South Africa’s Cape Winelands are limping through the third year of a drought whose severity is estimated to occur only once in 311 years. Experts expect vineyard yields in parts of the region to be reduced by as much as 50 percent. But at Paul Cluver Wines, a 2,000-hectare estate in the Elgin Valley, about 75 kilometers southeast of Cape Town, where about half as much rain fell between 2015 and 2017 as between 2012 and 2014, the yield is increasing.
Paul Cluver, the chairman of the company—and a former neurosurgeon—suggests that his family’s success is the result of conservation and good resource management, particularly of the water their estate collects from rainfall. “It’s a question of how you manage what you’ve got,” he says. “You should be more productive with less, and that’s entirely possible.”
It’s possible, yes, but not all that common. The water sources most wine producers in the area rely on for irrigation have been rationed for months, with quotas cut by as much as 80 percent, forcing producers to move up vine replacement schedules, introduce water-saving devices in cellars, and use water for only the highest-income blocks—if there’s water left to use at all.
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Farm after farm in and around Stellenbosch is expecting smaller harvests and lower yields. The supply shortage will likely lead to an overall price increase that many local experts view as overdue, but that silver lining is small solace for the thousands of farmworkers who have already been put out of work by the water crisis.
The South African wine industry is the ninth-largest producer of wine in the world, contributing 4 percent to global production, according VinPro, a nonprofit consultancy that represents wine producers and cellars. Supported by a workforce of more than a quarter-million permanent and seasonal employees, according to Christo Conradie, VinPro’s manager of Wine Cellars, Agricultural Economy, and Wine Tourism, South Africa typically exports 440 million liters of wine and sells approximately 400 million liters locally each year. But a November survey of wineries and viticulturists by South African Wine Industry Information and Systems found that the 2018 crop may end up being the smallest since 2005. Mid-harvest projections by Francois Viljoen, Vin Pro’s viticulture and soils manager, suggest that yields could drop by up to 20 percent in 2018 from an estimated 1.4 million tons of grapes in 2017, but this estimate could change later in March when the harvest is complete. The organization plans to release its official 2018 harvest report in May.
There are bright spots across the increasingly arid region, however, and producers here say there are lessons for winemakers in California and Europe who are also grappling with water shortages.
At Cluver, planning was begun years ago on a comprehensive approach to water conservation. Alien vegetation, such as eucalyptus and pine trees, was removed to help support native biodiversity, increase the runoff, and reduce the fire hazard. The estate cut its water use by mulching, irrigating at night, and using netting to collect condensation.
Cluver Wines is also one of 292 grape-growing farms that monitor their irrigation by means of FruitLook, a satellite-based tracking service provided to area farmers for free by the Western Cape Provincial Department of Agriculture. Each week, farmers can log on to a website and see the amount of evapotranspiration, biomass growth, and seven other data points for each pixel of their land, which represents 20 by 20 meters.
“The main angle of [the service] is to increase what we refer to as water-use efficiency,” said André Roux, a drought and water specialist in the Western Cape Government’s Department of the Premier. “The general feeling is that [we’ve seen] 10 to 20 percent water savings. Some farmers indicate [that they’ve had] up to 30 percent water savings.”
As a result of its multifaceted approach, Cluver is not suffering as much as many other wineries.
“It’s like building a bridge—you have to build it for the 100-year flood,” says Cluver. “If you build it for the 10-year flood, it’s going to wash away. If your water use doesn’t take into account the 100-year drought, then you’re going to have a problem.”
Other farms have pursued aspects of the Cluver approach. In January, Rustenberg Wines in Stellenbosch cleared the valley where one of its main springs has its source of all invasive alien species but preserved the native vegetation, which resulted in an increase in the spring’s flow from 6 liters per minute to 12.2, says Tammy Barlow, Rustenberg’s business manager. In addition, says Barlow, Rustenberg “utilized an Israeli irrigation system on our vineyards consisting of drip irrigation rather than spray irrigation, and this has been shown to be far more water wise than conventional spray methods.”
Boschendal Wine Estate, in Franschhoek, cleared alien species, mulched, and composted, says Inge Kuschke, an agriculture analyst at GreenCape, a nonprofit organization in Cape Town that supports environmentally friendly economic growth. Boschendal also reintroduced beneficial microorganisms back into the soil. “This is becoming a movement in Western Cape agriculture,” Kuschke says. “Farming with nature to increase your soil’s organic matter and microorganisms saves on chemical input costs and also improves soil health and structure, which means better moisture-holding capacity and better water infiltration.” These interventions helped Boschendal save 30 percent of its irrigation water.
Overall, however, this is a sobering moment for a wine industry that’s grown significantly year by year over the last 25 years, when the end of apartheid and economic sanctions led to a burgeoning market for South African products. Roland Peens, the director of the fine-wine retailer Wine Cellar, which has locations in Cape Town and Johannesburg, thinks the disruption could prove helpful over the long run. “The top end of the industry probably needed a bit of a wake-up call,” he says. “If you were going to start a vineyard today, you’d have to think of it a hell of a lot more carefully. How are you going to irrigate it; how are you going to do it sustainably?”
“In the end, it’s about scientific farming and not about mystical farming,” says Cluver. “There’s a lot of mystical bullshit in wine production.”
Ultimately, to borrow an agricultural analogy, the drought might help separate the wheat from the chaff in the local winemaking industry.
Brendan Lowe is a writer who focuses on travel and education. His work has appeared in BuzzFeed, Time, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.