The Old Vine Project: the wise wines

Planted in 1932, these craggy bush vines, which are used to make Lötter Cinsault, are rich in character.

The wine industry tends to change trends and fashions about as regularly as teenagers revamp their Instagram profiles. But there is one trend that isn’t going anywhere soon. It’s the movement concerning the South African Winelands’ Old Vine Project, which conserves decades-old vineyards that lie deep in the country’s ancient soils, often in far-flung places up on the West Coast or in the Citrusdal mountains. Its story is about the vines and their evocative regional identity, complemented by the intriguing profiles of the wines made from them: wines crafted and bottled by red-blooded South Africans wanting to express the land, its old vineyards and the provenance of the country’s vinous legacy in a bottle. And to pour it for the world with a straight backbone, rigid with pride.

Rosa Kruger is the mastermind behind the Old Vine Project. She has identified an impressive spread of vineyards across the Western and Northern Cape that have stood the test of time.

When talk of old vines began circulating through the industry and the media some 15 years ago, few could have predicted that the philosophy and impassioned pleas to conserve these gnarled and stumpy grape-bearing plants of 35 years and older would grab the imagination of the South African and international wine world to the extent it has done. In 2002, Rosa Kruger – formerly a journalist and lawyer, now a vineyard manager – began looking for old vineyards across the Cape Winelands while still the vineyard overseer at L’Ormarins, the Franschhoek wine farm belonging to Johann Rupert.

Timeworn patches of vines, many forgotten, were tracked down in the Swartland, outside Vredendal and in Citrusdal, with spirited place names such as Piekenierskloof, Skurfberg and Moutonshoek adding to their allure. Once rock-star winemakers Eben Sadie, Chris Alheit and Chris and Andrea Mullineux – inspired by and with assistance from Rosa – had shown an interest in vinifying the fruit from these far-flung, low-yielding vineyards, it all began falling in place rather nicely.

So much so that, in 2016, Johann Rupert agreed to fund Rosa’s idea of harnessing the old vineyard culture, its producers and the wines under a unified organisation. Thus the Old Vine Project was born and scarcely three years since its launch, it has become arguably the most dynamic and positive force to hook onto the South African wine industry since the Swartland revolutionaries began shooting the lights out just over a decade ago.

Some 3 505ha of vineyards registered 35 or more years ago are spread across the Western and Northern Cape, compared to the 2 952ha that met André Morgenthal when he was appointed to manage the Old Vine Project in June 2016. His appointment to run the initiative began in the strongest literal sense.

André, a seasoned, competent and colourful industry figure who had spent 16 years as communications manager for Wines of South Africa (WoSA), the industry’s international generic marketing arm, was pulled into the job by Rosa Kruger.

“I often saw Rosa, whom I’ve obviously known for some time, at the Green Gate restaurant in Stellenbosch and I’d speak to her about her passion for old vines, the regions she had to travel to in search of the vineyards and the great wine coming from the producers,” he recalls. “Then one day, in June 2016, she told me that an old vine association was going ahead – she’d had a four-hour meeting with Johann Rupert, who agreed to put up the seed-funding for the project. Rosa then explained that the organisation was going to map and market, lobby and do research, seek sponsors, and so on and so on. I replied, ‘That’s great, but who’s going to do all that?’ Rosa just looked at me and said, ‘You, André.’” He laughs. “That was Wednesday. I resigned from my old job the following Monday.”

Hearing and reading about, and physically witnessing, what the Old Vine Project has achieved in such a short time underscores the potential that has been lying under our industry’s very noses: the potential for South Africa to give the world something great in wine. And it’s all being lapped up by the media, retail, sommeliers and wine buyers from around the world. Yes, for once South Africa is the leader. Old vines might be a common sight in France, Spain, Italy, Australia, Portugal and the Americas, but the Old Vine Project is a world first in harnessing this unique vinous collateral and using it to market the country with something very special.

“We now have 70 registered producers of old vineyard wines on our books,” says André. “I kid you not, scarcely a meeting with winemakers, wineries or producer wineries (the old co-ops) who have access to old vines goes by without us receiving more applications for membership.”

That list of members reads like an honours roll of the industry: Sadie Family Wines, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, David and Nadia Sadie; prime Stellenbosch properties such as Waterford, Ken Forrester and Longridge; Anthonij Rupert Wines in Franschhoek; large producer wineries such as Windmeul, Daschbosch and Orange River Cellars.

“There are just so many rewarding aspects about representing the Old Vine Project, from experiencing this heritage by walking 70-year-old Chenin Blanc vineyards with the farmers to presenting the wines to a sell-out hall at the ProWein Trade Fair in Düsseldorf, Germany, or working with the rock-star winemakers as well as the inspirational older guard, such as Kevin Arnold at Waterford and Ken Forrester,” adds André.

André Morgenthal and Nadia Hefer are making the case for venerable vineyards through the Old Vine Project.

“But when you talk to the old, traditional co-operatives – or producer wineries as they are now known – telling them about the magical living antiquities growing on their farms and that these vineyards deserve so much more than being crushed into a big wine blend, you see these traditional farmers, grape growers, beginning to realise that they can be proud of the old vineyards that have been part of their and their forebears’ farming culture for so long. Well, that’s truly rewarding; plus the fact that despite all the nice warm feelings and emotional attachment to the land, old vines can add value for the grape grower.”

Pieter Cronjé, marketing director for uniWines, a 40 000-ton producer cellar in the Breedekloof, has like André experienced this first-hand in dealing with his members.

“We are making old vine wines through our Daschbosch label after we identified old vineyards of Muscat d’Alexandrie (Hanepoot) and Clairette Blanche that are more than 120 years and 42 years old respectively,” he says. “Now that the wines have been released to such wide acclaim through the old vines ethos, I am finding farmer-members coming to the fore offering their old vineyards; or alerting me to the fact that their Chenin Blanc or Cinsault block will be ready for old vine certification (35 years) in a year or two’s time, and that we must talk.

“This has really instilled a sense of pride not only in the farmers who have owned these vineyards for generations, but in our winemakers who make the wine from this rare fruit – and, I think, in the South African wine industry itself. Old vines are part of who we are as a wine country and we can tangibly show our heritage, history and culture with the wines made from them.”

Although old vines initially attracted attention through the efforts of winemakers in the Swartland and other parts of the West Coast, Stellenbosch is the largest old vine area, with 901ha of senior vineyard spread. The most famous of these wines is the Mev. Kirsten Chenin Blanc, made by Eben Sadie from a 1ha vineyard that was planted between 1907 and 1920 in the Jonkershoek region. A bottle commands a price of R875 if you are lucky enough to get your hands on one.

“Obviously the value proposition old vine wines are capable of is a crucial element to the Old Vine Project,” stresses André. “You can’t exactly ask a farmer to keep his old vines in the soil if he is being paid a pittance per ton and can replace them with higher-yielding young vines. There has to be an incentive for the growers, which means old vine wines deserve a premium price. The University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business has done consumer research showing that people are prepared to pay an average of R310 per bottle bearing Old Vine on the packaging. Obviously there are wines from certain producers for which consumers are willing to pay much more; Eben Sadie, Mullineux, Chris Alheit are just a few.”

Stellenbosch biodynamic farmer Johan Reyneke from Reyneke Wines confirms this commercial perspective on old vineyard wines. “Demand for my two old vine Chenin Blancs has really gone ballistic through the association with the Old Vine Project,” he says. “So much so that I’ve had to pull out of some of the tastings André does for the association because I just don’t have enough wine left.”

This Semillon vineyard on Henk Laing’s farm was planted in
1956. Today it produces grapes for Anthonij Rupert Wines.

Johan, for my money the country’s leading wine farmer in the biodynamic, organic, driven-by-nature domain, says the reason for the success of old vines is simple. “Just taste the wines, man. Wines made from vines of 35 years and older, they are just next level on so many fronts. Drinking them is like having a conversation with Nelson Mandela.”

Nadia Hefer, André’s assistant who specialises in consumer research, statistics and all things digital, makes sure André and I don’t miss Johan’s point. “When it comes to old vines, the Old Vine Project and where we are going with this,” she says, “the overriding maxim is that of quality through longevity.”

André agrees. “That’s right. At the end of it all, it is about the wine. Rosa chose 35 years as the age at which a vineyard is capable of producing something extraordinary: lower yields, smaller berries, higher acid and lower pH levels. When a vineyard is young it shows the grape variety – all those boxes of characteristic flavours you can tick off in a Chenin Blanc or a Pinotage. But the older the vine gets, the less it offers variety and the more it portrays a taste of place. The wine is leaner, longer. And with the vines having had all those years’ experience in the soil and under the climate, the wine is all the more interesting, and definitely all the wiser.”

Interesting enough to stay and wise enough to lead the South African wine industry to a next level. Because, even if it is old, there’s always something new from Africa. 

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