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Sat Jul 30 11:17:36 SAST 2016

Heat wave sours grapes

Jackie May | 22 January, 2016 00:23
Three Helicopter (one being a military chopper), firefighter and farm workers battled a massive blaze that set parts of the Uitkyk Wine Estate, vineyards on fire. Situated above Kanonkop on the Simonsberg slopes.
Image by: Adrian de Kock

If you're having a glass of wine tonight, savour it.

With Western Cape experiencing searing heat, an extended drought and devastating fires, farmers are being hit by enormous losses which could result in a shortage of wine, and an increase in price.

The conditions are affecting the yield and quality of the current grape harvest.

Rosa Kruger, a Cape-based viticulturist, said this year was the worst she had ever seen.

"The heat is too much. It has been non-stop 35C to 40C since December. Everybody I know is down on production. It's been really, really difficult," she said.

Not only is the yield down - with some farmers expecting to pick only 5% of what they would normally harvest - but the quality will be affected, too.

In this heat, the acid levels fall and the pH rises, affecting the flavour of the wine, she said.

Where the crops had been looking good, in Elgin and Stellenbosch, for instance, smoke from the fires had tainted the grapes.

Not only is this year's crop damaged, but "the crop for next year has been compromised", Kruger said.

"The vines are stressed and won't recover by next year. The predictions are gloomy."

Another viticulturist, Francois Viljoen, said the extreme heat was to blame for the poor yield.

In the Swartland region it normally gets extremely hot for just a day or two at this time of the year. But, said Louis Zickmann of the Swartland Local Municipality in Malmesbury: "It's been close to two weeks that we've had near 40C or above."

Billy Hughes of organic wine producer The Hughes Family Wines, said farms with access to irrigation were down in production by about 20%, the drylands were down by 60%, and in his case, "we are very down".

"We are only harvesting 20% of what we normally would."

"Because we're organic, we can't spray herbicide to kill the weeds and other plants which compete with the vines for water. Our situation is really bad."

But Wilhelm de Vries, of Allesverloren Wine Estate in the Riebeek Valley, said the heat could be good for the quality of red grapes.

Andre Morgenthal of Wines of SA said it was difficult to predict the impact of these conditions until the grapes were harvested.

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