It’s a Mystery

Old Vines have become a new hot topic, one that EMILE JOUBERT explores with those who champion the virtues of age in the vineyard.

WINE HAS A TRUE FRIEND in time, that concept of the aged and old, the historical and antique deemed nothing but beneficial and revered in the halls of winespeak.

Bellevue Pinotage, planted in 1953.

A  bottle bearing a label attesting to that wine having been made 40 or more years ago is held carefully in hands that tremble slightly in awe, the contents spoken of in hushed tones of respect and anticipation. It is the names of wine cellars from Bordeaux to Piedmont, Rioja to Stellenbosch, Napa to Robertson that have been making wines for decades, even centuries, that command respect on account of their legacy and reputation. Their history and generations of cellar masters underscore and extend the reverence for the wines they have made for years, and will be making for years to come.

The old vineyards from which wine is made, have gravitas too. These living plants, rooted for years and generations in patches of soil they call home, have withstood the challenges of time by ripening, year-in and year-out, bunches of the fruit from which wine is made. Their leafless shoot and gnarled trunks have been pelted by the wind and rain, snow and sleet of many stormy winters. Under the sun of scores of summers, they have offered a formidable, warrior-like resistance to the harsh rays’ heat and the resulting dryness it brings to the soils, where those life-giving roots lie deep and true. These senior sages have adapted to the heartless vagaries of nature, learnt to exist in its ever-changing rhythms.

South Africa did not invent the concept of recognising and honouring the unique properties of old vineyards and the need to embrace them as an integral part of a country’s wine legacy.

Europe, Australia and the Americas have older vineyards than South Africa’s, and more of them. But through innovation and will, and with a proud realisation of the role old vineyards offer a country’s legacy as well as current wine profile, South Africa has to a large extent taken charge of a rebirth in the global recognition of the role Old Vines play in the wine.

The Old Vine Project team are (from left) Adia Hefer, Rosa Kruger, André Morgenthal.

That’s why the name Rosa Kruger can be found in the top echelon in terms of South Africa’s most important wine people.

Back in 2002, this former lawyer and journalist fell under the spell of the many old vineyards she had encountered during her forays as a viticultural consultant.
Timeworn patches of vines, many forgotten, were tracked down in the Swartland, outside Vredendal and in Citrusdal. Spirited place names such as Piekenierskloof, Skurfberg and Moutonshoek added to the allure. And when rock-star winemakers like Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and Chris Alheit – with the inspiration of Rosa – showed an interest in vinifying the fruit from these low-yielding, far-flung vineyards, it all began falling together rather nicely and a greater understanding of South Africa’s old vineyard treasures made its way into the public domain.

Then in 2016 the Old Vine Project was launched to map all vineyards older than 35 years and to provide an official seal for wineries wishing to honour the wines made from these mature vines. The Old Vine Project’s innovative approach to creating a platform from which the magical appeal of old vineyards and their resulting wines could be expressed, did more than merely capture the imagination of the local wine world.

Kleine Zalze Wines uses the largest portion of Stellenbosch’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc fruit.

Rosa’s brain-child and her unbridled commitment to these vinous treasures in southern Africa sparked an interest in old vineyards around the world, and among the many international accolades she has received has been Wine Personality of the Year for 2018 at the International Wine Challenge.

Time and age are synonymous with romance. And for sure, as with any art form, romance has a vital role to play in winemaking; if it didn’t, wine would not be the multi-layered and diverse offering it is. No other consumed product has more labels portraying more countries and areas of origin than wine. Throw in 6000 years of wine’s presence in the world presided over by humankind and the romance is unavoidable.

But today is today, and consumers are asking more questions, becoming more discerning. So the issue is, besides all the nostalgia and violin-playing to honour vineyards that have stood in the soils for 40, 50, 60 years, do Old Vines make better wines? If not, what is the song and dance all about? Rosa herself says, “I believe they very often do. Age in vines brings an intensity, a perceived freshness, a texture and a sense of place. They show less fresh fruit and varietal
character, and more terroir and soil.”

But it is to the winemakers I want to go to get an explanation, they who oversee the farming of the old vineyards and who at harvest time must send the bunches of ripe grapes on the path to becoming bottled wine. And here it is appropriate to turn to those who make Chenin Blanc, the erstwhile work-horse grape of the Cape wine industry that understandably represents the greatest mass of the country’s Old Vine spread.

Of the 4292ha of vineyards aged 35 years and older, Chenin Blanc represents 2 207ha. To give an idea of Chenin Blanc’s dominance, the next largest is Sauvignon Blanc at 454ha. Stellenrust in Stellenbosch is one of the country’s great Chenin Blanc brands. In 2023 four Stellenrust wines found their way into the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10, with a wine made from vineyards planted in 1964 being among the farm’s most revered offerings. Tertius Boshoff, co-owner and winemaker at Stellenrust, does not hesitate to reveal the intoxicating effect of old vineyards and speaks pragmatically before his words acquire a poetic tone.

“It’s not that Old Vines – 35 years or older – necessarily produce better fruit,” he says. “Often yields decrease as the vine ages – so it’s not all sunshine and roses. But Old Vines are like old people – they’ve seen good times and bad come and go, and are at peace with themselves, comfortable in the knowledge that they can deal with anything.”

He fiddles with a corkscrew and smiles. “Young vines, like young people, are often enthusiastic growers and a touch too vigorous. They set more fruit than they can ripen. But astheyage,vineslearntoself-regulate.Yields come into balance and the grapes ripen more slowly and more evenly. Older vines produce smaller berries, which leads to powerful fruit concentration and consequently more structured wines; there’s a greater ratio of tannin-packed skin to juice.

RJ Botha, cellar master at Kleine Zalze.

“Vintage on vintage, we see consistent premium quality and beautiful pH levels in the juice,” he says.

Stellenbosch is, in fact, the headquarters of South Africa’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc production, carrying 558ha of the total national spread of 2 207ha. Kleine Zalze Wines uses the largest portion of Stellenbosch Old Vine Chenin Blanc fruit, the attraction of this category shared by Kleine Zalze’s French owner Advini, who deems it a jewel in the Cape wine crown.

RJ Botha, cellar master at Kleine Zalze, delights in this offering of Old Vine Chenin, using the fruit in a diverse range of the marque’s wines. “There are two ways of recognising the allure of Old Vine Chenin Blanc,” he explains.

“On the one side, there is the attraction of each vineyard having a story to tell. These stories are of old, gnarled vineyards growing on tough granite soils that have been exposed to stormy winters, breezy spring seasons and sun-drenched summers for more than three decades. Through age, they have become a part of the soils and their environment, able to truly express the world in which they have lived – the world that we on the outside call terroir.” This brings RJ to the second beguiling factor of Old Vine Chenin Blanc: when it comes to working with the grapes in the cellar, their character can be given the respect it deserves. “Old Vine Chenin Blanc vineyards express their varietal character and terroir more vividly than younger vines do; it’s as simple as that,” he says.

“You see it in the tight bunches of small berries. The juice spreads its intoxicating aroma through the cellar at harvest time. And the balance between sugar and acid is tense, almost electric, leading to wines of multi-layered complexity.”
Studies done by the Old Vine Project show that wines from old vineyards are discernibly different to those from younger vineyards, mainly in terms of concentration, texture and length. “No one says Old Vines make better wines, but that the wines they make have their own personality and individual fingerprint.”
Chenin Blanc might be ruling the roost in the Old Vine scenario, but South Africa’s national red grape of Pinotage delivers two of the country’s greatest red wines made from historical vineyards: Old Vine Project. At the Trophy Wine Show in 2022, the Brookdale Estate Chenin Blanc 2020 won the coveted Rosa Kruger Trophy for best Old Vine Wine. The wine was produced from Old Vine Chenin Blanc planted in 1985.

Wynand Lategan, Lanzerac’s cellar master.

Lanzerac Commemorative Pinotage 2019 and Kanonkop’s perennial iconic Black Label Pinotage. Both wines, incidentally, come from vineyards planted in 1953.
Wynand Lategan, the cellar master at Lanzerac who had the honour of making the Commemorative Pinotage from an old vineyard planted in Stellenbosch’s Bottelary appellation, says this wine would not have been what it is without the old vineyard fruit.

Lanzerac’s Commemorative Pinotage 2019 gets its ‘soul’ from an old vineyard planted in Stellenbosch’s Bottelary appellation.

“I just think old vineyard fruit brings soul to a wine,” he says. “Compared to the other vineyards I use for our Lanzerac wines, I look at an old vineyard as the chairman of the board. The grapes don’t always have the virility and up-front fruit you find in younger vines, but the chairman has seen it all. He isn’t easily affected or influenced by storms, drought or wind, nor the discrepancies of different seasons.

“There is just that quiet confidence honed by decades of having seen and lived it all. It is almost as if the old vineyard is saying ‘don’t sweat the small stuff in life’.

A search for a pragmatic and less romantic explanation behind the allure of wines made from old vineyards led me to Robertson and De Wetshof, where my personal wine sage Danie de Wet planted a block of Chardonnay in 1987. The 37-year-old vineyard is still harvested for making De Wetshof’s magnificent Bateleur Chardonnay.

Danie de Wet, pioneer of noble white wines in South Africa and owner of De Wetshof. De Wetshof Bateleur is an excellent South African wine made from a block of Chardonnay planted in 1987.

“My answer as to the merits of old vineyards? Well, each year when the De Wetshof team tastes the barrel and tank samples of that season’s harvest, it is the Bateleur that comes out as the best wine in the cellar,” says Danie. “And it is made from the oldest vineyard on the farm, so if you put two and two together, the answer could be that more mature vineyards give an added dimension.”

Being a man of science but with enough experience and savvy to realise that vineyards and wine do bear unanswered mysteries, he is not going to pinpoint a specific reason for this added dimension. But he turns to the subject of soil, and he goes deep.

“Above the surface, the vineyard changes in each season as shoots are pruned, leaves grow and drop off, grape bunches develop and are removed when ripe,” he says.

“But what happens beneath the soil, there where the vines’ roots are, this we never know. An old vineyard can have roots going down 10m, 15m beneath the surface, prodding between the soils’ various layers, seeking nutrients and carrying what has been discovered deep below the earth up through the vine and into the grapes as they ripen. I can only think that it is what these older roots find deep down below that adds another level of character and personality to the vine itself – and that finds its way into the final wine.”

That the time is right to talk about the hot topics that are old and age in vines and wine, this is a given. But finding all the answers is going to demand a lot more time, and this has still to come – or not. Sometimes a mystery should remain shrouded, especially one as fascinating as this. V