury will determine the budget for assistance. Cabinet has declared droughts in five provinces: Mpumalanga, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, the Northern Cape and the Free State. Until then, the Western Cape is reliant on its own budget. Provisionally, a budget of around R1.5 million has been made available to support individual farmers. Financial support will be given to 30 qualifying smallholder grain farmers who have lost more than 50% of their crop, as well as to their workers. Recovery, Schäfer said, would not be fast, as some affected regions could take years to recover.

Source: dailymaverick

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