By Cathy Huyghe
View the original article on Forbes
“Thick with emotion.”
Do you know this phrase?
That’s how my voice feels when I’m talking about certain wines from South Africa, especially those made from old vines that have been rooted in the earth longer than most of us have been alive.
Why such a visceral reaction?
Partly it’s my affinity for the narratives of wine, anywhere in the world. Partly it’s my personal history of time spent on the continent, from Kenya and Tanzania to Ethiopia to South Africa itself. And partly it’s my affection for old vines, which I wrote about earlier this year in the context of zinfandel in California.
Count me in, I wrote then, for the pure pleasure of stingy but exceptional grape production. Count me in for quality over quantity. Count me in too for what old vines say about the history they’ve witnessed over the span of their lives.
Which brings me to the voice that’s thick with emotion, especially when you take all of that and add “in South Africa” to the end of that last sentence.
The line in the sand for an identification of “old vines” in South Africa is 35 years, or more. (It varies by country but the Stellenbosch-based Old Vines Project has demarcated that particular age.) The oldest vines on record in South Africa were planted 118 years ago; it may be more, but that’s when such records started being kept. That leaves 83 years, at least, as the measurable period when old vines witnessed the tectonic shifts around them in that particular part of the world.
This is when my voice starts to change.
At the beginning of that period, in the early 1930s, the Statute of Westminster removed the last vestiges of British legal authority over South Africa. Less than twenty years after that, in 1948, the policy of apartheid was adopted when the National Party took power. Thirty-five years ago, when the youngest of the officially old “old vines” were planted, Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island.
Pivot for a moment and consider what was happening in the wine industry during that span of time.
Vineyards were planted, and were meticulously and privately recorded by SAWIS (an acronym for South Africa Wine Industry Information and Systems). By 1940 the KWV (or Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika) was given power to set the price for both brandy and table wine production. The majority of wine farms were under the umbrella of the massive KWV cooperative by then, and growers were incentivized to value quantity over quality of grapes. The more grapes farmers grew, the more they were paid, regardless of the quality of their production. White minority rule ended in 1994, the same year the KWV dropped its minimum pricing, and KWV is now a large wine producer rather than a regulatory body.
That’s a tiny sliver of the history of wine, part and parcel with the history of the country. Now pivot again, and consider what South Africa’s old vines have witnessed since then from their stable, entrenched roots in the ground.
Sixteen years ago, in 2002, renown viticultural consultant Rosa Kruger began searching for the country’s old vine sites, traversing thousands of kilometers on her own volition to meet the growers, and identify and document their vineyards that are bound to South Africa’s modern history. Kruger’s journey eventually led to the official founding of the Old Vine Project in 2016, bolstered by private financial support from Johann Rupert in 2016.
In the meantime, Kruger and others have been reclaiming the vineyards, rehabilitating those that have fallen into disrepair, and learning to care for the particular needs of vines that have been likened to elderly people in an assisted care facility: every one has their own “pill box,” their own requirements and their own personality. Every one, too, needs to be handled individually and with care. Working with these vines is a little like talking with your grandmother. Be gentle and patient. Make no sudden movements. And most of all, listen.
Two significant consequences have been taking shape as a result of this work.
First is the research potential of working with old vines. “Old vines are a wonderful source of knowledge for scientific research in our understanding of plants and the aging process of vines, especially in this challenging time of climate change,” Kruger said in July this year, when she received the IWC Personality of the Year award.
The second consequence is of particular personal resonance to Kruger — and perhaps this is where her own voice grows thick with emotion — and that concerns economic empowerment and financial sustainability for the farmers and growers of the vines.
For many years the old vineyards were undervalued and growers weren’t properly compensated for their yields, which led in part to the vineyards falling into disrepair in the first place. It just didn’t pay to work the land the way it ought to have been worked. Now attention has shifted toward the value of these old vines and, crucially, Kruger has set the standard for proper pricing of the grapes to local winemakers who command top dollar for their wines.
More money in the pockets of growers translates to an immediate economic impact, but the thinking is long-term as well.
Establishing a culture where plants will grow old will be more sustainable, Kruger said, “especially in South Africa, and we can keep the farmers on their land. We can also improve the lives of our farm workers, give them skills and empower them to break the vicious cycle of poverty and tuberculosis and HIV. This is my dream.”
All of that in a bottle of wine.
Now. How do these wines taste? That’s the subject for tomorrow’s post, the second of this two-part mini-series on South Africa.
Cathy Huyghe: “I’m an entrepreneur in the wine + tech space, and a journalist who’s especially interested in the business and politics of wine. My writing and photographs have appeared in print, online, and on the radio for outlets including BBC America, Decanter, The Atlantic, DailyBeast.”