South African wines made from old grape vines are now more valuable than ever. At Waterford Estate, it’s an initiative that is strongly supported.
Grape vines are remarkable for a number of reasons – one being that, with proper care, these magnificent plants can live for hundreds of years. Take the Žametovka vine in Slovenia, for example. Planted over 400 years ago, this ancient vine still produces enough good-quality grapes to make delicious wine.
Old vines tend to produce grapes that are wonderfully concentrated and flavourful, says Waterford Estate winemaker Mark le Roux. He adds that grapes from old vines also bring texture and depth of character to wines, while telling interesting stories about the terroir. Yet, across South Africa, old vines are often removed and replaced with young vines because of their lower yields – an approach that’s now being opposed by the Old Vine Project in South Africa.
These vines are incredibly valuable, Rosa Kruger and other old-vine proponents argue. As such, the Old Vine Project encourages local winemakers to hold on to their old vines (i.e. vines that are 35 years or older) and to work with them on a longer-term vision to increase the value of their old-vine wines.
Mark and Waterford Estate viticulturist David van Schalkwyk both know that the small-volume yield of these vines can equate to high returns over the long term. This is part of the reason why Waterford Estate takes great care to preserve its Chardonnay single vineyard, which is one of the oldest in the country.
Waterford Estate is also releasing an Old Vine Chenin in April this year. Mark and David have worked with grapes from four old-vine vineyards in the Stellenbosch region to produce this extraordinary wine.
Made in concrete eggs to accentuate the vineyards’ character, the Old Vine Chenin is a true expression of the terroir in which some of the vines have been growing since 1966. While neutral in aromatic flavour, the concrete allows for the necessary oxygen transfer to age the wine, therefore truly celebrating the wine’s unique identity.
Giving vines time to fully mature is well worth the wait, the winemaker and viticulturist say. After a couple of decades in the same position, the old vines are able to read the seasons ahead of time and adapt accordingly.
“Old vines also don’t go through growth spurts anymore,” Mark adds. “They have deep, established roots, and have become used to their environment. In contrast, young vines tend to deliver grapes of variable quality from one year to the next.”
Ultimately, says Mark and David, the aim is to get all of Waterford Estate’s vineyards up to the 35-year mark and beyond. “We want our vineyards to last a long time,” Mark says, adding that this strategy will assist Waterford Estate in producing better quality, and even more terroir-representing wines in future.
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