The Innovative Old Vine Project Aims to Preserve and Celebrate SA’s Oldest Vines

By Richard Holmes

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SA may fall into the so-called “new world” of wine, but its viticultural history stretches back more than 350 years. While none of those vineyards, planted where Cape Town’s suburb of Bishopscourt now stands, remain in the ground, the innovative Old Vine Project (OVP) aims to preserve — and celebrate — SA’s oldest vines. And the memorable wines they produce.

The brainchild of respected viticulturist Rosa Kruger, the OVP launched in 2016 — with seed funding from businessman Johann Rupert — as a catalogue of local vineyards older than 35 years. Why 35? Although there’s no international benchmark for what constitutes an “old” vine, Kruger believes that to survive 35 years in SA’s harsh climate the vineyard must have something special to offer.

“In the beginning it was about keeping these old vines in the ground, and preserving our viticultural heritage. But we soon realised that there’s a strong human element too,” says Andre Morgenthal, OVP project manager. “So it’s about the vines, but also about keeping farmers on the land and workers in jobs.”

Because when it comes to old vines, the numbers don’t always add up. As vines get older yields drop, and the vineyard becomes less viable.

Key to the OVP has been connecting farmers looking to preserve old vines, with winemakers in search of premium fruit. By driving the premiumisation of SA wine — away from its reputation for cheap and cheerful — the OVP also plays an important role in ensuring the long-term sustainability of the local industry.

From just a handful of forward-thinking winemakers in 2016, today the OVP counts 83 members in its ranks, including some of SA’s most respected winemakers. The likes of Ken Forrester Wines, DeMorgenzon, Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, Alheit Vineyards and Boekenhoutskloof have all staked their claim to parcels of SA’s heritage vineyards.

Though he’d shy away from the title, Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Vineyards is perhaps the flag-bearer for capturing old vineyards in the bottle. His Old Vine Series is a remarkable showcase of the diversity of SA old vines: chenin blanc from Stellenbosch in the Mev. Kirsten, Tinta Barocca from Malmesbury for Treinspoor … the list goes on.

At Bosman Family Vineyards outside Wellington, winemaker Natasha Williams turns to a vineyard planted in 1952 for the estate’s flagship Optenhorst Chenin Blanc.

“There is so much heritage to that vineyard, and there’s a lot of complexity and character that comes through in the wine,” says Natasha Williams, winemaker at Bosman Family Vineyards.

“In the cellar we make the wine to showcase the age of the vineyard and to truly reflect the terroir. There’s a generosity on the palate; it has more depth and concentration, a honeysuckle richness to it.”

Chenin blanc is the star of many top-drawer old vine wines. DeMorgenzon’s Reserve Chenin Blanc comes from a vineyard planted in 1972 while the much-loved FMC from Ken Forrester Wines is also 100% chenin blanc, picked from a single block of old bush vines planted in 1974.

“Ken always says that chenin blanc wants cool sunshine, and that’s exactly what this vineyard gets, just 6km from the coast,” says Shawn Mathyse, junior winemaker at Ken Forrester Wines. “The DNA of that specific site really comes through in these older vines, and each year the style of the wine changes slightly according to what the vines give us in that vintage.”

To grow the category further, in 2018 the OVP launched the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal. Today, OVP members producing wine from certified vineyards can include the seal on their bottles, providing “an assurance of quality, integrity and traceability for the consumer,” says Morgenthal.

While the wine industry battles the impact of the extended alcohol ban, wine lovers in SA and abroad can do their bit to help winemakers, farmers, workers — and these venerable vineyards — by stocking the cellar with wines from vines that have stood the test of time.

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