South Africa’s wine industry has less room to hide from climate change than other regions

Wednesday, 28 July, 2021
Nick Hedley
In addition to drought risks, South Africa’s wine producers are grappling with warmer temperatures and more severe heatwaves.

After contending with a severe drought between 2015 and 2017, South Africa’s wine industry faces higher average temperatures, more severe heatwaves and a shifting rainy season. But while producers in other parts of the world are shielding themselves from climate change by moving into cooler territories, this is less of an option for South Africa’s winemakers, experts say.

As a result, climate change adaptation will be key to the sector’s long-term prosperity, and producers are likely to gravitate towards warmer-climate wine varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon, rather than cooler-climate varieties, such as chardonnay.

The commentary on South Africa’s wine market (below) comes after researchers quantified the role that human-caused climate change played in an intense late frost episode that damaged agricultural lands in France in early April. Vineyards in particular were severely affected, with early assessments estimating losses of almost 2 billion euros.

The French study showed that while global warming made the cold wave less likely, it is also shifting the growing season earlier into the year. This is problematic because during the bud-burst stage, vineyards are especially susceptible to frosts. So while temperatures have generally increased in recent decades, crops are maturing earlier in the year, leaving them more exposed and vulnerable to low temperatures.

The researchers, including scientists from the University of Oxford, concluded that overall, human-caused climate change made the damaging frost event in France about 60% more likely.


Insights from South African researchers

Dr Peter Johnston, climate scientist and researcher, University of Cape Town, says:

"The increasing frequency of heatwaves places additional stress on crops and affects the amount of sugar in grapes. Aside from increased temperatures – and the increased risk of droughts and thus water storage, with water issues affecting some of the Western Cape's wine-growing regions more than others – rainfall seems to be shifting later into the growing season, which can promote pests and crop diseases. 

Wine producers in the northern hemisphere are pushing further north into cooler territories, and a similar trend is underway in the southern hemisphere, with producers pushing south. However, this is less of an option in South Africa due to geographical constraints and inadequate soil types. In this context, local wine producers are increasingly leveraging shade netting and technologies to monitor and preserve soil moisture, among other interventions.

As climate change advances, it's likely that we will produce more warmer-climate wines, such as cabernet sauvignon, than cooler-climate Bordeaux-type wines. Considering that crop varieties can't be changed frequently, this transition will need to be carefully managed.

It's also worth considering that as the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, this could actually have a positive effect on yields due to the fertilisation effect. However, it could lead to a difference in the balance of starches and sugars in grapes. This could mean better yields but reduced quality of wine. This could have serious implications for vines, as wine is so heavily reliant on the grape quality in determining its price and profitability.”


Stephanie Midgley, Scientist for Climate Change and Risk Assessment at the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, says:

“Vineyards and wine are quite complex and people generally use the local terroir to make decisions, so you’ll start to see a shift in what farmers are planting and what they can make in certain areas. Cooler areas, where Sauvignon are grown at the moment, will become suited to a different cultivar, but the areas that are really hot now, like where port is produced, may become unsuited for anything. In areas that are dependent on water, this is a big concern, and fire is an underestimated risk for vineyards that is not talked about enough.”

Sibusisiwe Maseko, Senior Agricultural Analyst at GreenCape, said:

“The prolonged and severe drought that brought the Western Cape to the brink of Day Zero fundamentally shifted the agricultural sector's attitude to climate change. Just within the wine industry, the drought had a devastating effect, from grape yields and quality to decreased profitability and employment on wine farms. In response, farmers reached out to the Western Cape Department of Agriculture and organisations such as GreenCape to adopt more climate-resilient practices such as intercropping, mulching and the adoption of soil moisture monitoring technologies. Because of these interventions, water use in the sector has already fallen dramatically and remains below pre-drought levels. However, climate change remains a real risk to the agricultural sector, with extreme weather events expected to increase in volume and severity. We will continue to support the government in driving climate change awareness and in ensuring that all projects have an element of climate change mitigation and adaptation."

Professor Nick Vink, Stellenbosch University

“A part of the sector’s emphasis will be on managing the levels of alcohol in the wine. Two main focus points are in the vineyard (techniques that mitigate increasing temperatures such as canopy management, cover crops for moisture retention, trellising systems, planting aspect – alignment to sunlight – and so on) and the changes in the harvesting season. In Stellenbosch, at least, temperatures have already risen by almost 2 degrees Celsius, and the harvest is easily three weeks earlier than a few decades ago.”


Insights on Argentinian producers moving to higher altitudes

Dr. S. Enrique Puliafito, CONICET researcher, professor at Universidad Tecnológica Nacional, Facultad Regional Mendoza

"The climate change forecast for the Mendoza area would bring an increase in minimum night-time temperatures, an increase in the frequency of heat waves, less snowfall in winter and more frequent heavy summer rains. This significantly affects the phenological and physiological processes of the vine; warm nights reduce the amount of polyphenols in the grapes (responsible for colour and aromas). A reduction in winter snowfall presupposes water stress for the Mendoza oases. Higher summer temperatures also impose significant thermal stress, affecting plant photosynthesis, decreasing the efficiency of water use and affecting the productivity of some varieties." 

"The possible increased summer rainfall may lead to an increase in fungal and other diseases. This is being corrected with targeted measures such as specific pruning and defoliation to shade the vineyard. and specific shading of the vineyard, bringing forward the harvest dates, among other measures.” 

“As a result, the best vineyards are now being moved to higher altitudes, such as in the Tupungato area, where the thermal amplitude is greater, with colder and drier nights. Should the shift of higher temperatures towards the south continue, other valleys in Neuquén and Río Negro appear as possible areas for expansion of the winegrowing frontier."

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Photo: Nuovo Magazine
Photo: Nuovo Magazine

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