By Raphaela van Embden
View the original article on wine.co.za
We tend to think of the wine players in two categories: those of the bulk masses and the terroir die-hards. But occasionally you get those who bridge the divide, gaining firm footing in both. Such is the case for uniWines Vineyards, one of South Africa’s largest producers, who, with their Daschbosch brand, have managed to do this one unique move: they made old vine wines.
I sat down with Pieter Cronje, Head of Marketing at uniWines Vineyards, to discuss the intricacies of balancing the roles of commercial and old vine producer, putting accounting principles aside, and the international effect of the old vine category. You’ll notice there are no questions on what we think you, the wine quaffers and lovers, think about old vine wines. And that’s because we don’t really know.
Please answer our survey HERE if you’d like to be part of the research to change this.
What made you decide to produce old vine wines when you’ve got some 3000ha of commercial vines to work with?
Pieter Cronje: One is always on the lookout for something new, or in this case something old, and innovative. We were intrigued by Rosa Kruger’s seminar in 2014 that led us to the I Am Old website that identified vineyard parcels within our area, Breedekloof.
What’s it like straddling both worlds of being a big commercial producer and a niche old vine producer?
Pieter Cronje: The Old Vine category is the most inclusive category, as it is not attached to a varietal, origin or a winery’s size. Both worlds require different inputs, precision farming versus commercial / high yielding farming, due to the output and consumers being significantly different. The challenges and dynamics are also different. For example, pruning to develop (old vine) versus pruning for yield (commercial farming). It’s more challenging and complex in a larger setup. We had to learn more, but it is not impossible.
Have the principles of old vine viticulture influenced the way you farm your other 3000ha? Is there a motivation to retain these vines to old age?
Pieter Cronje: With old vines there is less winemaking involved. It’s more about being a custodian of the vineyard. We work with what we have and old vines form part of our contracted vineyards. In numbers, of our 3000ha, about 50ha classify as old vine, mainly commercial quality. We work with around 5ha with the Old Vine Project on a super-premium level. In short, not all that is old is good and we must remember that the fine wine category is not infinite.
You’ve mentioned that as a big producer you’ve had to adjust your image to suit the “craft” market that old vine producers are embedding themselves in. How have you managed to do this?
Pieter Cronje: Small batch wine can be made in big wineries, but it’s very difficult to convey a sense of artisanal in the midst of the industrial. Ideally, you need different production sites, different personnel, and a different engagement with the wine trade. We are realistic about our challenges as a large producer, but are working towards the future. We have managed to craft an artisanal image through rarity factor and quality (both in our wine and story).
You recently said that the cost of your Clairette Blanche makes it one of the most expensive grapes in the industry. Clearly, general accounting principles do not apply here. What drives you to produce old vine grapes if they are so much more expensive to farm? What makes it worthwhile?
Pieter Cronje: Opportunity costs for a commercial farmer are very different compared to a 2 or 3 ton a hectare old vine block. We look beyond the numbers and rely heavily on the halo effect of what the Old Vine Project within Daschbosch adds to our wider offering. For us, it is important to future proof our business and untap the potential that is in our reach. Over time, even these expensive grapes will be financially viable on their own.
What do you think is the potential effect of old vine wines on our international reputation as a wine producing country?
Pieter Cronje: The Old Vine Project has an attribute that is certifiable and credible rather than a claim that is subjective. We are certainly not the only wine producing country with old vines, but the clear message and formalisation creates a tangible story. It certainly has massive credibility value and is putting more wine, regions etc. in front of key buyers and consumers which was not previously possible.
If you are interested in taking the survey in order to help us research your views on the old vine category, click HERE.