Where did it all start?
The very first and oldest remaining vineyard blocks were planted by the first settlers at the Cape. The vine cuttings arrived by ship from Europe and were transported inland by tradesmen. So, effectively, some blocks were often planted in stages at different times and to different varieties. Interestingly enough, these blocks were used not only for wine or raisins but sometimes more so for distilling. The subsequent ‘older vines’ (less than 80 or 60 years old) were planted by the last two generations, predominantly in Stellenbosch, Paarl, Wellington, the Swartland and along the West Coast.
It is interesting to note the international context. Wines from heritage vines have been revered for generations in Europe and later in the New World, e.g. Barossa, California and more recently in Chile. In the context of South Africa, various winemakers have also been recognising the value of fruit from matured vineyards. The Old Vine Project (OVP) came into being in 2016, motivated by the greater interest in old vine wines. The change in mentality was due to a decade of gradual, intimate understanding among winemakers of the intrinsic value of a small-volume yield equating to high returns.
Photos: David & Nadia, photographer: Liesl Basson of Liesl Basson Photography
Why is it such a struggle to make money from old vines?
Older vineyards bear less fruit, so the financial viability per hectare (ha) is the first challenge. With less tons per ha, the return on investment is significantly less and the temptation is to pull out the old vines and replace them with young vines, or other more viable agri-products. It is as much of a challenge to change the mentality of the vineyard grower as it is to preserve the older vines along very specific viticultural guidelines. In order to sustain or rehabilitate older vines successfully, one needs to be very careful with said viticultural practices. The other challenge is leafroll virus which is an imminent threat to our vineyards and unfortunately a death sentence to old, virus-infected blocks. Currently we have access to certified virus-free material which offers the opportunity to plant healthier vineyards with potentially significant longevity.
Vititec is busy with cleaning up material from old blocks.
How do old vines improve the taste of the wines?
A deciding factor is the physical, textural structure of the wines, which winemakers seek to achieve through mindful viticulture and winemaking, but there is also a natural, perceived clarity. We are not sure about the origin of this characteristic, but it is observed and acknowledged internationally among old vine wine lovers. Old vine wines are not necessarily better than wines from younger vines, they are just different, and often complex and intellectually interesting. Every old block has a story, whether the planting history, the owner, the vineyard worker toiling for decades and caring for the vines, or something noteworthy that might have happened in that particular vineyard.
Does a skilled winemaker handle old vine grapes any differently to younger vines?
It’s actually in the vineyard that a different approach has significant relevance. Older vines are managed with care, and with sensitivity to their age and fragility. Preserving and understanding the value of the older blocks has been part and parcel of the South African viticultural landscape for decades. Take those who have been guarding Pinotage from being pulled out against all perceived vinous and commercial odds. Or 100-year-old Franschhoek Semillon, vinified by ‘older generations’ for the last two decades to deliver world-class wines.
It also appears that as vineyards come into their own at about 35 to 40 years, they balance out and reach a natural equilibrium in terms of growth vigour and how much fruit they bear per vintage. It seems as if the vine starts ‘thinking for itself’, it reads the vintage and controls growth according to the available resources and prevailing weather conditions. Keeping in mind that these vines have been stuck in the same place for decades, enduring weather conditions of all extremes and deprived of the luxury to relocate to more ‘comfortable’ conditions, the fruit from these vineyards is then naturally in balance, which requires minimum intervention upon arrival at the cellar and during vinification.
Minimum intervention is thus required during winemaking which requires some skill, as ‘less is more’.
Certified Heritage Vineyard seal and plaque.
Quality, individuality and authenticity. The old vine wines’ stories are inspiring, original, real and emotional – there are people behind the wines. It is also clear that these wines enhance the quality image of South African wines in the international market. It is, in fact, the international market’s interest in and demand for these limited-quantity, high-quality wines that fast tracked this category to its current high-profile status. South Africa is the first country in the world to have an official Certified Heritage Vineyards seal, based on the above. An international standard would be beneficial but we first need to establish and formalise the South African model.