Or would it be truer to say that there are shiny bits among the enveloping gloom? As 2015 gets underway, and the secateurs are being sharpened for vintage 2015 (and, more pertinently, the blades on the mechanical harvesters*) there’s plenty to cheer about for Cape wine, but also some worrying stuff.
It’s not often at this time of predictions and wishes for the year ahead that a thought gets spared for those at the bottom of the wine industry food chain, but someone who gets around quite a bit recently told me that things were not looking good for the average farmworker on the average grape-farm. Apart from the increasing levels of mechanisation that our socio-economic system makes increasingly appealing to those on the ownership side of things, farmworker living standards are threatened, and already affected, by the hard time that many grape-farmers are also suffering. I’m not sure of the extent to which hard times obliged the farmers to give up the holiday house at Elandsbaai this festive season, but they’re now having to deal with rather gloomy prospects for grape-sales. Stock levels are extremely high, and I’ve heard that the biggest buyer in the country has been cancelling many contracts for grapes and bulk wine.
In the face of this, presumably the vineyard area will continue to contract, as it has virtually every year since 2006. Unfortunately, it’s not always the lowest-quality vineyards that get ripped out or abandoned as not being worth the cost of farming them – often enough, it’s the interesting, older, low-yielding vines that must go. And if there’s an alternative crop possible – whether it’s rooibos tea in Citrusdal Mountain or apples in Elgin – it’s almost inevitably going to be a more profitable and less risky business than grape-growing and winemaking (and if you’re a brandy-and-coke drinker, like most wine-farmers, what’s going to tug at your heartstrings?). The country is likely to lose some great vineyards in the years to come – unless, perhaps, they’re all identified as such, and winemakers can hand over enough cash to make them viable (which will mean us being willing to pay more for our cherished bottles).
But it’s not the top end of the industry that will suffer. That’s really where the brightness is, as the reputation of fine Cape wine continues to rise among the critics (and the still minuscule body of international winelovers that have discovered the quality and value of the country’s best). Jancis Robinson, certainly amongst the most important wine-critics in the world, should be here in a few weeks for a somewhat overdue visit (not too long a one, but not very brief), and there’s every reason to guess that her growing impressedness with South African wine, especially the whites, is going to be augmented.
Much later in the year Cape Wine 2015 will be, I’m willing to bet, a triumph, as, along with old friends, any number of foreigners, lured here by rumours and reports and the odd bottle or two, will discover just how fine the top end of Cape wine is – both the radical stuff and the conservative.
That’s all good, and I will revel in it. Whether anything will trickle down to the displaced farmworker trudging disconsolate and hungry along some dusty back road, is another matter entirely. Let’s hope so.
Meanwhile, I daresay that the harvest is already beginning in some parts, and by the end of the month will be well underway in the hotter parts – especially as it does seem to be early this year. I haven’t yet heard complaints about likely quality, but the lack of year-end rain is of great concern in, especially, the dryland areas like the Swartland. Eben Sadie told me that if there’s no decent rain in the next ten days or so, he’s going to have to drop a lot of his grapes.
NOTE: As Herman C Bosman kindly pointed out on Twitter (gosh – it makes the Groot Marico seem close!) mechanical harvesters don’t have blades. Which I do actually know, but my rhetoric ran away with me. This is why everyone ideally should have a more alert editor than oneself.