They're not yet rationing pinotage in South Africa exactly, but the country's 3,000-plus grape growers certainly can feel some of the pain of a drought that has pushed nearby Cape Town into a state of emergency. The 2018 harvest, now under way, is projected to be significantly smaller because of depleted groundwaters and precariously low dam levels that have choked irrigation supplies.
In the quality regions of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Swartland, "we're looking at a diminished crop of probably 20 per cent – much smaller berries, much smaller bunches," Marc Kent, winemaker and managing shareholder of Boekenhoutskloof, told me over the phone. In the worst-hit areas, he added, the number could be closer to 40 per cent. And that's on top of two already light crops since the rains began tapering off seriously in 2015.
Kent says the situation has exacerbated years of pain for many growers, who have been grappling with sharply rising labour, utility and other costs. "It hasn't been too exciting in terms of the returns [on investment]," he said. "It's already been under pressure for economic reasons. Now, coupled with the drought, it's difficult."
Kent says Boekenhoutskloof's home base in Franschhoek, just 50 kilometres east of Cape Town, has largely been spared misery because nearby mountains have delivered necessary rain. But his winery, known for such brands as Porcupine Ridge and the Wolftrap as well as several superpremium cuvées, draws fruit from a wide swath for its 6.5-million-bottle-a-year production. At his Swartland property, the 10-year average annual rainfall is about 450 millimetres. Last year, it was 224 millimetres.
Unlike most food crops, vines are hardy plants, more akin to small trees than tomatoes or corn. Their roots run deep, drawing water from far below the surface, enabling the plant to withstand temporary stress. But Kent says soil moisture in much of the Cape is "so diminished that one good season is not going to replenish it. You need to have a few good years."
In the meantime, the Cape wine industry, responsible for 4 per cent of world production, can take comfort in certain blessings. Its broad reliance on water from irrigation schemes in rural regions means that, while quotas have been cut by as much as 50 per cent, producers have been spared the prospect of Day Zero, when the taps in Cape Town are scheduled to be turned off.
As dams supplying the municipal system fall below the red line of 13.5-per-cent – a date projected to occur in mid-April – most of the metropolitan area's almost four million residents will be forced to line up at collection points for a per-diem ration of 25 litres a person. That's 7.6-per-cent of the 330 litres used daily by the average Canadian.
Also unlike city residents, winemakers, despite the disappearing clouds, are anticipating a silver lining. This year's harvest, with its smaller, more concentrated and healthier berries, should deliver high quality across the board, making it a season to rival 2015, perhaps the most celebrated Cape vintage of the past 30 years. That could spell opportunity for an industry that in some foreign markets has struggled to establish a premium profile. "Opportunities created by the drought crisis must be fully exploited to benefit the producer in the long term," said Rico Basson, managing director of South African trade group VinPro, in a press release. In other words, winemakers could use the harvest as leverage to reposition brands into higher price points.
But Canadian consumers need not be worried. Boekenhoutskloof's Marc Kent says the market here is unlikely to see price hikes for most products because we tend to consume higher-profit, premium brands already, and producers of such brands are unlikely to pass on further increases for fear of losing out to the global competition. Kent said most of the pricing pressure will be felt at the bottom of the market, where wines tend to be produced with copious irrigation water to pump up the volume.
So, yes, you could say Canadians may eventually see a South African drought – in wines priced below $10.
The Chocolate Block 2015, South Africa
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $39.95
A superpremium red from Boekenhoutskloof, this is a blend of 71-per-cent syrah with cabernet sauvignon, grenache, cinsault and a splash of viognier. Luscious and chunky, yet bright and structured, with well-handled oak notes to support the generous blackberry-jam-like fruit. Available in Ontario at the above price, $40.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $46.96 in Saskatchewan, $42.97 in Manitoba, $40.69 in Newfoundland.
L'Ormarins Brut Classique, South Africa
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23.95
An excellent traditional-method sparkling white, bone-dry and with good weight and density. Doughy and luscious, with apple and lemon-candy flavours as well as a hint of mineral. Creamy and electric, with fine bubbles and chalky grip. Available in Ontario.
Helderberg Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, South Africa
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15
Full-bodied, juicy and bright. Perfectly ripe and well-structured, with flavours of cherry jam, blackcurrant, mint and chocolate. Slightly smoky, spicy and gently chalky. Perfect for steak, it should evolve well for five years. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2016, South Africa
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Full and very ripe, with punchy plum and blackberry joined by pronounced licorice and black-pepper notes. Good varietal character in a New World-meets-Old-World style. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $16.50 in Quebec.
Boschendal The Pavillion Chenin Blanc 2017, South Africa
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $10.95
Major value. Medium-bodied, seductively soft and plump, yet dry, with characters of pear, honeysuckle, quince and orange along with a spicy underpinning. Available in Ontario at the above price, $10.20 in Quebec.
The Wolftrap Viognier Chenin Blanc Grenache Blanc 2017, South Africa
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14
Medium-full and pleasantly oily (that's the viognier talking, no doubt), with melon, orange and floral characters assisted by subtle vanilla from deftly applied oak. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $15.33 in Saskatchewan, $14.01 in Manitoba, $16.98 in Newfoundland.
Thelema Mountain Red 2014, South Africa
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.95
Medium-full, polished and fresh. A six-grape blend led by cabernet sauvignon and merlot with a juicy cherry core and hints of licorice, chocolate, vanilla and thyme. Well-proportioned and attractively priced. Available in Ontario at the above price, $15.72 in Manitoba, $15.99 in Nova Scotia.
Fairview Goats do Roam Red Blend 2016, South Africa
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13
The name is a play on "Côtes du Rhône" because this is a mix mainly of southern Rhône varieties, led by shiraz (or syrah), cinsault and grenache. Playful in branding, yes, but this is a serious bargain. Medium-bodied and uncommonly supple, with tangy plum assisted by spices and herbs. Very versatile at the table. Searching for an affordable house wine? Available in Ontario at the above price, $15.49 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $15.99 in Saskatchewan, $13.99 in Manitoba, $14.39 in Prince Edward Island, $14.99 in Nova Scotia.
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