Tim James: On the paradox of more wine from fewer vines

By , 18 June 2018



For statistics junkies it’s that exciting time of year when Sawis issues its annual booklet of selected statistics. Now available on their website (along with other interesting stuff) is SA Wine Industry 2017 Statistics Nr 42: the compilation of tables and graphs relating to South African wine as at the end of 2017 – everything from production to consumption, from plantings of vines to uprootings, from the types of containers it gets sold in, to how much gets exported. Etc.

Not all is equally fascinating – and there remains the very serious problem that for many of the statistics different wine regions are combined (Constantia and Durbanville within Stellenbosch, etc). But much that’s useful for gaining understanding is there. Sometimes it’s necessary to do a bit of digging around. Not all questions are answered, but there are a lot of figures to enable one to answer some more – and sometimes to ask a few more. I’ve come up this year with a question that I’d much like to be answered. Though I think the answer might not cheer those convinced that the quality of all Cape wine is improving.

I’ve been looking at figures around the extent of the South African wine industry. It’s not news that vineyard hectarage has been in continuous decline since 2006. The current compilation shows figures back to 2010, when there were 101 017 ha; now there are 94 545 – quite a fall (which some people think is understating the true picture, but let’s leave that aside for now).

What about the wine produced off those hectares? One would surely expect the harvest to decline in proportion – with annual variations owing to climatic factors. But, extraordinarily, the size of the harvest has been inexorably increasing as the total vineyard has been shrinking.

I went beyond the current set of stats to supplement its figures, where necessary. In 2006 the total wine-grape crop was 1 301 579 tons. Since then it has increased every single year (with the exception of 2010) and in 2017 was 1 437 261 tons. And that’s despite 2017, at least, being a drought year.

One doesn’t need to be a statistical or a vinicultural genius to see that there’s only one way you get an increased volume of fruit from a decreased area of vineyard: higher yields.

Which raises these questions:

  1. Why is Cape wine getting higher yields per hectare, year on year?
  2. Is the increase experienced uniformly, across all regions?
  3. To what extent is an increase in yield a good thing?

I reckon getting an answer to the second question will help answer the first. The third question is the tricky one. One doesn’t need to fetishise low yields, but it’s seldom that really high yields give good quality wine.

My initial hypothesis would be that it is the bulk-producing regions (basically the hot, heavily irrigated areas) that are producing a great deal more now than before, and are disproportionately responsible for the increase. It would be “improved” viticultural techniques – clones and rootstocks chosen for their productivity, more effective irrigation, better canopy management, cleverer fertilisation and disease control, etc – that are raising crop yield. Such things would also have an effect in areas like Stellenbosch, Cape South Coast, Constantia, etc, but probably it would be greatly less.

High yielding Orange River vines

High yielding Orange River vines.


I turned to another booklet of statistics to help establish the basic facts (South Africa is unusually well served by this kind of material). The VinPro Cost Guide 2017/18 shows the average yield per ton up from 15.34 tons per ha in 2006, to 17.58 in 2016 – gradually rising over the period, but with relative ups and downs. Yields for different areas are given only for 2016. Here the lowest average yields are 7.02 t/ha in Malmesbury (basically the unirrigated Swartland, in a dry year) and 8.71 t/ha in Stellenbosch. The highest are Olifants River (23.83 t/ha), Klein Karoo (25.23 t/ha) and Orange River (a staggering 30.9 t/ha). I must get hold of that breakdown for all the years.

But clearly we must wonder: Is this all a sign of a laudable improvement in viticulture which is also leading to better wine quality? Or is it further evidence of the race to the bottom in the Cape’s bulk-wine-growing industry, where producing more but at lower wine prices is seen as the way to go?

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


3 comment(s)

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    Kwispedoor | 19 June 2018

    Thanks, Tim. I realise it’s not so easily available, but it would be interesting to compare these statistics with other wine producing countries.

    Tim James | 18 June 2018

    Kwisp – that idea occurred to me as well, initially. But in fact I worked out that it is incorrect. There are now a higher proportion of old(er) vines than there were in, say 2000. The financial inability of many farmers to replant their ageing, less productive vines has in fact been a source of some anguish to those that champion bulk wine production. 20 years is often seen as an age by which vineyards should have been replanted. Lots of statistics in the Sawis info booklets to help!

    In 2017, of the total number of vines, in all areas, red and white, 24.1% were older than 20 years. 43.2% were in their productive prime, between 4 and 15 years. Compare that with 2000: Only 21.9% were older than 20 years, and 45.1% were between 4 and 15.

    One could drill down, of course, and look at varieties and regions, but the overall truth is that the Cape vineyard is quite a bit older that it was 17 years ago. This, in fact, rather than helping to account for higher yields now, does precisely the opposite.

    Kwispedoor | 18 June 2018

    Clearly, as Tim has already pointed out a few of them, a multitude of factors are responsible for this. One other likely factor is that it’s mostly old, neglected and virused vines that get uprooted. These all provide low yields, while new vines are pretty vigorous once they get into their stride. It takes a while, though, so perhaps timing is key here: vines planted between, say, 2005 and 2012 are now yielding prolifically, at exactly the same time as many unproductive vines have been uprooted.

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