Old vines make wines that reflect the earth and the terroir they grow in. They reflect the scorching summers and the long icy cold rainy Cape winter days they have endured over decades. They exist because of the people who touched and tended them over many years. Wines from old vines reflect the vast and varied landscape of South Africa – from the red sandy soils at Skurfberg where the winds of the Benguela Current cool the vines in summer, down to Cape Point, into the beautiful shrubby Klein Karoo, to the slopes of the Helderberg and as far as the dry arid region of Oudtshoorn. Old vines often reflect the lives and the culture of the people – the fishermen on the coast, the sheep farmers inland, the wheat farmers of the Swartland and the fruit farmers of Piekenierskloof – and are often preserved by sentiment rather than budgets. Old vines and the wines they make are a monument to the farmer’s love of his land. There are 10 vineyards in South Africa older than 100 years (a vine is called an old vine when it is 35 years and older). The Old Vine Project (OVP) wants to preserve as many old vines in South Africa as possible. We believe that many of the 3 693 hectares of old vines could make wine with a special character and purity. We believe that older vines bring another dimension, a new character that tells a story of our land, our culture and our history. The OVP wants to focus the minds of winegrowers, winemakers and all wine drinkers on the benefits that come with age in vines. We want to create a culture of caring for vines at all ages, from young to old. The chance of vines getting old is so much better if you care for them properly in their youth! We want young vines to be able to grow old and not suffer from viruses or diseases, or sudden death in their youth. We also believe that the renewed focus on the quality that old vines in South Africa can give will help to raise the price of grapes in our country. Hopefully an increased price for grapes will contribute to better pay and living conditions for our farm workers.
I started travelling overseas 17 years ago and after seeing many old vines in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Argentina, and tasting the unique character of these wines, asked one question: “Where are the old vines in South Africa?” The search started in 2002. Soon many people sent names of farms or sites where old vines were planted. At that time I was a vineyard manager at L’Ormarins and the farm managers of the Rupert farms, Chris Loubser and Johan Nel, were the first to report about old forgotten blocks in Skurfberg and Moutonshoek. Johan Viljoen, consultant at VinPro at the time, went on a week-long search with me and we ended up on the West Coast, where Eben Sadie’s Skerpioen was born after long conversations with Oom Voges and many samplings of his very potent mampoer. We went up to Piekenierskloof and saw Grenache, down to Skurfkop and saw Chenin and Semillon that grow like small trees, up to Wuppertal and found … nothing! Producer’s information on vines planted was confidential at that time. The team had to search for old vines themselves and write them down by hand. The list was slowly recorded during many hours of driving, and lots of beautiful tales of history and culture, of families and seasons. In 2014, SAWIS agreed to release the list of vines older than 35 years with an undertaking from me that I would only release the names of the producers after obtaining their personal approval. Jancis Robinson MW asked for a list of the old vines in of South Africa, and journalists from all over the world started tasting wines from old vines in South Africa and reporting about their unique character. In 2016, Johann Rupert agreed to sponsor the OVP and André Morgenthal and Jaco Engelbrecht were appointed after both having been informally involved with the project for some years.
In 2018 the OVP launched the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal that members can place on bottles of wine made from vineyards of 35 years or older, together with the planting date. The certification seal is a world first and guarantees authentic wines grown according to the OVP viticultural and winemaking guidelines. Do old vines make better wine? I believe they very often do. Age in vines brings an intensity, a perceived freshness, a texture and a sense of place. They show less fresh fruit and varietal character, and more terroir and soil. They remind me of our land. The cold late afternoon winds on the hills behind Lamberts Bay on the West Coast. The smell of kelp and sea shells. The sense of space and colour driving past fields of yellow Canola, purple lupins and green wheat between Moorreesburg and Citrusdal in spring. The sight of a jackal buzzard or a nervous mongoose darting over a dirt road. The smell of boegoe, geranium and rooibos tea in the veld. To see a thumb-sized bird’s nest tucked between two spurs in a vine. A swim in a mountain river on a warm summer’s day. Or to hear the lovely call of a blue crane on a hot summer’s afternoon.
Let’s preserve the old vines of this country and the many wonderful wines that could be made from them.
– ROSA KRUGER –