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‘Ghost vines’ re-emerge in SA drought

The worst drought in a century in the Western Cape has led to a large field of ‘ghost vines’ reappearing as the dam water that once covered them recedes.

Photo credit: Jaco Engelbrecht, viticulturist;

People living around the Theewaterskloof dam in Villiersdorp have begun noticing old vineyards re-emerging as water levels in the area have dropped.

The vineyards were submerged when the area was flooded nearly 40 years ago to provide water for the local area.

Hearing the news, viticulturist and keen proponent of old vines, Jaco Engelbrecht, was, “compelled to go and see for myself” and headed up to Villiersdorp.

A little background digging revealed that the vines were once part of the Zeekoekraal farmstead. What the variety or varieties were is still unknown, but it’s clear from some of the pictures posted on his website that many of the vines (long dead of course) were very old.

The farm itself dated back to the 1800s and Engelbrecht told the drinks business he had found a farmer who used to work the vines and hoped to have more information soon.

He had to admit that the damming that took place 38 years ago had been necessary despite the losses it had entailed.

He said: “South Africa is a semi-arid country, and recently our rainfall is far below the average. Had this dam not been expanded, our water would probably have run out by now.”

The desperate need for water in the country is thrown into even sharper relief considering the terrible drought that is currently in place and which has been declared the worst since 1904.

Engelbrecht continued: “It is extremely bad. Not only are the dams empty, our ground water and underground reservoirs have dropped sharply. We’ve had poor winters for a few years now. The past two years lacked the summer rains we so desperately need in December, adding to the already dire situation.”

Eerie and slightly mournful to look at, walking around the old field and down the still oddly perfect rows of twisted wood had brought up mixed feelings, he said. On the one hand, there was the more immediate feeling of history and South Africa’s viticultural past and present.

“They remind us of the old days on farms, where self sufficiency played a key role in survival,” he said, “but they also play an integral part in brand South Africa. These old vines present something different in the wines [they produce]. They are more texture and structure driven, compared to fruitier, leaner young vine wines.”

Photo credit: Jaco Engelbrecht

More philosophically he went on: “They represent a piece of history. They speak stories of days long gone. They create feelings of neglect, sadness and loneliness, but they also present a sense of mystery and excitement.

“They are the embodiment of the fallen heroes that had to make way to our ever destructive way of living. They represent society and the lack of sentiment and empathy we have for trees, water and mother earth.

“They represent hope – hope that a movement like the Old Vine Project might be able to save [other] old vineyards and preserve them for generations to come.”

Engelbrecht said he would be adding more information about the vineyard to his website as he discovered it.

UPDATE: Engelbrecht subsequently posted that the former vineyard worker, Oom Klaas Erasmus who’d worked there in the late 1960s, had said the vineyards were predominantly planted with Chenin Blanc, Cinsault, Palomino and Hanepoot (the Afrikaner name for Muscat of Alexandria). Most of the vines were planted in the 1940s and ’50s.

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