Moves by Brazil’s biggest table grape exporter to overhaul its varietal portfolio in response to changing climatic conditions are starting to bear fruit, with a number of the new cultivars introduced over the past two years showing strong potential in the European market.
Daniel Watanabe of Labrunier told Fruitnet that production of Thompson and Sugraone, two of the country’s staple export varieties, had become economically unfeasible as they are too sensitive to climate change and their production costs are too high.
Instead, the company has opted to pursue a strategy of differentiation, supplying the markets with new varieties with enhanced flavour and appearance and a longer shelf-life. Unlike many other Brazilian producers, Labrunier maintains a strong export focus and typically sells between 30 and 40 per cent of its production to overseas customers. “Europe is still our main market but we have been developing other markets such as the Middle East,” Watanabe said.
Labrunier has 880ha under production in the states of Bahia and Pernambuco, of which some 400ha are planted with new varieties. Watanabe noted that among those showing the greatest promise are Sugar Crispy, Sweet Globe and Cotton Candy in the white seedless category; Sweet Mayabelle, Jack’s Salute and Timco in red seedless; Sweet Sapphire in black seedless and the Sweet Jubilee black seeded grape.
“Besides the varieties mentioned above which are already in commercial production we have a testing block of 4ha where 135 new varieties from breeders like IFG, SNFL, Grapa, Star Grow and Hoekstra are currently being trialled,” he said.
Due to their higher resistance, a number of these varieties produce two crops a year, enabling Labrunier to ship during the first semester (May and June) as well as in the second half of the year.
“As grape production is a seasonal activity it is becoming increasingly difficult to hire qualified people,” Watanabe explained. “The new varieties will extend our harvesting period and allow us to reduce staff turnover and employ more qualified pickers. Trained people means improved handling, better packing quality and higher productivity.”
Brazilian grape exports fell by 33 per cent in 2014 due mainly to the fall in production of white seedless varieties, Brazil’s main export item. Cloudy weather during the first semester reduced luminosity and affected the fertility of plants, resulting in varieties like Sugraone and Thompson having 30-40 per cent fewer bunches than in a normal year. The situation was compounded by the cold winter which altered the maturation process of the fruits. Because it took longer to reach the right sugar level it made the grapes less resistant and no longer suitable for export.
While strengthening domestic demand for premium grapes continues to lure many producers away from the export arena altogether, Labrunier remains as committed as ever to its overseas customers and hopes its revamped varietal portfolio will serve not only to consolidate growth in the European market but also as a springboard into new markets such as the Middle East. In keeping with the demands of the international market, the company has worked hard to become more sustainable and all of its production is now certified by the Rainforest Alliance.