South africA OVERVIEW
We’ve spent 3 weeks in South Africa, visiting more than 12 vineyards. Here are our global comments on what we experienced!
Hectares of vines producing wine grapes: 94 545 ha (0,08% of SA total surface)
White varieties: 55.2% with Chenin Blanc accounting for 18,6% of the total
Red varieties: 44,8% with Cabernet Sauvignon accounting for 11% of the total
Number of people employed in the wine industry: 300 000
Annual harvest in 2017: 1,4M tons (over 1.1M liters) of which 82% was used for wine (the remaining for brandy, distilling wine, grape juice)
SA is 8th in terms of wine production (2018 figures)
Innovation Vs tradition
In South Africa, we’ve been surprised by the diversity of vineyards: indeed, we visited some vineyards with very traditional methods, and some others with highly mechanical methods.
The majority of vineyards in South Africa choose a manual harvest rather than a mechanical harvest. Hand harvesting is generally considered qualitative while machine harvesting saves time. However, in South Africa, workforce is cheap and vineyards finally have an interest in using hand-picking rather than buying very expensive machinery. In addition, South Africa is characterized by a high unemployment rate, which stands at around 27% in 2018: thus, hand harvesting makes it possible to create a very large number of jobs and thus to better develop the economy. This is why the majority of South African vineyards still use hand-picking. In addition, the manual harvest keeps its "good-natured" image. People from all over the world meet, work outdoors, share meals and wine. It therefore contributes to the perpetuation of a thousand-year-old craft industry and contributes to the richness of social life in rural areas. At the technical level, it makes it possible to sort the grapes very precisely and to rule out any suspicious grapes. This is a very precious gesture, because the quality of the harvest is generally found in the wine.
Concerning the new production techniques, we visited several vineyards that used an original technique of filling the tanks by "gravity". Once the grapes have been harvested, they are placed in vats so that fermentation can take place. Two techniques can be used: the filling of maceration tanks by pumping or a gravity transfer. Recently, some winemakers have questioned the influence of pumping on the quality of wines and have encouraged manufacturers to use transfer systems that are less and less traumatic for the harvest, in particular by avoiding kneading and the phenomena of overpressure or shearing in pipe bends, for example.
We also noticed that some vineyards in South Africa used a complete vinification in barrels. This winemaking technique allows the grapes to come into contact with the wood of the barrels from the beginning of alcoholic fermentation. The term "integral vinification in barrels" expresses the fact that the grapes have been vinified and matured from one end to the other in the same container. This technique consists first of filling the destemmed grapes into oak barrels. Once the barrels have been filled, they are closed with a shutter. To break the “mark cap” and for "punching down", the barrels are rolled or shaken several times a day. After maceration, the barrels are decanted, the wine is pressed and put back into the same barrels, where it will be aged for several months.
We also learnt a new technique that is increasingly used for racking: the racking by flotation. In general, racking allows the solid particles to be removed from the grape juice in order to clarify it before and after fermentation. Flotation racking is a relatively recent technique and relies on the removal of solid particles to the surface by fine gas bubbles. When the must is relaxed, micro-bubbles are formed and rise towards the surface, carrying the solid particles upwards in the tank. One of the advantages of flotation over conventional racking is its speed and efficiency. In addition, with this technique, the tank must not be kept too cold, so there are energy savings as well.
Machines for Flotation
GREAT GRAPE VARIETIES
By exploring vineyards in South Africa, we’ve quickly understood that there is no restriction on the varieties that can be planted in each region. Consequently, not only can you find grape varieties from all around the world in South Africa but you can also find this wide range of varieties within one vineyard: for instance, at Jordan Wine Estate, you’ll find a block of Chardonnay between blocks of Cabernet Franc and Shiraz as well as blocks of Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Merlot and many others! As a result, winemakers are open to exploration and experimentation to reveal their terroir potentials and no variety is out of bounds.
What’s more, winemakers use so-called traditional grape varieties in blends to create original and complex wines. However, even though they’re not restricted in their plantations, they’re strictly controlled in the wine elaboration process by organisations such as SAWIS.
A striking example of this freedom is Pinotage: a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault (known at the time as Hermitage in South Africa, hence Pinotage). In fact, in the 1920s, Professor Abraham Izak Perold decided to combine the robust Cinsault with the delicate but sometimes hard to grow Pinot Noir. The result is this great country’s signature wine with strong flavours of berry and spices. In 2015, Pinotage was the fastest-growing grape variety of South Africa.
This great grapes variety also has an impact on harvest lengths: in some properties, harvest can last up to 3 months because each variety would be harvested on different weeks.
Finally, we’ve been quite surprised to learn that many vineyards sell some of their grapes to other vineyards or wineries and also buy some to complete their own production.
Jordan Wine Estate - Grape varieties
CLIMATE AND ENERGY SUPPLY
The Cape winegrowing areas, situated in the narrow viticultural zone of the southern hemisphere, mainly have a Mediterranean climate and benefits from ideal mountain slopes and valleys form. Long, sun-drenched summers and mild, wet winters contribute to the perfect conditions for viticulture at the Cape.
In 2017 and 2018, South Africa was gripped by a catastrophic water shortage due to multi-year drought and Cape Town came close to running out of water. As climate change is to bring lower chances of wet years and higher chances of dry years, winemakers are becoming even more water-cautious and rationing their consumption. “Save water, drink wine” as they say! We’ve been quite amazed by all the systems put into place to reduce their consumptions such as La Bri vineyard which only uses recycled water for irrigation or Haut Espoir which doesn’t irrigate at all according to its biodynamic production method.
What’s more, electricity shutdowns are quite common in South Africa: the country is facing electricity supply issue and cutting access is a way used by the government to reduce its overall consumption. In the winemaking process, a lot is about controlling temperatures, mostly thanks to machines. How can you be so confident about your fermentation process when you know there might be a 3-hour electricity shutdown during the night? Once again, South African winemakers learned to adapt themselves quickly and to live with these constraints: every vineyard has its own generator. They also strive to reduce their energy consumption to be more energy efficient: for example, at Glenelly, solar panels generate 40% of their needs and they integrated big pipes in the concrete walls of their cellar in which cold water goes through to cool the atmosphere.
women in the wine industry
We’ve noticed that women are quite well integrated in South Africa. A few figures illustrate the evolution of female condition in the south african wine industry : 35 years ago, 4 over 488 winemakers were female whereas today 132 over 962 winemakers are. Even if this number is still low, the fast evolution over the last past years is encouraging. Moreover, Stellenbosch universities specialized in the wine field, where most of south african winemakers studied, have reached the parity.
Furthermore, initiatives to promotes women in the wine industry have been implemented. We’ve had the chance to meet Kathy Jordan who launched the Women in Wine Initiative in South Africa in October 2012, a program supported by PIWOSA.
On the one hand, the program gives access to The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), that provides high quality education and training in wines and spirits. On top of that, candidates regularly visit wineries, where they take part in the activities, experiencing the seasonal activities and get a first-hand experience of what goes on behind the scenes on a wine estate.
On the other hand, there is an international part of the Women in Wine Initiative which aims at creating an opportunity for ladies across the globe (who do not have experience in winemaking) exposing them to the wine industry of the Western Cape and to send them back with an unforgettable experience creating awareness on an international level.
We haven’t had any difficulties to meet female winemakers in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, which is a very positive point. When we’ve interviewed them about the female condition, all of the women told us that nowadays they don’t suffer from being a woman. However, they do recognize that in the past, they struggled and they had no voice in meetings where men would dominate discussions. As Madame de Lencquesaing from Glenelly Wine Estate told us, wine was not a sector in which women were to work in and people around her would try to put spokes in the wheel as she was taking over Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. Fortunately, things have changed and mentalies have evolved! First of all, winemaking requires less physical strength than before thanks to the use of machinery. Hence, this element that used to be a limit, is not a point anymore. Moreover, women in wine industry are not only known for their better rigor and precision in work, but also for the delicacy of their palate. They’re known for tasting better than men! We’ve had the pleasure to discover that women and men are willing to work together for their complementarity.
In South Africa, integrating women in the wine industry is not a burning issue. Nevertheless, the greatest challenge is to integrate and promote black people as winemakers.
Oenotourism is very well developed and organised in South Africa. Indeed, “Wine Tours” constitute one of the most famous touristic activities. Each vineyard offers a complete experience to their visitors: in addition to the expected tasting session of the local wines you come for, you can visit their vines and the cellar. You can also enjoy restaurants and hotel suites with high quality. We've been impressed by the beauty of the farms, including the landscapes with breathtaking views as well as elegant tasting rooms.
Tasting sessions are not very expensive, between 5 to 15 euros for 5 glasses of wine. During the tasting, the visitor benefits from explanations and comments about the wine production. We also visited few vineyards which offer food and wines pairings to enhance the wine flavours. For example, in La Bri, you can taste chocolate, lokum and biltong to match with the wine flavours. These combinations excite the palate and complete each of the wines. Guests are encourage to experiment wine tastings with flavours and textures.