December 28th, 2017/ BY Treve Ring

Tracking down the oldest vines in South Africa can be tricky

Older vines, like older people, have much to share. Their lines, gnarls and depth contain many stories. When time and consideration is given to listen, you can learn a lot.

What old vines and old people may lack in production or speed, they more than make up with character. There is a wisdom that comes with age, a layering of experiences, years, vintages. With each passing season, each harvest, each vintage, roots become deeper, more grounded, more stable.

When viticulturist (vine whisperer) Rosa Kruger began seeking out South Africa’s old vineyards in 2002, the only guides available were oral; there were no maps plotting the country’s old vines, many abandoned and mostly forgotten. A lawyer by trade and an adventurer at heart, Kruger’s travels through vineyards in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Argentina prompted her to question where all the old vines were in South Africa. At that time, she was working as a vineyard manager at Franschhoek’s L’Ormarins, the main estate in the Anthonij Rupert portfolio, and word quickly spread that she was on the hunt to track down and map out these old plants. Through countless hours of road tripping and stories passed by word of mouth, she came across old blocks in areas that we now consider to be some of the holy grail of Cape winemaking: Skurfberg, Moutonshoek, Skerpioen, Piekenierskloof, Skurfkop and more. For the last decade, Kruger has been meticulously mapping Cape’s old vines, building a registry of vineyards and helping match winemakers who share her vision of vine preservation and terroir expression to specific sites. In 2014, with help from the South African Wine Industry Information & Systems (SAWIS), she released the first-ever website cataloguing old vineyards.

Some of the most lauded names in Cape today are a result of her pairing: Eben Sadie, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Adi Badenhorst, Chris and Suzaan Alheit amongst them. Kruger considers a vine to be recognized as old when it reaches 35 years; as of 2017, there are 2618 hectares of old vines accounted for, with Chenin Blanc making up nearly half. Less than 10 percent of these vines are estimated to have revitalized and in use as a wine brand. According to Kruger, 10 of those vineyards are older than 100 years.

But Kruger’s quest is not just a race against time. Approximately 30 percent of South Africa’s total vineyards are less than 10 years old. In recent years, over 40 percent of the vineyards were replanted as the industry shifted from volume production to quality wines. And now old and new vineyards are under another threat, from higher economic returns for lands utilized differently. Other agricultural crops, like apples, are commanding higher prices than grapes (and have a much shorter growing cycle). A booming population and robust construction of homes, retail and industrial sites also mean prime vineyards and potential wine growing sites are being scrubbed up. Currently, vintners are in a rush to secure vineyards. As many smaller producers and garagiste projects are only able to lease lands, this leaves them highly vulnerable to the whims of the economy and landowners.

In 2016, generous funding from Antonij Rupert Wines’ Johann Rupert — part of a family that has hundreds of years of history on the Cape — propelled the project to the next level, and formalized the Old Vine Project (OVP). This not-for-profit, public-benefit organization has allowed Kruger to continue searching out old sites. It has also seen the development of the OVP certification system, in effect from the 2017 vintage, and classifying vine heritage as over 35 years of age. In order to achieve certification, vineyards must be farmed sustainably and holistically, with low intervention in the cellars encouraged. The guidelines stipulate that “Wines made from old vineyards should be given the chance to reflect their specific terroir.”

The funding has also allowed Kruger to be joined by two respected and well-known figures in South African wine, who have been tasked with managing and steering the program. Viticultural consultant Jaco Engelbrecht is on board to work with growers to restore old vineyards, and assist with increasing yields and productivity through proper viticultural techniques, one of the reasons the sites were abandoned in the first place. Old vineyards have to be economically viable for the grower, and the winemakers using them. The team has also been bolstered by André Morgenthal, a long-time WOSA ambassador, who has come on board as communications manager to spread the word internationally and encourage growers to “plant to get old.”

According to Morgenthal, one hectare of old vines costs about ZAR45,000 ($4,300 CAD) to work, yielding an average of three tons. To be financially viable the grower requires approximately ZAR15,000/ton ($1,433 CDN), though most are paid only about ZAR4,000/ton ($380 CAD). Naturally, many growers choose to scrub up old vines because they aren’t financially lucrative.

It is the hopes of the OVP that through education and promoting good viticultural practices, and connecting growers with vintners who appreciate the value of these old vines for their wines, they can affect positive growth on both sides. The OVP will also promote the wines and growers through international tastings for media, trade and consumers. The more demand there is for these wines, the more lucrative it will be for the growers who tend these old vines.

There are currently eight wineries registered with the project, and hope that more will sign on soon. Winemakers pay an annual fee of ZAR5,000, and growers ZAR1,500, to be a member.

Like vines, these things take time to root. Fortunately, there’s a growing collective of vintners, consumers and growers who value what old vines share, and are willing to wait — and pay — for it.

 

 
Andre Morgethal and Jaco Engelbrecht

Huis Van Chevallerie Filia Chenin Blanc Brut Nature Kap Klassiek 2014, Swartland ($70)

Gnarly 40+-year-old dry-farmed bush vine Chenin from Paardeberg, planted at 330m. This zero-dosage traditional method fizz is native ferment, with 14 months on the lees to build a cushion around this lean and racy form — just enough to prop up the green apple, salts, smoked stone, cereals and lemon pith raciness of the Chenin. This wine vibrates with bright lemon and grips with stone.

Raats Family Wines Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2016, Stellenbosch ($35)

Old vertical hedge and bush vine Chenin Blanc (averaging 45 years) from three vineyards in Stellenbosch go into this savoury, herbal white. The decomposed dolomite granite and Table Mountain sandstone astutely increase the earthy, mineral background of this concentrated wine. Subtle honeyed pear, green fig and ripe quince are in the shadows, playing a supporting role to the broken stone, earthy lees, salts and medicinal-tinged wild herbs dominating this complex and arresting white.

David & Nadia Chenin Blanc 2016, Swartland ($40)

Delicacy and potency is always a winning combination. Six dry-farmed Chenin Blanc vineyards in the Swartland, with vine age ranging from 35 to 49 years, are expressed through yellow fruits, lightly perfumed white blossoms and a grip of pear skin. A bed of lees and hay slicks the palate, but this wine is kept light and bright, fresh and fragrant.

Alheit Vineyards Magnetic North Mountain Makstok 2016, Citrusdal Mountain ($90)

Hilltop, north-facing ungrafted Chenin Blanc from the Citrusdal Mountain region, this wine is from two adjacent parcels, one 31 years old and its mate 36 years old. Shining. Bright orange, tangerine pith; crisp, singing acidity and a riff of tannins. Exceptional length and a salted finish. Nimble, tight and alive. Drinking beautifully now, but has a long while to go.

AA Badenhorst Golden Slopes 2016, Swartland ($55)

Fifty-year-old Swartland Chenin vines show young and direct at this youthful age, with a knit energy that hints at the longevity of this wine. Yellow fruits, fleshy pear and quince on the textural palate, with a blush of residual sugar deftly balanced with streaming acidity through to the very lengthy finish. Will reward with time in the cellar.

Gabriëlskloof Elodie 2015, Botrivier ($30)

Part of their Landscape Series, this wine is from two dryland bush vine Chenin vineyards in the Paardeberg region of the Swartland, approximately 38 years old in age. There’s an alluring waxiness to the palate, which bases the smoked stone, quince preserve, subtle pear blossom and Meyer lemon on the streaming palate. Great structure and presence, this is a wine that will impress over the next decade.

Reyneke Biodynamic Chenin Blanc 2015, Stellenbosch ($25)

Biodynamic beauty. Reyneke was South Africa’s first certified biodynamic vineyard and winery. This is 47-year-old Chenin on decomposed granite loams from a single vineyard in the Polkadraai Hills, just west of Stellenbosch. Lean and nimble, this wine vibrates the length with a flinty mineral hum, with savoury meadow herbs, lemon thistle and quince lining the medium palate. There’s a gentle but streaming wild bergamot/Earl Grey tea that lingers on the finish.

Adoro Wines Naudé Old Vines Chenin Blanc 2013, Western Cape ($40)

Adoro is Ian Naudé’s old vines range. For the 2013 Chenin Blanc, grapes were sourced from Elgin, Paarl and Darling, all from vines 35–50 years old. A swing of reduction leads into this richer, riper and powerful wine, with flinty stones continuing along the creamy palate. Yellow fruits, bright lemon curd and a brace of citrus freshen this structural wine through to the spicy finish.

The Sadie Family Wines Voetpad 2016, Swartland ($70)

This is an exceptional, small-lot field blend of Sémillon Blanc, Semillon Gris, Chenin Blanc, Palomino and Muscat d’Alexandrie from a 1.4 ha own-rooted site of vines approximately 129 years of age. There’s an incredible flow and grace to this wine, which makes sense when you stop to think that these vines have all been growing together for over 100 years. Textural and streaming, with floral lemon blossoms, gooseberry and pear skin scenting a bed of broken stones and nut shells. Fine salts stream throughout to the lingering finish. In perfect balance now, but will certainly continue to age gracefully.

Thorne & Daughters Paper Kite Old Vines Semillon 2016, Swartland and Franschhoek ($30)

Swartland Sémillon planted in 1964 is joined with some La Colline fruit from Franschhoek and splashed with 5% 56-year-old Sémillon Gris from Paadeberg’s Siebrietskloof vineyard in this alluring white. Herbal and savoury, with medicinal pear, white cherry, wild honey and lemon verbena streaming the length of the elongated palate. A fine, grippy spice holds the frame tight, and provides structure for the longevity of this wine in bottle. Serious beauty.

Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Old Vines White 2014, Swartland ($30)

Three parcels of Chenin Blanc from 35 to 70 years, 80-year-old Clairette Blanche and 55-year-old Sémillon Gris are tipped with 16-year-old Viognier in this concentrated, textural blend. Salted dried herbs, green fig, white apricot and orchard blossoms fill the palate, kept tightened with brisk acidity and the frame of old foudres. Lovely layers of complexity that will continue to merge in bottle.