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South Africa lifts alcohol sales ban

South Africa’s government has relaxed a ban on alcohol sales that angered the country's wine sector, but wineries are still under pressure as the 2021 harvest begins, says a leading industry body.

South Africa’s government said on Monday (1 February) it would partially lift its latest alcohol sales ban, which it had argued was necessary to help combat the Covid-19 health crisis.

Wine industry body Vinpro welcomed the move but also said the ban has taken a heavy toll on South Africa’s wine sector.

More than 8bn rand (£390m) in direct sales have been lost due to a series of nationwide alcohol sales bans that have covered 20 weeks in total since March 2020, said Vinpro.

‘Opening up wine sales for home consumption from Monday to Thursday, as well as wine cellars for consumption in restaurants and tasting rooms throughout the week and on weekends, will help restore some of the local wine sales revenue to more sustainable levels,’ said Vinpro’s MD, Rico Basson.

But he warned of a long road to recovery and said it was ‘even too late for some businesses’.

He reiterated the industry’s commitment to preventative measures to help reduce Covid-19 cases.

Yet he said Vinpro would press ahead with court action seeking to enable the Western Cape to ‘deviate’ on alcohol sales policy in future.

Winemakers have expressed anger at the nationwide sales ban, even if they themselves were still able to generate income from exports.

Alex Dale, founder and MD of Radford Dale winery in Somerset West, told Decanter last week, ‘The greatest impact on us right now is the immense sadness of seeing friends and customers in the hospitality industry being forced out of business and into penury.’

Fans of South African wine in other countries have provided a degree of relief. Exports of South African wine to the UK rose by 23% in value in 2020, said Wines of South Africa recently.

Dale added, ‘Thankfully, more than two decades of building a 40-nation-strong export network is paying dividends for us today and keeping us in the game. We have not made a single employee redundant and we are determined to keep our team and their families safe.’

Wine surplus ahead of 2021 harvest

Speaking before the ban was lifted, Vinpro’s Basson said excess stocks mean wineries now face ‘tough decisions’ as  South Africa’s 2021 wine harvest gets underway.

There is already more than 640m litres of stock – around 853m bottles-worth – according to Vinpro.

‘This poses a material risk of insufficient processing and storage capacity for the new harvest,’ said Basson. Some larger producers have been able to rent extra storage space, he added.

Vinpro said winemakers were generally optimistic about quality in the 2021 vintage, even though cooler weather during the growing season meant picking began around two weeks later than normal.

‘We’ve seen less temperature spikes than usual, which limits sunburn damage and helps retain flavour,’ said Conrad Schutte, manager of Vinpro’s consultation service division.

The total harvest is expected to be around 1.37m tonnes of grapes, according to the latest estimated from Vinpro and South African Wine Industry Information & Systems (Sawis). If correct, that would be up on last year’s estimated 1.35m but below the 15-year average.

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