A toast to South Africa's Old vines
South Africa’s old vines have become very much a part of our wine narrative. The re-discovery and mapping of these older vineyards by self-taught viticulturist Rosa Kruger and later the non-profit organisation The Old Vines Project piqued the interest of local and international commentators and opened the door for winemakers to produce complex wines of unique character, further bolstering the reputation of South African wine and its perceived value. Bigger price tags for South African wine ensure greater sustainability for grape growers who continue to wrestle with profitability and pressures from climate change.
What is an old vine?
In South Africa, a vineyard that is 35 years or older can be classified under old vines. According to Rosa Kruger, it is at this age of 35-40 years that a vineyard really becomes settled and balanced; varietal or clonal characteristics give way to an expression of terroir. There are 39 different varieties on the old vines list but at least half of the 3917 hectares of old vines are Chenin Blanc and mostly un-irrigated bushvine.
For a country that was very much behind the curve at the end of the century, we have had some very progressive movements since our new democracy, one being the Old Vines Heritage Vineyard seal. South Africa is the first country in the world to offer a seal which authenticates a wine was made from a vineyard that is 35 years or older.
Why all the fuss about older vines?
There are at least 10 vineyards in South Africa recorded as over 100 years old. These vineyards are more than just the great wines they could potentially become but also a reflection of the Cape’s heritage. They hold the story of the people who tended these vineyards and the evolution of the land itself.
On a recent podcast, I heard it described as such “These vineyards have stood in one place, adapting to that one site, understanding its terroir, sustaining dramatic climate changes that have taken place over the last 100 years or so”. The vineyards have developed deep, complex root systems and a balance which translates into better quality fruit.
I’m told, that not all old vine translates into good wine, it needs special care to be taken, not only in the vineyard where a holistic organic methodology is recommended but also in the cellar. They favour low intervention winemaking, a gentle approach which allows the wine to express the vineyard without too much manipulation.
Older vines reach phenolic ripeness earlier, perhaps as a result of lower yields and harvesting earlier means wines tend to be lower in alcohol. Research has shown that these wines have a more balanced natural acidity giving the wine freshness. They are able to produce delicate wines with texture, structure, depth and minerality rather than fruit. In essence, they bring something different to the table and in an age where understanding the provenance of our wines has become important to consumers, old vine wines deliver unique stories and a sense of place.
What is the future of old vines?
The old vines project began with a quest to identify and protect the old vines of South Africa, prior to 2002 all information pertaining to old vines was confidential. The project gained momentum and caught the attention of the world. Today the project is formalised, funded by the Rupert Foundation and has about 45 members who are able to market their wines with the Old Vines Heritage seal.
On a broader scope, the foundation is set up to educate wine growers on caring for their vines so that they may live a long disease-free life. By studying these old vines, researchers have the potential to unlock the secrets of their survival. New plant materials are being propagated from these old vines and experimentation with newer, cooler, growing regions and imported varietals better suited to our evolving climate are ongoing.
From an economic point of view, the OVP has acted as negociant between growers and winemakers with the view to making it profitable for growers to keep low yielding old vines in favour of younger more vigorous crops. Ensuring the grapes go to winemakers with the artistry required to make these wines sing and by the effective marketing of these wines to an enthusiastic audience, wine prices have increased. This keeps businesses going and people employed.
Can I taste some of these wines on my wine tour?
Yes, absolutely. Several of my favourite vineyards offer these wines among their portfolio. It is not always necessary to travel to obscure locations to try these wines as many winemakers in the Franschhoek and Stellenbosch regions are members of the OVP.
For further interesting reading, take a look at the I AM OLD, website, established by Rosa Kruger in 2014. It was the first ever website to catalogue the Old Vineyards of South Africa.
For a look at some of the old vines of the world take a look at this interesting article from Wine Enthusiast magazine https://www.winemag.com/2019/02/25/old-vines-great-wine/