Michael Fridjhon: Why a more diverse national vineyard is unlikely

By , 14 October 2020



At the turn of the millennium South Africa boasted a little over 1 000 hectares of shiraz, much of it virused and very little of it iconic. Ten years later, the country’s shiraz plantings had increased tenfold. Clearly, it was a time when grape growers were ready to invest around R200K per hectare on a largely untested (commercially speaking) cultivar on the say-so of the producing wholesalers and the advice of VinPro. But then, that was when there was huge commercial pressure to transform our vineyards that were heavily weighted towards white varieties, and exports were booming at a price point which appeared to be working for everyone.

It was also the time when we were still playing catch-up. For example, an agreement was finally reached that we couldn’t be international players and still refer to crouchen as “riesling.” This led to the wildly optimistic assumption that we should be planting Rhine riesling (as it was called) because it was an internationally recognised variety. That was when the not inconsiderable swathes of viognier were planted, as well as poorly sited merlot and pinot. It may not have rivalled the time – half a century before – when hárslevelű and fernao pires crept into the mix, but it was clearly an epoch when optimism and a willingness to invest and take a chance characterised the mind-set of the country’s producers.

Fast forward now to 2020: the industry has been in distress for some time – before lockdown, before the rolling blackouts, even before the drought. The national vineyard has been declining for most of the past 15 years – at a rate of at least two hectares per day for every day of the year. Grapes growers are finding other crops. They must be because we’ve been losing them at an equally alarming rate – an average at least of two per week for every week of the year, and for more than ten years on the trot.

This is hardly the kind of environment conducive to risky investment. Today it costs over R400K to plant a hectare. Assuming a Coastal Region farming cost of R60K per hectare and an (optimistic) yield of 10 tons per hectare, the best you can hope for by way of income (per hectare) before recovery of investment or land cost is R30K. Even after Covid-19 nudged down the cost of borrowing, this isn’t enough to cover the interest on the debt incurred in replanting the site, let alone servicing the debt on the farm.

If grape growing is such a bad deal, why do people still do it, you may ask? The answer, as the stats quoted above show with luminous clarity, is that they don’t. The 1000-plus grape growers who have abandoned the industry in little over a decade have worked out that, on average, wine farming is about as viable as the Swiss navy. If you are stuck in it – for whatever reason – then it makes more sense to grow what the buyers want to buy, aiming to increase yields, or finding some way to get them to pay more than the market average for the fruit. What would seem a suicidal strategy would be to plant – on an entirely speculative basis – cultivars which are not associated with South Africa, and which have only been on fringe of the international mainstream for a year or two.

Breaking ground for new Assyrtiko vineyards on Jordan Wine Estate – the exception rather than the rule.

If you’re not Gary and Kathy Jordan with a highly sophisticated distribution network and a charming backstory about visiting Greece on your honeymoon, why would you plant assyrtiko? It does well in the volcanic soils of Santorini, but this is hardly a guarantee that it will blow the lights out in the Cape. If you weren’t Thys Louw, selling hundreds of thousands of cases of sauvignon blanc a countable number of days after the last bunch of grapes has been harvested from the vineyard, would you rush out and plant grüner veltliner, a cultivar which even the Austrians battle to place in the less geeky markets of Europe and the Americas? Experimental vineyards of the cultivars the fickle London market has decided will be a la mode for a couple of weeks next summer are hardly likely to set a national trend. Overgaauw still has the only sylvaner plantings in South Africa, a claim to fame the estate has enjoyed for nigh on 50 years – and there’s nothing particularly obscure about sylvaner: until the 1970s, it was the most planted grape in Germany.

So is South Africa doomed to live with the cultivars we now have, praying for better clonal material of those, like merlot, which should be doing better? Or should we, finding long forgotten anachronisms like False Pedro, hoping that a few bunches in a geeky blend will add sex appeal and permit, for a few more years, postponing the cost of planting a new vineyard?

Rationally, the answer must be yes. I love the idea of the Cape exporting world-class albarino. However, if the local market cannot absorb 250 cases of some of the best (and not very expensive) examples from the Rias Baixas, why would anyone except the Newton-Johnsons (whose faithful following mops up their very creditable production with alacrity) consider planting it?

  • SA’s top nine grape varieties make up 84% of the national vineyard while a further 100 make up the remaining 16% – producers of those less mainstream varieties are invited to enter the Prescient Minority Report 2020 – more information here
  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.

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2 comment(s)

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    Michael Fridjhon | 15 October 2020

    Hi Beatrix
    We need people with lofty goals and high ideals to drive change in the industry. However, to effect change in terms of cultivar diversity is a slow business: initially someone plants an apparently obscure cultivar for some personal or sentimental reason. If it works, others follow. Grape growing takes time – but I hope that in your lifetime you will achieve the changes you have invested in

    Beatrix | 14 October 2020

    I’m currently studying Wine Science at the University of Stellenbosch, and I have to say that I will not allow South Africa to languish in terms of cultivar diversity. Once I enter the industry I plan to make as much of a change as I can to move it forward in terms of cultivar variety, while also looking to reduce costs for producers and increase pay for workers. Lofty goals I know, but hey, what would the wine industry be like without optimism?

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