When water is scarce

Sunday, 13. May 2018 - 13:00

Vineyards looking over False Bay/Klein Constantia/WOSA

The drought afflicting the Cape wine lands has been in the spotlight, internationally as well as locally. The proximity of South Africa’s major vineyard areas to Cape Town — its most popular tourist destination — partly accounts for its prominence. There was a marked decline in international visitors to the Cape over this period. Those who braved the trip — presumably in search of a sunny Christmas — found themselves inundated with information about the drought from the moment they landed at Cape Town airport. The hotels have removed the plugs from the baths and there are messages everywhere explaining the importance of a “two-minute shower” — together with jingles on the radio and (believe it or not) songbooks of “two-minute-long songs for the shower”. 

Residents have been obliged to keep their water consumption down to fewer than 50 litres per person per day to avoid the imminent arrival to the whole region of “Day Zero”. Originally destined for early April, Day Zero — the date upon which there will be no more water in the city’s reservoirs — has been pushed out somewhat. If residents manage to restrict their consumption, if there’s reasonable winter rainfall and if some of the water augmentation strategies can be implemented in time, it might be pushed out indefinitely.

Caught in the midst of this is the Cape wine industry, massively dependent on water for agricultural and production purposes. It is therefore a rival for that same rare resource, the absence of which is compromising the lifestyle of the citizens of the city and undermining its tourism industry. Given South Africa’s ambivalent attitude to alcohol — a high percentage of the population is teetotal and would happily impose prohibitionist legislation on the whole country — questions are being asked in influential political circles about what access to the region’s water resources should wine producers have in the future.

Water usage
South Africa’s major wine-producing regions are divided into those of the Coastal Region and those which lie inland. The Coastal Region is a generic appellation that covers the areas around the Mother City and it extends along the west coast north and west of the city for around 100km, inland for about 60km, and south and east for roughly the same distance. It is, as the name suggests, largely maritime and is divided from the inland regions by a more or less continual range of mountains. Included in the appellation are some of the country’s best-known areas of origin: Constantia, Stellenbosch, Paarl, Durbanville, Swartland and Elgin. They share a Mediterranean climate, with mainly winter rainfall and a generally slightly more temperate environment than the warmer, drier inland areas.

Traditionally Coastal Region producers could choose between irrigation or dryland viticulture: the law in South Africa allows for irrigation at all times, leaving the choice a matter of economics, as well as differing views of what is best for the grapes. Older vineyards, particularly in the Swartland, Paarl and parts of Stellenbosch, are still untrellised and their producers expect them to make do with what nature provides. More recent plantings are usually accompanied with sophisticated irrigation arrangements: moisture probes in the soil, stress-testing of the vines and drip technology to provide exactly what the viticulturists determine is ideal for optimum fruit quality.

In the arid inland areas irrigation has always been a necessity. Appellations such as Robertson and Bonnievale — less than 100km from Cape Town — are farmed with the same rigour around water management that characterises the modern Coastal Region vineyards. However, much further north, along the banks of the Orange River, there are extensive plantings and most of the fruit from these vines is used for cheap wine or for other alcoholic beverages such as brandy, alcopops and so on. Where revenue depends solely on maximising yields, it’s not uncommon for growers to average six to eight times more tonnage per hectare than Stellenbosch producers. In such cases they have almost infinite access to irrigation water; unlike growers closer to Cape Town, who must either gather winter rainwater in their own dams or subscribe to one of several irrigation schemes.

The drought — in its current extreme form — has lasted three years, but the trend of lower rainfall dates back at least to the turn of the century. While there have been exceptionally wet years, leaving the dams full as the largely rainless summers of the Coastal Region begin, there have also been sufficient lower-than-average rainfall years for the authorities to have been alerted to the risk of the present catastrophe. 

To complicate things further, there has been a significant population migration from rural South Africa to the major cities in the past 25 years. The effect of this has been a vastly increased demand for water in urban areas. Some of the major dams serving the Cape Town metropolis are also reservoirs for irrigation schemes in the Coastal Region. Demand from the ever-increasing population of Cape Town and its surrounding townships and squatter camps has been emptying these dams at the same time as lower winter rainfall has left the farming community with less water in its own reservoirs. Accordingly, their own dependence on common water sources has actually increased — and at the worst possible time.

In the same way as the authorities failed to anticipate the double-whammy effect of ever-reducing rainfall and ever-increasing urban population, so many growers failed to develop strategies that would mitigate the current crisis. To be fair to them, many have been under extreme financial pressure for some time, as domestic inflation has increased their input costs ahead of the net yields from exports at fixed price points. Those in a financial position to increase their water storage would not have found this easy: legislation introduced in the late 1990s restricted the permitted capacity of new dams on farms. 

Unsurprisingly, the prolonged drought has had an impact on quantity and, in some areas, on quality. However, the trio of vintages preceding this year’s harvest have been highly regarded, with 2015 and 2017 among the best in living memory. While it’s unlikely that 2018 will rank alongside the very best, initial indications suggest that there will be some very fine wines. Douglas Green Bellingham’s (DGB) Tim Hutchinson has noted that “climatically it was a ‘soft’ season, with no major heat waves... substantially later than a normal year”. Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards put it this way in his harvest report: “The dark cloud is low quantity. The silver lining is high quality.” 

Gary Jordan of Jordan has argued that strategies aimed at reducing dependence on irrigation and introduced ahead of the drought have shown that managing the canopy and rigorous green harvesting were able to contribute to an excellent 2018 vintage. Select appellations of the Coastal Region, where conditions have been less arduous or where — as in Elgin — there’s enough rainfall even in “dry” years for the dams to remain full, have also done well. In fact, the Elgin farmers won the hearts of the citizens of Cape Town by releasing millions of litres of stored water into reservoirs supplying the Mother City just as Day Zero was looming. This was the first of several moves that brought the city back from the brink and has now won it the reprieve it needed to get to winter.

The toll taken
With the 2018 vintage now largely in the cellars, the picture that is emerging makes it clear that the cumulative effect of several years of drought is taking its toll. In the Coastal Region appellations, the smaller berry size has led to less juice extracted per ton of grapes. With DGB buying grapes from 80 farms across most appellations, the winemaker’s general impressions probably fairly reflect the reality of the country’s fine wine vineyards. Overall DGB’s Chardonnay yield was the worst hit (50 percent down) followed by Pinot Noir (22 percent). It seems therefore that 2018 hasn’t been a catastrophe — except in appellations like the Swartland (where some premium producers estimate a 50% crop loss) and Olifants River, where water allocations were cut by 80 percent in an entirely irrigation-dependent environment. This has led to the complete loss of some vineyards and dramatically reduced yields.

While concerns around irrigation water feature prominently where municipalities are targeting the agricultural sector to secure much needed supplies for households and businesses, few people consider the water usage requirements of wineries. Any producer will tell you that a winery is a food factory and that cellar hygiene is paramount if wine quality and stability is to be guaranteed. It’s common to see constant hosing down over the vintage period, keeping floors, tanks and working surfaces suitably clean. When there’s little or no water available for this, how do wineries manage? More importantly, what can be done to make sure that, in a water-poor environment, the requirements of producers as well as grape growers don’t set the wine industry on a collision course with other competitors for the same limited resource?

Major producers such as Distell, Graham Beck, DGB and Jordan recycle most of the water that passes through the winery. Over and above this, however, it’s become increasingly important to find ways of reducing water usage. Many of the more modern cellars apply technology to minimise water usage — heat exchangers rather than water cooling for the fermentation tanks, and high-speed hoses that paradoxically require less water. 

Discipline is also important. DGB cut water usage by 30.6 percent at its Wellington winery simply through stricter management practices. Graham Beck in Robertson took a study that showed that seven litres of water were required to produce one litre of wine then managed to halve this, mainly by maintaining a constant check on every drop used. Neil Ellis went from 10 litres of water for every litre of wine down to 2.4 litres, partly through staff education, partly by using hoses with narrower diameters. At Distell-owned Durbanville Hills, compressed filtered air, followed by a light soap water rinse, replaces the water that was used in the past to push red skins through the fixed lines at the end of each day. 

Whether the strategies that have evolved over the years and are now being applied with greater urgency will be enough to satisfy the authorities and the communities dealing with the drought remains to be seen. Much depends on the next six months. Early indications suggest a below-average winter rainfall season. If this turns out to be the case, 2019 could be even tougher than 2018 for the farmers, with less groundwater and significantly reduced access to the reservoirs supplying urban and agricultural needs. What seems certain is that unless growers and producers fast-track their learnings from 2018, the attrition will strip out a meaningful percentage of the country’s grape growers. And they are an already threatened species whose numbers have declined by more than 20 percent in the past decade.” 
Michael Fridjhon

This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2018 of Meininger's Wine Business International. It's easy to subscribe - just click here.