Project to safeguard old vines in South Africa bursts onto the scene
A new project designed to certify, promote and protect old vines in South Africa is gaining momentum and made a striking statement of its worth with a benchmark tasting in London this week.
The aptly named Old Vine Project (OVP) has its origins back in 2002, when viticulturist Rosa Kruger began hunting down old blocks of vines.
Word slowly spread and people came forward pointing out where they knew old plots to be and then some producers such as Eben Sadie began taking matters into their own hands and making arrangements with growers.
Sadie’s Old Vineyard Series kicked off in 2006 when he produced (at least what was then) South Africa’s oldest Chenin Blanc from a vineyard in Stellenbosch, which he named after the owner, a Mrs Kirsten.
By 2010 more producers, such as Chris Alheit, Duncan Savage and the Mullineuxs, were also tracking down old vines and in 2014 Kruger released the first ever website cataloguing old vineyards with help from the South African Wine Industry Information & Systems (SAWIS).
But recent funding from Johann Rupert of Antonij Rupert winery – whose father did much to preserve historic ‘Cape Dutch’ houses from destruction – has really kicked the project up a gear.
The OVP’s main task is to find old vines that are at least 35-years-old and, if they are good enough to produce wine, have them certified. This certification will be available from the 2017 vintage.
The OVP goes further though as, where necessary and possible, viticultural consultant Jaco Engelbrecht can work with growers to restore old vineyards and bring them back to a decent measure of productivity. Although old vines are naturally low yielding, the right viticultural techniques have been shown to slightly increase yields.
The OVP also wants to encourage growers to, “plant to get old”, as the project’s communications manager André Morgenthal explained to the drinks business, ensuring that growers see the benefits of old vines and take care to keep and preserve the right blocks rather than grubbing everything up every few decades in pursuit of high yields.
Most importantly, the project wants to ensure old vineyards and those on their way to being 35 years old and older, don’t just remain for the sake of looking pretty or as a nod to heritage but actually remain financially viable too.
Currently, small growers in South Africa with precious old vines are often experiencing the same problems faced by growers in countries like Chile, especially in the south of that country in Itata and Bío-Bío, where the cost of running an old vineyard relative to the eventual yield and what the grower receives for the fruit they produce is simply not economically sound.
Morgenthal said that, on average, a hectare of old vines cost about ZAR45,000 (£2,600) to work for an average yield of three tons. To be financially viable the grower would need about ZAR15,000/ton (£880) but all too often they are being paid in the region of ZAR4,000/ton (£240). As in Chile, this is causing many growers to uproot old vines – all the more painful when they are good ones – because they can’t afford to maintain them and industries such as mining/forestry or farming are more immediately lucrative.
Morgenthal explained that promoting good viticultural practices and connecting the growers with “willing” buyers for the grapes they produce at fair prices was key to stemming the loss of viable plant material but the project will also be promoting the vines and wines at international tastings and through other media. In short the OVP aims to connect the entire industry from growers, through producers, the trade and, finally, to consumers.
It is estimated that there are about 2,640 hectares of vineyards in South Africa that are 35 years and older – about 1% of total plantings – with perhaps 1,300ha being Chenin Blanc although some 38 varieties including Cinsault, Grenache, Semillon, Muscat of Alexandria and others are also out there.
Although SAWIS does have good records of some of these vineyards, many others have not yet been documented and both Morgenthal and Englebrecht are constantly on the lookout for new leads. Indeed, earlier this year when db reported on the ‘ghost vines’ that had re-emerged during a drought, it was Engelbrecht and Morgenthal who were on the scene, diligently following up a tip-off having been alerted to the vines’ reappearance by locals. Even if the long-dead vineyard stood no hope of resurrection, the pair tracked down a former worker who told them they were largely Chenin, Cinsault, Palomino and Muscat planted in the 1940s and ’50s.
Morgenthal said that, “like the save the rhino initiative, there’s going to be a portion that will go before we get to them” (see the financial cost mentioned above) and even if they do find an old block, “not all will be good enough to make wine,” as age or viruses due to poor plant and root material take a heavy toll.
He added that the point of the project was not to, “promote old vines as ‘better’, just different,” in that the wines they produce are unique and have a complexity and terroir focus to them that was hard if not impossible to replicate in younger vines. As such, viable plots of old vines and the wine they produce are not only an important part of South Africa’s viticultural heritage but also a hugely significant feather in the industry’s cap and something for South African producers to really shout about.
Just to back up that point, at South Africa house this Wednesday (28 June) where members of the UK wine trade were being introduced to the OVP, there was a selection of wines from producers who are keen proponents of old vines, such as Eben Sadie, Chris and Suzaan Alheit, AA Badenhorst, Antonij Rupert, Mullineux, Iain Naudé and Boekenhoutskloof among many others.
Those scanning the social media airwaves recently will be in no doubt as to the stir the tasting has caused.
It was also recently announced that five lots of rare wines from old vineyards will take centre stage at the upcoming Nederburg auction this September – including: Alheit’s Cartology Chenin 2011 (the first vintage), Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2004 (two cases of each) and Eben Sadie’s ‘T Voetpad Chenin 2015 (one case).
Given the ever-growing status of the auction and the high-spending clientele it attracts, it’s an important platform for the producers and the OVP. “It’s really high profile for us,” said Morgenthal, “it’s important for the awareness we’re going to gain.”
All three wines were available to taste in London this week (see right) but are produced in small quantities and are extremely hard to find. And wines like them will only become rarer still if South Africa’s old vineyards aren’t maintained.
Despite the building momentum and clear good will and excitement the London tasting has generated, the OVP is a not-for-profit organisation and will rely heavily on funding and donations from sponsors and industry contributions if it is to survive and thrive.
Morgenthal is convinced however that the project is worthwhile and deserves to work. “It’s a beautiful project,” he said, “and it’s beneficial for everybody.”
Currently, eight wineries have signed up to the project and hopefully many more will follow suit in time.