Facts and figures are fun

We’re well into the season of competition results, which is no doubt interesting for some. I learn nothing about wine from those, but happily for me it’s also the start of the statistics season.

Round about this time of year, that excellent body known everwhere as SAWIS (in full: South African Wine Information and Statistics) releases, firstly, numerous facts and figures about vineyards as at the end of the previous year. In fact, earlier this week appeared the report entitled “Status of Wine-grape Vines as on 31 December 2011”, and it’s as fascinating as ever. (It is downloadable from the SAWIS website: here.)

In June sometime, some of these statistics will make their way into the annual SAWIS booklet, which covers many more aspects of the wine industry as well.

Some of the vineyard information is given as charts, some in tables. Trouble is, it doesn’t always tell you how to interpret them! The first chart, for example, shows the total surface area planted to wine grape vineyards in the past 11 years (2001-2011). In 2001 vineyards occupied 94 42 hectares. The figure rose a little each year to reach a peak in 2006: 102 146 ha. But then the gradual decline starts … now we’re back to 100 568. So, in the last five years, it seems, 1 578 ha of vines have been uprooted and not replaced.

Presumably this is a reflection of the difficult economic climate. As is the increase of the average age of the South African vineyard. Old vines are a wonderful thing if the quality is great and you’re Eben Sadie making wines from them. But their production levels fall (often advancing virus taking its toll, sometimes just tiredness) and SAWIS reckons that it’s a matter of “great concern … that since 2005 the industry has not been able to replace an annual 5%, about 5000 ha, of existing vineyards”.

Figure 7 in the booklet, then, shows the statistics for plantings and uprootings over the last five years, showing graphically the decline in new plantings. A supplement, downloadable separately, gives great details for the last year about the plantings and uprootings, breaking it down into districts and grape varieties. A rather mind-boggling set of tables, suitable only for those even geekier than I am.

Other figures include breakdowns of the most planted red and white varieties over the past ten years – revealing that shiraz and sauvignon blanc are the only varieties whose surface area has increased every single year over that period. And there’s a long table listing all the varieties in order of the total hectares planted. The top ten are:

  • Chenin Blanc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Colombar
  • Shiraz
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Chardonnay
  • Pinotage
  • Merlot
  • Ruby Cabernet
  • Muscat d’Alexandrie (Hanepoot)

Of these, only chenin, pinotage and hanepoot have decreased their footprints. Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz have shown the biggest increases.

Unfortunately, it must be said that SAWIS are rather short-changing us these days. I’ve just been looking longingly at the much larger, more wide-ranging sets of facts and figures for the equivalent booklet three years ago. SAWIS have a vast database to draw on – it would be wonderful if they could make some more information easily available.

Another problem is the perennial one that when the statistics compilers look at movements in broader areas (let’s say you wanted to see which area is uprooting most, which is planting most) they use what are called the old KWV districts – which do not by any means correspond closely to Wine of Origin areas. So that Constantia is reckoned to be part of Stellenbosch, Agulhas is lumped together with Robertson and a whole lot else, the pinot noir of the Hemel en Aarde is included under Worcester! Precisely the opposite of useful for just about any researcher I can begin to imagine. There are claimed to be reasons for this, but I don’t understand them. Who might conceivably want to know what is happening to sauvignon blanc in a district that covers both Elgin and Worcester?

It’s more than irritating and bizarre. And its not as though at least some of the statistics are not available for all the WO areas. If you ask the ever-obliging and wonderfully helpful team at SAWIS, they will even send you a spreadsheet showing the hectarages of vineyards of every single variety, broken down according to the smallest official appellation that’s available. But that means that if you want to know the plantings of hanepoot in the Breede River Valley Region you have to add up the figures yourself for the 18 wards or districts. Wow.

Actually I did a bit of arithmetic along those lines. Because it can show some wonderful things. Take sauvignon blanc. I bet that maybe most interested winedrinkers, when asked what areas are most associated with sauvignon, would suggest Elgin, Constantia and Elim above all. Fascinatingly (to me), those three areas have a total sauvignon coverage of just under 600 hectares. But the Breede River Valley – that warm inland, irrigated, largely mass production region – has nearly 2900 hectares of the stuff!

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