South African Old Vines Project at Prowein

18th March 2019

André Morgenthal

It’s been accepted for a long time that old vines tend to make good (table) wine.  The thin and unexciting drink made from the much-despised, over-yielding carignan in the South of France can be transformed when the vines get to 80 years old and the yield reduces, concentrating the fruit character.  More recently many other parts of the world have also begun to promote the wines they make from old vines.  Like volcanic wine, steep slope wine, natural wine (and no doubt coming soon from California to a retailer near you, wine coplanted with cannabis) it offers a point of differentiation to underline the nearly-unique nature of what you make. 

I was at Prowein in Dusseldorf – the largest wine fair in the world, and thought that a presentation on a national ‘Old Vine Project’ in South Africa would be interesting.  It was – and also included a strong candidate for the most interesting wine of the year as part of the tasting which accompanied the presentation, the Sadie Family ‘T Voetpad 2017.

We are told that this is not just about vineyards, but above all people.  You can’t make a living (if you are a grower who used to be a member of a cooperative) with chenin at just 2000ZAR per tonne.  This project has raised prices to 8000 or even 15-20000 in a few cases.  They need to push up prices to make the industry viable.  But there is a reason why these grapes are so valuable; ‘old vines are dying, so they make themselves prettier’.  Sweeter, smaller, tastier berries.  They offer texture, palate weight and complexity we are told.

Old vines in South Africa, have to be aged at least 35 years.  Until then you are merely waiting for the vines to be in balance.  It is different in other countries: the Barossa has the same age minimum as South Africa but in some places it may be as low as 16 years.  Given the vine only reaches full volume production at seven years, 16 seems to be barely adulthood.  In fact the evidence from the South of France suggests that 60 or 80 years is necessary for the concentration which will offer power and concentration; no doubt, however, it will vary from variety to variety, and it is probably negotiated to be a fairly low age (which I consider even 35 to be) in order to be as inclusive as possible and gain rapid momentum for the whole project.

100 year-old chenin blanc vines in Swartland

The project started with eight members. Most are now in just three regions: Paarl, Stellenbosch and Swartland – which traditionally supplied a lot of the volume to the South African wine industry. One third of old vine plantings are chenin.  Then come colombard, muscat, pinotage, cinsault.  In 2016 2,952 hectares were delineated as old vine vineyards; by 2017 this has increased to 3,197.  The temptation has always been to replant (as vines get diseased) but they are persuading growers to plant now for an old vine future, with clean material which will enable the vines to age healthily.  If anything was about taking decisions now to benefit a future generation then this is it.  Let’s just hope that chenin, and cinsault are as popular in 40 years’ time as they are becoming now.

One interesting point about the old vine movement is the kind of vines that it focuses on.  They are capable of making good quality – but aren’t always the most prestigious varieties.  Think of the ones just mentioned for South Africa: chenin is great – but has limited appeal and market penetration at present (and often makes very unexciting wines in the wrong hands).  Colombard and the rest definitely sparkle less brightly in the varietal firmament.  It’s a way of getting some of the poorer relations in the ampelographical world noticed.  There’s another reason for it as well.  These are vines (like the carignan in Languedoc) planted long ago for large volumes: cheap red vin de table in France: fortified wines and brandy in South Africa. Often the wines in both countries (as in parts of Australia as well) were sold to cooperatives who will have vinified at low cost and sold cheaply.  The market for these wines has dropped away, so either they are uprooted (which has happened in all of these countries) or their identity needs to be recreated in a way which makes them marketable.  Old signifies quality but it also gives heritage and tradition; heritage offers authenticity and thus a level of influence in the contemporary wine scene.  The selection of vines used to be dominated by cooperatives in South Africa.  Only from 1975 could Estate wines be made, and producers chose their grapes.  There was an immediate rush for the internationally trendy varieties – especially cabernet, later chardonnay, then sauvignon, shiraz etc.  The good but unfashionable grapes were pushed to one side.  Given the 35 year minimum for ‘old vines’ most of the newer vineyards can’t be included.  There is a type of viticultural power struggle here between what used to be accepted and what came to challenge it; this plays into all kinds of stories about authenticity, fashionability and what actually defines ‘good’ wine.

Prowein is the launch of a certification programme for the South African Old Vine Project – ‘Certified Heritage Vineyards’.  This offers a plaque for wineries to put up plus a seal for each bottle with the date of planting on it.  There is a social impact here, moreover.  You need to give workers specialist training in pruning old vines.  This is illustrated with a picture of one such gnarled old worker alongside a gnarled old vine.  Inevitably, this being a South African vineyard, he is black, although most of those who are driving the project are white.

One thing which cheers me – as an academic – is that research is being carried out by the University of Cape Town on the marketing of old vine wines, and at Stellenbosch specifically on old vine pinotage.  It’s good to know that some of my colleagues are being kept in work by this project, although the latter part it of is probably a lost cause.

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