An interesting trend in the world of South African viticulture is that our winemakers are eventually realising the potential of old vines to produce superior wines.
How does one define an “old vine?”. There is no international standard for these “elders”, but bearing in mind our droughts, heat and fierce winds, 35 years old could be a yardstick. Ironically the real threat of these old vines, is money, not drought, leaf-roll virus or phylloxera. Keeping these vines in the ground is an expensive venture, since the yields are so much lower. Winemakers need to understand that they would have to pay the farmers more per hectare so that it could become economically viable. To make matters more complex, there seems to be a general resistance to price since vast volumes of wine are sold for R35 per bottle. It must also be realised that with aging the focus on terroir is improved and the concentration of flavours is greatly enhanced.
As a result of all the interest in old vines, the Old Vine Project (OVP) was developed. Rosa Kruger, a respected viticulturist must be thanked for this. While travelling from Germany to Spain to France and to Argentina, she noticed how much respect was paid to old vines as well as what aficionados were prepared to pay. On her return to South Africa in 2003 she discovered that there was no comprehensive record of old vines. This lead to her spending many weekends travelling across the wine regions to pursue her passion of finding old vines. In 2016 industrialist Johann Rupert boosted this project by providing funding. The OVP was thus launched as a non-profit public benefit organisation. To date more than 2600 hectares of vines across 1000 vineyards have been identified. No mean feat!
Old vines are found all over the Western Cape. One fine example is that of the Laing Semillon vines, the latter approximately 60 years old. Although yields are lower, an exceptional chenin with an intense flavour is produced.
On the high slopes of the Skurfberg, near Clanwilliam, Basie van Lill and Joshua Visser’s vines were planetd in 1964, to put it in perspective the year after John F Kennedy was assassinated and the same era in which the Rolling Stones released their debut album.
Winemakers like Adi Badenhorst, Chris Alheit, David Finlayson and Andrea Mullineux are pioneers in this field. It is questionable for how long these vines will thrust their deep roots in the soils of the enigmatic, majestic Cape winelands, but we all have a responsibility to preserve this remarkable heritage for generations to come.