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Covid-19 Lockdown and Crisis in South Africa's Wine Industry
By Jim Clarke
Jul 28, 2020
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Early in my wine studies, I asked master sommelier Greg Harrington what books I should get to complement the classes and tastings of his that I was engaging in.  He made several useful suggestions – The World Atlas of Wine, for one – but cautioned that by their very nature wine books were already outdated by the time they passed from the writer’s pen to the printer.  There is some hyperbole to that, but last week I published my own book, The Wines of South Africa, and Greg’s warning has never seemed truer.

Don’t get me wrong:  As per my publisher’s suggestion, the focus is very much on information that will last – the soils of the Swartland are not about to change.  My worries about being up-to-date stem not from the usual change and growth – new producers appearing, others revamping their portfolio, new appellations being introduced, and the like.  Instead, even as I was turning in my manuscript, the South African government handicapped the industry with a second round of Covid-19 lockdown measures that leave many observers wondering what will be left in the aftermath.

The initial lockdown, enacted on March 23rd, was a total shutdown; wine, and all alcohol, was deemed non-essential, and for a brief time it was even in doubt whether those with grapes still on the vines would be able to finish harvesting them.  Domestic sales and exports were also banned. 

The wine industry pushed back.  Permission was granted to finish harvest, and five weeks later, to renew exports, though the ports are not operating at full capacity and shipments are backed up.  Local sales were finally allowed, but then, on July 12th, a ban on local sales went back into place.

The government of South Africa has suggested various reasons for forbidding the sale of alcohol.  Its latest argument is that alcohol-related injuries and health issues are taking up medical resources needed to fight the virus.  The industry replies no supporting data has been provided to back up that contention.  Black market and homemade brews are still reaching consumers, resulting in less regulation and control of alcohol and alcohol sales, as well as the loss of the tax revenue that could be supporting the government’s efforts to provide medical care and fight the virus.

The industry continues to push back, of course.  Aside from lobbying, last week saw a series of protests bringing together wineries and the rest of the hospitality industry, which is afflicted by extension.  In normal times, half of South Africa’s wine production is sold domestically, and tourism—now entirely absent—is a major income source for many small wineries.  The hashtag #JobsSaveLives has been embraced to highlight the number of workers and families affected.  South African wine drinkers who can do so are supporting the effort, and supporting the wineries; those who can are placing—and paying for—orders for wine now, with the understanding that it will only be shipped once the ban is lifted.

South African wine is rich, diverse, and high in quality, with all three of those characteristics resulting from more than 360 years of historical experience.  Many of the grape varieties may be familiar (a majority of plantings are well-known varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay), but over the past two decades, South Africa has demonstrated it can not only produce renditions of these grapes that are high in quality, but also distinctive in regional style.  

There are no international substitutes for Stellenbosch Cabernet, Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir, Elgin Chardonnay, and the like.  Pinotage, of course, is uniquely South African, and South African Chenin Blanc is a category in its own right, as individual as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Argentine Malbec, or any other signature combination of region and grape.  The health and existence of the wineries that have made these wines special is at risk.  One estimate suggests up to one in every five wineries may go out of business, and hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake.  The situation is dire.

For those wineries that do export, foreign markets are now the only place where sales and income can be created.  With all this in mind, I hope you will take this time to #DrinkSouthAfrican.  Your support will help keep the industry afloat.  When lockdowns fade and travel returns, you’ll be able to visit the Western Cape and see not only beautiful vineyards and astounding landscapes, but many appreciative faces.

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Editor’s Note:  Our WRO columnist Jim Clarke is a very active and widely published wine writer (and is currently short-listed in two categories for the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards), but we hasten to indicate by way of full disclosure that he has also worked since 2013 as USA Marketing Manager for Wines of South Africa.  Jim has never written on South Africa for us, for obvious reasons, but in the midst of the current industry crisis we needed his expertise for the reporting in this column.  ~MF  

Read more columns by Jim Clarke:   Jim Clarke 
Connect with Jim on Twitter:   @JimWineBeer