Wine technology solutions to climate change

Wednesday, 4 December, 2019
Eugene Yiga
The Western Cape recently experienced a historic drought that made everyone realise how valuable water is as a resource. It’s no wonder the wine industry is looking to use technology solutions to adapt to the reality of climate change.

“I think within the context of Winetech, a company that coordinates research for the entire South African wine industry, it’s extremely important,” says Gerard Martin, Executive Manager of Winetech.“You’ll find producers that are vulnerable but that don’t have big research and development budgets because it’s not their number one priority. So in the context of what we do within Winetech, it’s about bringing the latest technology and knowledge about climate change to those producers as well.”

Winetech is committed to providing the latest knowledge that can help producers be much more competitive. This means that even a small producer with limited financial resources and other tools can still make quick and responsive decisions that have a positive impact on their business in the face of climate change.

“There are a couple of projects in the wine technology space,” Gerard says. “But one that stands out is the one that’s been done by Dr Tara Southey ( She wanted to understand how the climate in the Western Cape was changing and how that affects vineyards. Now she’s provided us with a tool that can look at the rain and climate in the province. We don’t have the entire area mapped because of restrictions when it comes to weather station networks and data that we want to see. But I think it’s important that she provided us with a tool like this.”

Indeed, Gerard believes that putting tools like this into the hands of top researchers, who then make the climate models available to the wider industry, goes to show “the brilliance of technology”. They also put decision-making back into the hands of the farmers so that they can understand how the climate has changed and how this will impact their choices of what to plant where and when. Over time, this can positively impact the quality and style of the wine.

“We know that water is a restriction in South Africa when it comes to planting,” Gerard says. “So it’s critical going forward for producers to understand what cultivars they can plant in the soil types. We are pressed for income and profitability and don’t have the luxury and the time to waste money. Producers are stressed because climate change is impacting their decision-making. That’s why it’s critical for us to provide them with tools like this.”

Because water is such an important resource, there’s been a lot of research when it comes to drought and the kinds of cultivars that can best withstand harsh environments. There’s also been talk of understanding genetics to better breed plants that are more resistant to disease and pests. Again, this is why it’s so important to make all the research and tools available to producers, allowing them to make quick decisions that matter to their business.

“A couple of years ago, we worked together with various other agricultural sectors to develop a carbon calculator in the Confronting Climate Change project,” Gerard says. “That project was done with other countries because these things are impacting other sectors as well. So, on a yearly basis, we measure carbon footprint. In the beginning, there was little uptake but because of outside pressure – because of consumers and clients wanting to know what the environmental impact is – we now need to make sure that we understand where we are.”

In the process of understating who has the most carbon emissions, the project discovered that electricity use is probably one of the biggest drivers in the wine industry, while packaging and transport have a big impact too. But, by knowing where the problems are, producers are empowered to make informed decisions to find the solutions.

“We’re still early days; I think we’re learning a lot of lessons from our compatriots in European countries,” Gerard says. “I think they’re further than we are with certain aspects but I think there’s an opportunity for us to learn from the work they did and test it under South African conditions. That brings another opportunity for us to experiment. And who knows? Maybe we’ll hit the jackpot and bring something new to the world.”