VINEX Region Report: Stellenbosch, South Africa
Stellenbosch is arguably South Africa’s most well known wine producing regions, boasting a long winemaking tradition stretching back to the end of the 17th century.
The mountainous terrain, good rainfall, well-drained soils and diversity of terroirs makes this a much sought after wine producing area, and is home to over 200 wine estates and producers, including some of the most illustrious names in the Western Cape.
The climate too, is generally benevolent to grape growers, benefiting from the so-called Cape Doctor, a legendary southeasterly wind which blows across the southwestern cape during the spring and summer months. Living up to its name, it hinders the spread of disease in the vineyards, and has a moderating effect on temperatures, bringing it down by several degrees.
Over the last two years Stellenbosch, and the Western Cape, which comprises a blend of historic estates and contemporary wineries, and is renowned for the quality of its red blends, has been hit by an ongoing drought.
The situation reached such a crisis point that residents were restricted to daily water use as dams ran dangerously low. It got so bad that Cape Town even announced there could be a ‘day zero’ when the water simply ran out.
Thankfully the rains did eventually come and the crisis has been averted. For now. The late winter and early spring rains came at just the right time and dams have started to recover.
But at one point the Western Cape dam level fell below 35% before recovering now to 74% full. Ongoing rainfall continues to boost dam levels further, with the Waterskloof dam now standing at 56% full, much improved on the situation in April when the dam was only around 10% full.
“Luckily the drought is a thing of the past, but the industry has shifted its attitude towards water,” says Mike Ratcliffe, chair of Stellenbosch Wine Routes. “There is nothing like a crisis to place focus on this scarce resource.”
Despite the drought seemingly behind them, for the time being at least, many producers are still paying the price of the arid weather conditions which prevailed until relatively recently.
|Major Dams||8/10/2018||Previous Week||% 2017 (Change)|
|Total Stored MI||648,030||681,360||339,641|
SOURCE: City of Cape Town and the National Department of Water and Sanitation
Most challenging harvest on record
Paul Meihuien, Bibendum’s buyer for South Africa said that 2018 had been the most challenging harvest he has ever known in the country, with the overall crop down by around 15% on the previous year.
One Stellenbosch producer who has seen yields affected by the drought is the Spier Wine Farm, where the 2018 harvest is down 15% compared to the forecasted volumes, with Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon worst affected. The hardest hit was Spier’s Nooitgedacht farm in Paarl, which is 35% down on expectations.
“Considering the dry and warm conditions we’ve been experiencing, we’re very happy with the quality of the white wines,” said Frans Smit, Spier’s cellarmaster. “We were very choosy about what we picked, and careful processing in the cellar ensured we were able to keep our standards high.
“Although down in volume, I am expecting the quality to be fairly good this year, especially on the white wines that could be harvested early. Reds are shaping up well despite the challenges and smaller yields.”
While most producers reported smaller harvests, for many this was compensated in part by the quality which was second to none. “The ongoing drought brought about another exceptional vintage at Journey’s End in 2018,” said director Rollo Gabb who reported their earliest harvest ever. “The berries were small and had very concentrated flavours (with very little water present to dilute flavours) and the bunches were also far lighter than previous vintages.
“The ripening period was met with temperate conditions, mild temperatures, and light breezes – differing drastically from 2017, which had a number of heat waves and very strong winds. These conditions allowed for longer hang time and thus harvest was later than usual. This was also one of the longest harvest periods Journey’s End has experienced.
Number of plantings in Stellenbosch
The Stellenbosch region has the most vineyard plantings in the entire country, accounting for over 16% of the country’s total, followed by Paarl (16.0%), Robertson (13.7%), Swartland (13.6%), Breedekloof (13.7%), Olifants River (10.4%), Worcester (6.9%), Northern Cape (4.4%), Cape South Coast (2.8%) and Klein Karoo (2.5%).
Exports from Stellenbosch hit a record high of 10,824,428 litres in 2017, slightly up on 2017’s figure of 10,772,353.
Of this 2017 total, the vast majority of wine exported was packaged, accounting for 10,377,378 litres, compared to only 447,050 litres for bulk.
Stellenbosch’s largest overseas market remains the UK, which accounted for over a quarter of total exports by volume last year, with 2,313,243 litres being shipped to the UK. Of this, only 25,440 litres was in bulk format, while the remaining 2,286,803 litres was packaged wine.
Stellenbosch’s second largest foreign market is the Netherlands, which imported a total of 2,268,101 litres of wine, all of which was packaged.
The third biggest overseas market for Stellenbosch is Germany, which shipped 1,257,099 litres last year, of which only 51,500 litres was in a bulk format.
Denmark, which is ranked 12th in terms of Stellenbosch total wine shipments, was the country importing the largest volume of its bulk wine at 143,360 litres in 2017.
The US, which is the seventh largest overseas importer of Stellenbosch wines overall, was the second largest buyer of Stellenbosch bulk wines last year, shipping over 109,000 litres from a total of 786,500 litres.
Wines certified as WO from Stellenbosch in litres
Mike Ratcliffe said that it is still a little early to comment on the current growing season, but added that from a technical perspective, he was “very pleased’’ with the number of chill units received into the vineyards.
“I would think that most Stellenbosch winegrowers would be pleased by the long, gentle and consistent rains during the dormant months of Winter - we could not ask for better conditions.”
Sustainability dependent on price rises
There has been much debate in recent months about the importance of South African wine producers increasing their prices to be viable and ensure long term sustainability, with many growers pulling out of the grape growing business in favour of more profitable crops or selling up altogether.
However, Ratcliffe points out that Stellenbosch has always been a region that operates at the premium end of the market and that the time is right for price rises to kick in.
“As the reputation of the region grows, we can see excitement and growing demand which is contributing to higher prices,” he claims. “We are working hard with Stellenbosch winegrowers to provide greater value through higher quality which ultimately pulls prices up. I believe strongly that Stellenbosch wines provide outstanding bang for their buck and the opportunity to increase prices is real - and imminent.
"Stellenbosch is well positioned to capitalise on the world’s appetite for well developed high quality South African wines.”
Opportunities in tourism
Stellenbosch is by far the best-known wine region in South Africa, but there is definitely room to expand on this, according to Ratcliffe.
“The Stellenbosch tourism and wine tourism offering is second to none and is a key driver in building the regional brand,” he says. “Brand recognition continues to grow and we see this accelerating as we significantly expand our regional Stellenbosch cooperation in the coming year - and extend a hand to our new offshoot organisation celebrating the Stellenbosch Gourmet offering.”
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