South African Wines Now Shipping Again After COVID Halt

During the middle of harvest season for South African vintners in March, business activity was ordered to stop by their Government to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Alcohol production, national sales and tasting rooms were prohibited, followed by an export ban on April 16th, grinding the entire industry ­(except sanitizing alcohol) to a halt. 

Vineyard in South Africa

Wines of South Africa

Wines of South Africa, the organization representing all exporting South African wine producers, has been actively lobbying to lift restrictions. Their efforts were successful when Minister Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma announced permission of packaged and bulk wine export activities, including procurement, transport, manufacturing and related services to resume starting May 1st.   

Economic value 

According to Wines of South Africa, wine is their nation’s second largest agricultural export, amounting to $500 million in foreign revenue annually. The wine industry contributes $2.6 billion USD to national GDP and creates 290,000 jobs annually.

This several-week ban has lasting implications: apart from estimated $53 million lost revenue, Wines of South Africa estimates at least 3 months but likely longer for an average order to be fulfilled, as the entire supply chain gradually resumes with continuing restrictions, strict safety protocols, and new rules to be followed.     

Average Vineyard Worker Wages in South Africa – Emerging as a BRICS Country

Sept. 2012 – Several times throughout my wine trip to South Africa I asked winemakers the average wage they paid their vineyard workers. The answer was it depends on the region, as well as whether or not the workers have housing and benefits on the property.

In terms of regional pay differences, it appears that Stellenbosch pays the highest wages at 170 Rand ($21) per day for a basic vineyard worker who does not live on the estate. Wineries in Cape Point and the Constantia region said they paid 120 – 150R per day ($15 – $18). In Swartland I was told they pay 100 to 120R ($12 – $15) per day, but also provide food in the form of a large BBQ.

For wineries who provide worker housing and other benefits, the rates also vary by region. In Stellenbosch, we were informed that the monthly rages for a basic vineyard worker are 3000 R per month, or 143 R ($18) per day with housing. However, I had another person tell me that basic farm workers in the outlying areas often receive only 60 R ($8) per day with housing. More experienced workers receive higher wages. For example, one winery told us that a vineyard supervisor living on the estate makes around 8000 R per month ($1000 per month, or $47 per day assuming 21 work days per month).

Considering the official unemployment rate in South Africa is currently 20%, and the unofficial rate is 30%, it is interesting to learn of these wages. They are higher than China, which is only around $8 to $10 per day in the Xinjiang wine region, but much lower than Napa Valley which pays an average of $12 per hour ($96 per day) for vineyard workers and around $16 per hour ($128 per day) for supervisors.

After seeing the townships that surround Capetown with tiny shacks made of corrugated metal and wood fires built in old oil containers in the front yard for cooking, the houses of the vineyard workers appear plusher. They are usually larger and built of brick, clay or wood with green grass instead of dirt and pavement as seen in the townships.

I asked the spouse of one winery owner what was different in the vineyards since Apartheid had ended. She said not much had changed, and that most of the workers had remained to work the farm. The main difference, she noted, was that they were becoming more independent. In the past she had to drive them to doctor, the store and other places, but now they were doing it themselves.

At the same time, keeping children in school seems to be an issue. Several people told me that many farm children drop out of school around the 7th and 8th grade because it is the custom with their friends. The current culture doesn’t encourage being different or sticking out from the crowd. In fact, at one winery when I asked how many of the workers had finished school and gone to university, the answer was “none – yet.”

It is interesting to see where South Africa is since Apartheid ended in 1994. The whole world is cheering for them as they emerge from a time when inter-racial marriages were forbidden, black leaders such as Nelson Mandela were jailed on Robbins Island, and more than 3000 people were forcibly removed from their homes in District 6 of Capetown because of the color of their skin. They watched their houses bulldozed, and were relocated many miles away. It’s hard to believe that these types of actions – which seem so reminiscent of Hitler – actually occurred between 1960 and 1993. Now the new black government is building houses in District 6 and trying to encourage the original owners to return, but there are many who find it too painful to do so.

The Positive Future of South Africa and Its Wine Industry

Yet despite the poverty witnessed in the townships and the high unemployment rate, there is still much to be hopeful for in South Africa. It is an incredibly beautiful country that takes your breath away at times, with views of vistas that often left the word “Eden” whispering through my mind. There are huge rugged mountains that are reminiscent of the granite cliffs of Yosemite. These meet in multiple verdant green valleys where charming towns and cities are built. Then there is the breath-taking coastline with steep twisting roads above the ocean reminding me of Big Sur, and white sandy beaches similar to Hawaii. Further inland lays the desert where the Big 5 roam: elephant, leopard, rhino, lion, and Cape buffalo. And everywhere there is a plethora of birds, flowers, and beautiful protea—the national flower of South Africa – that is part of the fynbos family, native vegetation that only occurs here in the world.

Even more, the people are very friendly, and there seems to be a positive optimism despite the unemployment and the poverty. Tourists are welcomed warmly and there are many affordable tours available. In addition to city tours, safaris and sea dives with sharks, the best way to tap into the soul of South Africa is to listen to live music. We attended an African music night in one of the townships where the singing was so moving that in one moment, people had tears streaming down their faces, and the next they were dancing and shouting in the aisle.

After my  eight-day visit, I can see why experts believe that South Africa should be added to the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) as a new up and coming economic power. They are now adding an “S” to create BRICS with South Africa as the fifth country. It appears to have a huge potential for economic and cultural success in the future. And the South African wineries, which have been here for more than 300 years, can play a part in that economic engine – especially since wine quality has improved so much over the past several years. Furthermore, with the global recession waning, and global wine supplies dwindling, it seems like a great opportunity for South African wines to develop a unified promotion to expand sales, not only in their own country and continent, but in the USA, China, Japan, and other countries outside of Europe.

NOTE:  This post was originally published on  Wine Travel Stories.  Available at: http://winetravelstories.blogspot.com/2012/11/average-vineyard-worker-wages-in-south.html

The Source & Extinction of “Burnt Rubber” Taste in South African Wines

Last week I had the opportunity to attend CapeWine and visit five major wine growing regions in South Africa.  During the course of my eight day visit, I realized that the vast majority of the more than 300 South African wines I tasted did not include the telltale “burnt rubber” note that I used to rely upon to identify “South Africa” in a blind MW tasting.  Some people also refer to this taste as “eraser or band aid,” but it is a unique note that has plagued South African wines for many years now – especially in reds and primarily in pinotage.  This has caused many people around the world who have tried pinotage to refuse to try it again.  Yet this time I found pinotages that were so fresh and fruity I could have been tasting a lighter bodied spicy syrah.

Therefore, I asked several South African winemakers to explain how they had resolved the problem, but ended up receiving a variety of responses including denial of the issue.  The most common answer revolved around the topic of viruses in the vineyard, and a few winemakers mentioned a strange form of brettanomyces as traditional (not very clean) winemaking.  One winemaker told me they had been fermenting reds at too high of a level, whereas another told me the issue was fermenting reds at too low of a level.  In the end, the most comprehensive and believable answer came from a Stellenbosch winemaker.

“It was a variety of factors,” he explained, “and as an industry, we have worked very hard over the past few years to eliminate these issues.”  He then proceeded to name four factors:

1)      Viruses in the vineyard — both leafroll and fan leaf virus, which delay ripening.  Therefore many grapes were picked at an unripe “green” level in the past.

2)      Reductive winemaking – wines over protected from oxygen and sometimes temperature control issues, which emphasized green notes and created a “burnt” taste

3)      Brett in the Cellar – given the fact that wine has been made in South Africa for over 300 years, there is brettanomyces in many cellars.  Though considered an interesting note of complexity in some wines, brett added to the above conditions only exacerbated the problem.

4)      Choice of Wood – the choice of barrel, usually older foudres for fermentation, can also emphasize the “burnt rubber” note and/or brett characters.

Solution:  Many South African wineries have replaced virused vines with new vines.   Hundreds of hectares have been replanted in the last few years, and more are still scheduled for replanting.  Cleaner and more anaerobic winemaking practices, new barrels, lower fermentation temperatures, and methods to reduce brett, have also assisted in reducing the problem.  More thinning in the vineyard and crop reduction has also resulted in riper fruit.

Interestingly, I have encountered several people who enjoy the “burnt rubber” taste of old South African wines.  They say they appreciate it as it reminds them of “home and/or South Africa.”  I can understand this, because once you become used to a taste and smell, it becomes part of your “world of meaning.”  The sense of smell – one of the least researched and understood senses—can immediately transport you to another time and place.

It is possible that a few South African wineries will continue to produce this style, and that can be part of their “strategy of differentiation.”  However, in my opinion, South Africa is producing a very unique style of wine that is truly a mix of old and new World.  No one else has achieved this.  They should continue in their efforts to reduce the “burnt rubber” notes, and move forward in producing fresh and exciting wines with a ripe fruit nose, but crisp acids and terroir notes that no other country can replicate.  Careful vineyard cultivation, unique terroir, clean winemaking, and innovative winemakers can make this a reality.  In fact, it is already occurring.