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Michael Vorster, TGMS/The Grape Alliance

Re-discovered Crimson clone breathes new life into Hex portfolio

Production and sales are two sides of the same coin, and for that reason grape producer The Grape Management Solution’s Michael Vorster pooled forces with Grape Alliance’s Leon de Kock on a 50:50 basis two years ago to form the complete beast: high-performing production units and complete control over their market placement.

Grape Alliance puts three million cartons of grapes on the market, a figure which Vorster and De Kock would like to see rise to 4.5 million within six or seven years.

“You have to have your own export company because grapes are an expensive investment. I brought three farms to our partnership, supplemented by three more farms which we manage on behalf of their owners, 278ha, all in De Doorns,” Vorster explains. “We will look for opportunities to go outside the Hex, but we don’t want to spread ourselves too thinly. Towards the end of November we get the first grapes for the season through a partnership with Aussenkehr farmers.”

Part of the reinvention that he believes is needed among grape producers, and which drives TGMS/Grape Alliance, is to expedite the season start. They need to get out of the grape market by week 10 at the latest, steering clear of the Boland autumn rain.

“Our own fruit starts around 18 December in the Hex. My drive with the newer cultivars is to get packing earlier so we don’t need to source grapes from afar. We have pushed the packing of Crimson to week 2 which is exceptionally early in Hex and then we stretch it all the way to week 9.”

This week they started cutting Autumncrisp® at least two weeks ahead of the variety’s usual window in this region.

“By shortening our tail, we avoid India which arrives with later fruit. We don’t want to go into competition with them, it’s not worth the risk of low pricing.”

Fortuitously they avoid the full-on competition with Peru that the earlier grape regions from South Africa experience.

Rediscovered Crimson clone
“As producers we need to offer the same standard throughout the grape season. The luxury of mediocre varieties filling up the gaps between good varieties, as in the old days, doesn’t exist anymore. The time for average varieties has run out. I think there are enough good varieties now; a couple of years ago it wasn’t like that.”

Vorster says he is very excited about new early varieties over the next two to three years (“very very good varieties”) coming out of breeding programmes. He singles out ARRA FIRE CRUNCH™ (ARD 35), an early red with the crunch of Sweet Globe™ and the same breeder’s ARD35 Cherry Crush™, a later red.

New varieties need to be able to handle a bit of water. Vorster notes that the floods in California last year was a litmus test for grapes from which some varieties emerged unscathed.

Not all old varieties need to be eliminated, though. A Crimson clone, introduced in the mid-1990s along with the main Crimson plant material, and which fell by the wayside, showed up in their vineyards.

“We realised we had a clone, CU4, which coloured quickly and well with good berry size. It’s being grafted by Voor-Groenberg Nursery, it’s virus-free and we’ve opened it up to the industry. In the next two to three years there’s going to be very good quality Crimson coming out. It’s royalty-free, with a long shelf life and the market loves it.”

Right: A Crimson clone, long forgotten, has everything they need in the stalwart

They will replace all of their standard Crimson blocks with the CU4 clone. In fact, he remarks, they’re re-investing heavily in Crimson in the Hex River Valley.

“We need to be about 40% Crimson. We farm it well and it’s helped us to be where we are today. Crimson makes us different to other parts of the world. It distinguishes us.”

It means a lot to the Hex River Valley to have good quality product on the market from early December which, he says, they’ve never been able to do.

To really be profitable in SA one needs at least 5,500 to 6,550 cartons on a hectare, for a balance between really good quality with a long shelf life and a good yield.

China not a safe grape market since Covid
“Africa is becoming a new market. It used to be small but it’s grown a lot and could be developed even more in future,” he says. “Over the last two to three years the industry has been packing export quality grapes for Africa and getting good returns on them.”

He continues: “We used to export a lot of grapes to China but Covid changed everything. China has become really volatile and it’s not a safe market, you never know what you’re gonna get. Guys are looking more to Singapore, Vietnam, they’re safer and you’re getting good prices for quality fruit.”

For more information:
Michael Vorster
TGMS/Grape Alliance
Tel: +27 71 852 2244