Rapidly expanding early production in the north of the country, coupled with ambitious investment in new seedless varieties, has set Peru on a course to become a major Southern Hemisphere table grape supplier, plugging a gap between the European and South African crops. Produce Business UK talks to key players to discover what UK buyers can expect from the Andean nation in the years to come
“Peru will play a larger role in the October, November and December [supply] window,” states Ignacio Donoso, commercial manager of Chilean fruit exporter Verfrut which in 2011 established a subsidiary in Peru called Agrícola Rapel (Verfrut Perú).
“It will replace some of Chile’s volume, especially early production, and it will also take over Brazil’s window. I firmly believe that, and more importantly the importers and category managers in the UK also believe that.
“Brazil has a strong local demand [for its grapes], while northern Chile (Copiapó mainly) has a shortage of water and labour, plus there has been a loss of agricultural land and water to the Chilean mining industry.”
North leapfrogs Ica
Northern Peru, which is fuelling Peru’s grape growth, is not so limited by water resources, according to Donoso. “It’s in the south of Peru (in Ica) where the shortage of water is affecting or limiting growth,” he explains, adding that any issues in the north would certainly be solved by the major irrigation projects taking place in the area.
According to Peru’s Ministry of Agriculture (Minagri), for the first time last season the volume of table grapes exported from Piura in the north (1,000km north of Lima) exceeded shipments from the traditional grape-growing area of Ica in the south, reaching 73,000 tonnes and 68,000 tonnes respectively.
“Planted area in Piura increased by 22% to 4,280ha last year, while in Ica it went up by just 1% to 8,750ha,” explains Minagri’s Juan Manuel Benites, who points out that productivity in Piura is also the highest in the country, with yields averaging 29.4 tonnes per hectare in 2013 – almost 10 tonnes per hectare more than in the second most productive region.
Although still some way behind Chile’s overall production total, Estuardo Masias of La Calera, a major producer of citrus as well as table grapes and avocados, claims Peru has already surpassed South Africa’s crop. “Last year, Peru produced 35m (8.2kg) cartons, compared with Chile’s 100-110m cartons,” he says.
Piura’s early window
Thanks to the warmer temperatures in Piura, growers can manage the date of the grape harvest in order to offer an early volume, which also benefits from a uniform offer, when supply is low from other sources.
“Peruvian grapes perfectly fill the window between European grapes and the South African crop, with outstanding quality and high reliability due to weather conditions among other factors,” explains Verfrut Perú’s Donoso.
“The USP is quality and timing! Piura has outstanding quality at a time when traditional grape regions do not have good quality grapes to offer.”
Masias says the tropical conditions in Piura are the reason they can produce grapes so early. “It’s 2-3 degrees south of the equator,” he exclaims. “We can prune twice which ‘tricks’ the vine into producing fruit at any time, so we can harvest in any week or month of the year.
“The main window of opportunity is September, October and November, compared with Ica which supplies from end-November to late January.”
Shift to seedless
To satisfy markets such as the UK that only wants white, red and black seedless grapes in the last few years the balance of Peru’s grape production has moved towards seedless. Now various trials and increased plantings are taking place after focusing heavily for a number of years on Red Globe and the Asian market (especially China).
Sun World International, the global breeder, grower and marketer of signature grape and stonefruit varieties, now regards Peru as a “key strategic supplier of seedless grapes”, according to executive vice-president David Marguleas.
“Its ability to meet demand during low supply windows elsewhere, coupled with its geographic position as a main supplier to North America, the Far East, Europe and the UK, and the opportunity to convert heavy plantings of seeded Red Globe grapes, establishes Peru as one of the most important emerging players on the world grape scene,” he tells Produce Business UK.
In recognition of its potential, the California-based company recently doubled its number of grape variety licensees in Peru with the addition of two new growers. “Our two new partners – Agrícola Chapi in the southern regions of Peru and Ecosac in the northern growing areas – complement well our existing licensee-partners Agrícola Don Ricardo in Ica and Camposol in Piura.”
Masias at La Calera points out that the progress being made in Peru comes on the back of “an explosion” in companies worldwide developing new grape varieties around five years ago. “Everyone was making crosses,” he says. “Now there are lots of new varieties being planted. There are 20-25 different varieties on trial in Peru and there are one, two or three that are very good.
Donoso agrees that several new varieties are being produced successfully in Peru, and he predicts the volume of these innovative varieties will grow. “It’s already a reality,” he says. “In our case, for example, we have planted this year 50 hectares of new varieties, including Timco, Allison, Sweet Globe, Vintage Red and Arra 29, among others.”
Key Sun World varieties being planted in Peru include Sugrathirteen (Midnight Beauty brand), Sugrasixteen (Sable Seedless, Sugrafourteen (Red Superior Seedless) and Sugranineteen (Scarlotta Seedless).
“Plans for the coming months are to introduce our newest releases, including Sugrathirtyfour (Adora Seedless brand) and Sugrathirtyfive (Autumncrisp Seedless rand),” reveals Marguleas.
“Available in many other grape regions of the world, these varieties will now be available from Peru’s major growing areas, providing retailers and consumers with close to year-round supplies of these important Sun World-branded grapes.”
La Calera, meanwhile, is working with California’s International Fruit Genetics (IFG) – one of the world’s largest fruit-breeding operations – on a number of promising early seedless varieties at a new Piura production site the grower-exporter bought three years ago. The group is testing red and white seedless traditional-style varieties, as well as one or two novelty varieties.
“We have Sweet Globe which is a white variety; Cotton Candy (that tastes sweet like candy), which is another white; Sweet Celebration (the most famous), which is red; Jack’s Salute, which is a big red; Sweet Enchantment, which is a black grape; and many numbered varieties,” Masias reveals.
What the varieties offer
Donoso claims the new seedless varieties under production in Piura offer better eating qualities, more efficient yields and require less labour.
Indeed, Masias says the benefits that these varieties present for growers are vital for production in Peru’s milder northern region. “There is less cold than in Chile’s early growing region, so we need very fertile plants. The new varieties are more fertile and produce a lot of bunches.
“For the consumer, they offer better colour, big sizes, crunchiness and sweet flavour. The white grapes are really green and not yellow and they don’t have blemishes, which is required from a selling point of view.
With seedless varieties being more difficult to manage, however, Marco Barreto from Agrokasa admits that achieving the right end result for buyers will be more challenging. “Growers will need the experience to get the right quality for markets like the UK,” he states.
Fortunately, Donoso claims Peruvian growers have been smart in this respect. “They’ve hired technicians with the experience – most of them from Chile and, to a lesser extent, from Brazil,” he explains. “So, generally speaking, the knowledge has been acquired and is there already.”