Written by Maryke Roberts

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A unique initiative, the Old Vine Project (OVP) that aims to preserve old vines in South Africa, is yielding huge results.  The project was launched by consultant vineyard manager, Rosa Kruger in 2016 after she searched for South Africa’s older gems for many years. South Africa has 92 067 hectares under vineyard, of which 3303 hectares are vineyards of 35 years and older, according to the SA Wine Industry and Systems (SAWIS) 2019 statistics.

Good quality wines

The good quality of wines produced from these older vines is evident in the many accolades awarded both nationally and internationally. In the 2021 Platter’s South African Wine Guide released last week, no less than 22 OVP wines achieved a 5-star rating. These include Sadie Family Wines, Bellevue Estate, Naudé Wines, Alheit Vineyards, Beaumont Family Wines, David & Nadia, Mullineux, Spier, Thistle & Weed, Longridge Wine Estate, Rickety Bridge Winery and Anthonij Rupert Wyne.

Publisher Jean-Pierre Rossouw of Platter’s South African wineguide says “Platter’s 2021 reviewed many wines from the stellar 2017 and 2019 vintages and we awarded 211 wines our highest accolade of five stars. The fact that 22 of these are a part of the Old Vine Project – and also that a good number of our ‘Category Best’ wines are part of OVP – speaks volumes about the high quality of wines made from our certified heritage vines.”

Special character

Says Rosa, “We believe that many of the 3 303 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.”

In 2016, the businessman, Johann Rupert, an avid old vine supporter, agreed to provide seedfunding for the OVP. Today André Morgenthal is the project manager and travels hundreds of kilometres to help new members care for old blocks and to present tasting across the world. He is assisted by Nadia Hefer as project consultant. André worked for Wines of South Africa (WOSA) before joining the OVP.

The project has also encouraged other regions to follow, such as Rioja, Barossa, Lodi and Argentina.

Stellenbosch biggest hectares of old vines

The OVP currently has more than 80 members. The old vine blocks vary from 0,01 to 24 hectares each and Chenin is the biggest component. The oldest vineyards in South Afrika are OVP members: Eben Sadie’s ‘T Voetpad; two Cinsaut blocks which the Mullineuxs farm; Semillon in Franschhoek (Boekenhoutskloof, Thorne and Daughters, Alheit, Naude) and Muscat on Welgevonden (Daschbosch). Stellenbosch has the biggest hectares of old vines.

Andre says another new initiative, The Certified Heritage Vineyards Trading Platform, was recently launched. It has the objective to connect grape growers of old vines and winemakers. “By ensuring fair engagements across the value chain, we can create a sustainable business model for all stakeholders,” he says.

Sustainable model for grape growers

“Our challenge was to conserve the old vines, locked mostly in Producer Cellar systems (the old Co-operatives). With the increased interest in old vine wines and demand for old vine grapes, we acknowledged the need to create a sustainable model for primary grape growers. Keep the vines in the ground = keep the growers in business and the workforce on the farms. By facilitating trading, we speed up this process and offer a smoother route for willing seller and buyer to engage.”

André says what excites him about the project is the momentum it gained in a short space of time. “We created an entirely new wine category, the world-first Certified Heritage Seal and contribute to the overall image of South African wine, along with industry organizations like WOSA, Vinpro and Wesgro.

“We created something from nothing with the investment and trust of benefactors and founding members, Mr Rupert, Eben Sadie, Anthonij Rupert Wyne, Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, Boekenhoutskloof, Cecilia Wines, Huis van Chevallerie, Fairview Wines, Waterford Estate, Kruger Family Wines and Reyneke Wines.”

First members

He says his most surprising old vineyard find, would be the Avon Clairette Blanche block in the Breedekloof, managed by one of their first members, Daschbosch. “Currently what is being done with Colombard, such as Ian Naude’s ‘Langpad’,” he adds.

He adds as the OVP gained traction, wineries with no old vines, started to buy old vine grapes, such as Waterford and Creation. “Some brands changed their portfolio to old vine series, even some of our co-operative members such as Koelenhof and Riebeek Cellars.

Old vines are similar to people

Sebastian Beaumont from Beaumont Family Wines says the OVP is an amazing initiative to be part of. “Older vines can produce great wine. But this depends on each vineyard. Slower metabolism, very balanced yields and planted in the right way on the correct soils is essential. But the amazing thing with older vines is that they are similar to people – they are an expression of their environment. They become part of it.”

He treats older vines very differently than younger wines. It gets no irrigation and is pruned differently. “My biggest challenge with an older vine is keeping them going. They start dying off in the vineyard from old pruning wounds,” he says.

Adds massive value to the wine

Donovan Ackermann, cellarmaster at Rickety Bridge says being part of the OVP, adds massive value to the wine. “It shows South Africans and the world that we are looking after and nurturing our old vines, the older vines also gives better quality and concentrated wines. Thus the wines that are part of this project is of high quality with a rich history.

“We can also look at it from a farming perspective that we as winemakers are willing to take hands with the grape producers and pay them competitive prices for the grapes so that both parties can benefit from it.”

He encourages other farmers to join the project, as, he says, “we need to preserve our vineyards for the future generations by showing the grape producer we do care and that we are willing to walk the road with them.”

Story behind the wine

He is very proud of the Platter’s 5-star accolade and says he believes it is the story behind the wine, that helped earn the award. “It’s a bush vine Semillon vineyard planted in 1905. We do not too much in the cellar; we let the grapes speak for themselves. The texture and pureness of the wine and the long ageing potential is what stood out most.”

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