Wine is one of the great SA export successes of the last two decades. No respectable winery or retail store anywhere in the world is without a decent selection of South African wines, but the Covid lockdowns of the last 15 months have been devastating for wine producers.
The wine industry was effectively shut down for 19 weeks since lockdowns were first introduced in March 2020. Vinpro, which represents more than 2 600 SA wine producers, estimates that the lockdowns robbed retailers of R3 billion in revenue, and deducted another R3.7 billion from expected revenues from wine tourism.
Some in the industry put the total loss in revenue as high as R8.5 billion.
Initial predictions were that 60 to 80 wineries would go bust by mid-2022. At least 10 have gone out of business so far, paving the way for a spate of takeovers and mergers. Estimated job losses directly related to constricted production in the wine industry is put at 27 000, according to Vinpro.
The South African Liquor Brand Owners Association (Salba) says the lockdowns cost the alcohol industry R36.3 billion in sales revenue, R8.7 billion in lost excise revenue and R29.3 billion in lost tax revenue as a result of the previous three alcohol bans.
President Cyril Ramaphosa this week announced a move to Alert Level 3, with alcohol sales permitted from 10am to 6pm Monday to Thursday.
On-site sale of alcohol, such as at restaurants, is permitted up to 9pm.
The disruptions caused by lockdowns go deeper than this, as export markets are under pressure from overseas competitors, and illicit alcohol producers have captured an estimated 22% of the local market.
According to a recent study by Euromonitor, SA’s illicit alcohol trade has grown from 15% to 22% since 2017.
Carolyn Martin, co-owner and marketing director of Creation Wine Estate, says this situation would repeat should exports be disrupted by new government regulations, as buyers would find more reliable supply chains. Export markets are under pressure as overseas buyers switch to more reliable supply chains in South America, Europe and the US.
Exports account for roughly 50% of all wines produced locally, and the full shut-down of wine production and exports for five weeks in 2020 meant the loss of overseas retail listings, not to mention severe reputational harm.
Says Martin: “Our traditional markets in the UK and Europe, especially the Netherlands, have seen premium side growth in independent and specialist wine outlets. There has been an upswing in Belgium and Denmark. In Russia, there is growth on the high end. China is also showing uplift, getting more top-tier listings due to Australia falling out of the market, but only on the premium side.”
SA lost out in the lower-tier markets as buyers switched to overseas competitors who could supply on time and in the correct volume. “We were unable to do this during the five-week lockdown and once we opened up again, the issues in the Cape Town Port slowed exports down considerably.
“All in all, we could have been out of stock in some stores for up to 11 weeks last year,” says Martin.
SA wines are performing better in the premium export markets, where consistency of quality is a crucial factor. Sales in this market segment are expected to pick up later in the year.
“There has been huge impact on grape growers due to the buying power of producers, and that has a knock-on effect of no income, which means they will diversify, pull out vineyards and start looking at more profitable crops.”
Though the industry is resilient, it will take years to fully recover, says Martin. “It is projected that the industry will in all likelihood be smaller in terms of volume of product and the number of players, but with a focused approach to reposition and continued focus on value growth will be able to improve sustainability. This will require a collective approach by all.”
For the SA wine industry to grow, stronger government support is needed to remove trade barriers and negotiate better access. Trade deals however take time and are based on a basket of goods rather than single items.
Africa presents a great expansion opportunity, but competitors are beating us to the punch: there are more French wines in Nigeria than South African.
Martin says if we could address tariff and non-tariff barriers and improve access to Africa, the resultant increase in exports would create 19 000 jobs over the next five years. This requires a major upgrade at Cape Town Harbour, where capacity is hobbled by a shortage of equipment, and obsolete machinery that has reduced harbour capacity to 25%. This makes it more difficult to service overseas markets, says Martin.
Wine producers are wondering out loud why SA does not have a trade deal with Brics co-member China that would open up this huge market for SA wins.
Chile managed to get a deal done with China within six months.
Exports to the UK and Europe were given a boost by the extension of the 2021 SA-UK trade deal, allowing 71 million litres of duty-free wine to the UK and 115 million litres (duty-free) to Europe – which is 70 million litres more than the previous year.