Though the South African wine industry's role in the country's agricultural industry was deceptively small, in reality it yielded significant indirect benefits to the economy as a major employer, exporter and foreign tourist draw-card.

Addressing this year's Cape Wine 2002 trade exhibition yesterday, chief economist for Nedcor banking, Dennis Dykes attributed its importance to the multiple facets in which it contributed to the economy.

"Agriculture made a relatively small contribution of around 3% to South Africa's total economy of R887.1 billion last year and the wine industry contributed less than 5% to total agricultural contribution."

This however, did not tell the real story of the industry's impact on the economy.

"The sector employed over 200,000 people and contributed over 8% to exports. In addition, it played an important part in marketing the country and wine tourism was attracting growing numbers of foreign visitors.

Also addressing the seminar, Wines of South Africa CEO, Su Birch, said there had been a steady growth of Cape wine exports over the past decade, rising from just under 22m litres in 1992 to 173.8m litres last year.

She attributed this success to a focus on fundamentals by the industry, namely the replanting of over a third of the vineyards to mainly red varietals, a focus on viticulture and research, an understanding of "Brand South Africa" a generation of passionate young winemakers.

"While our soft currency has played an important role, it has more to do with some fundamental changes in our industry," said Birch.