South African Winemakers’ Wet Winter Gets Worse With Devastating Rain and Flooding

Wine

The winelands of South Africa’s Western Cape region were hit by the largest and most devastating storm in living memory at the end of September, while the country celebrated its Heritage Day weekend. Nearly 16 inches of rain fell in less than 48 hours in some areas, causing catastrophic damage as rivers burst their banks, roads were washed away and bridges were completely destroyed.

One month later, some wineries and vineyards are still inaccessible while others are calculating the damage and watching anxiously to see what effect this might have on the upcoming vintage.

Trees Uprooted, Roads Washed Away

One of the hardest-hit areas was the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, where the main road through the valley partially collapsed and remains closed. Although officials hope to open one lane within the next 6 weeks, an estimated $4.2 million is needed to repair the damage. Meanwhile, locals and visitors are being re-routed via local farms and dirt tracks.

Anthony Hamilton Russell of Hamilton Russell Vineyards described the storm as, “Unbelievable and totally unexpected in that it came from the south and southeast unlike the normal direction.” Strong winds ripped up 100-year-old trees on his farm, smashing them into one of their wine stores, destroying stock. A 12,000-year-old peat wetland, managed as a conservation project, sits next to Hamilton Russell’s farm. “The wetland was destroyed, just washed out to sea,” he laments. “All that’s left is a huge erosion trench and a new course for the river.”

After the rain had stopped, this vineyard at Springfield Estate was almost completely submerged. (Courtesy Springfield Estate)

Richard Kershaw, founder of Kershaw Wines in Elgin, noted that the Heritage Day storms came on the back of the longest and wettest winter in recent times. “The dams were already full even before this storm and they just couldn’t handle any more water,” he said, adding that in Elgin alone, nine dams burst their banks as the Palmiet River rose by almost 20 feet.

Gottfried Mocke of Boekenhoutskloof in Franschhoek also saw how the long, wet winter caused more problems. “This was the third and biggest storm of winter and we’ve had so much rain that the soil was loosened and the trees just fell over,” he said. “In one week alone, I’ve had to cut up over 100 mature trees, just to clear the roads.”

No Way to Get to Vines, Except by Boat

The owners of Springfield Estate in Robertson saw 120 acres of their vineyards completely submerged when the Breede River rose to unprecedented levels. “You could go over the vineyards in a boat!” said Jenna Kruger, marketing manager of her family’s estate. Miraculously, the vines appear to be in good shape.

The damage to roads remains one of the biggest problems for farmers who have struggled to gain access to their vineyards. Peter-Allen Finlayson of Crystallum Wines and Gabriëlskloof Wines based in Bot Rivier, says the farm has been closed to the public since the storm and will remain so for another month until the N2 (one of the major roads in the region) is repaired. “We’re completely cut-off from the N2 and it’s taking one to one-and-a-half hours longer to go round” he said. “It’s a nightmare trying to get wine out for deliveries and also to get onto the farm to do any work.”

 A Springfield vineyard was mostly flooded by the storms.

More than 120 acres of vines were underwater at Springfield alone. While vines can handle flooding, the wet conditions could lead to widespread mildew. (Courtesy Springfield Estate)

Repairing the damage is one concern, but farmers now face potentially reduced yields due to the threat of downy mildew. The huge volumes of rain were followed by several warm days, creating ideal conditions for fungus. That makes getting to the vineyards even more crucial.

In the Hemel-en-Aarde, Bevan Newton Johnson from Newton Johnson Vineyards lost a bridge that linked their two properties, leaving all their farm machinery on the wrong side of the river from the vineyards. “It was touch-and-go if we were going to be able to get the tractors into the vineyards in time to spray.” Many farmers are finding the soils are too waterlogged to support machinery, so spraying has had to be done by hand. “At least we’re creating a lot of extra jobs, which is a positive,” joked Finlayson. But it’s all adding further financial pressure to cash-strapped farmers.

What’s the Economic Impact?

The Western Cape government estimates the total damage to agricultural land will be around $75 million, but the potential loss of vital tourism worries the wine industry most. Visits to the Cape exceeded pre-Covid levels for the first time in July and there are fears that many wine and tourism businesses may not be fully open in time to capitalize on this key source of income. “This summer was expected to be the summer that put Covid firmly behind us, and then this hits,” said Newton Johnson.

Hamilton Russell was more philosophical. “This is agriculture, and we’re used to having curveballs thrown at us. People will still find a way to get through.”


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