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WINEFORGOOD: Old Vines, Liquid History


19 April 2021  -  Graham Howe

Conserving old vines keeps alive the history and cultural landscape of South African wine

A fascinating tasting at a recent flight of a dozen old vine wines in the Cape of Good Hope collection at Anthonij Rupert wine cellar in Franschhoek showcased the diversity of terroir – and the living heritage of South African wine. Launched in 2006 by Johann Rupert, the initiative which led to the Old Vine Project, underpins the commitment of the Rupert dynasty to preserve the cultural landscape of South Africa in art, architecture, cars, cuisine and wine. Old vines are like venerable old trees.

A list of many of the oldest vineyards in South Africa hangs in the old manor-house of one of the earliest wine estates (1714) in the Franschhoek Wine Valley. The legacy of Rosa Kruger, the former viticulturist at Anthonij Rupert Wyne who first set out on a mission to map the oldest vineyards in the Western Cape in 2002, the search led to the launch of the Old Vine Project in 2018 seeded by the Rupert Foundation. Today the OVP has more than eighty members who use grapes from vineyards aged 35 to 100 years and older – and label wine with a world-first Certified Vineyard Heritage Seal.

According to the mission statement of the OVP, “Old vines make wines that reflect the earth and the terroir. Wines from old vines reflect the vast and varied landscape of South Africa. Old vines often reflect the lives and the culture of the people. Old vines and the wines they make are a monument to the farmer’s love of his land. The Old Vine Project (OVP) wants to preserve as many old vines in South Africa as possible. We believe that many of the 3 693 hectares of old vines could make wine with a special character and purity. We believe that older vines bring another dimension, a new character that tells a story of our land, our culture and our history.”

Over the last decade, the Cape of Good Hope wine collection, one of the cornerstones of the old vine initiative, has grown to over a dozen wines from exceptional sites. Sourced from growers and old vineyards acquired by Anthonij Rupert, the wines are made from highly-prized vines which reflect the diversity of the Cape terroir – from Riebeeksrivier in the Swartland to Elandskloof in the Overberg, the Citrusdalberg and Skurfberg up the west coast. The name of every wine tells an evocative story of the farmer and landscape, from Sneeukrans Pinot Noir and Henk Laing’s Groendruif Semillon (1956) to Van Lill & Visser Chenin Blanc (1965) in Citrusdalberg.

Over a tasting of these iconic old vine wines in the heritage dining-room with its rich Cape Dutch furniture, period oil paintings and tapestries, manager Gareth Robertson weaves the back story behind each wine. He visits each farm with the viticulturist and winemaker. One swirl and I am transported to the source of the breathtaking Altima Sauvignon Blanc – grown along with truffles on the slopes of an old volcanic crater at 700-900 metres on High Noon farm near Villersdorp – the next swirl, I’m captivated by the light, translucent and purity of Sneeukrans Pinot Noir in the Elandskloof. We travel from the eucalyptus scents of Parel Vallei Merlot to Basson Pinotage from the Paardeberg.

On the OVP website (www.oldvineproject.co.za), viticulturist and founder Rosa Kruger comments, “Old vines tend to be in better natural balance. Most old vines in South Africa have survived because they are good vines. The combination of variety and terroir have worked together to keep these vineyards alive when others were dying off or being ripped out. Wines made from old vines have very little upfront fruit but maintain their excellent structure and texture – one of the reasons they’re so highly sought after locally and abroad. South Africa has a rich wine history and boasts some of the oldest viticultural soils in the world.  The interaction between the ancient soils, terroir and people that have cared for the vineyards expresses the diversity of our heritage”.

Vernon van der Hoven, red winemaker at Anthonij Rupert Wines since 2012, talks about the exceptional sites which are the source of the old vine wines in the Cape of Good Hope range, from Citrusdal, Darling and the Elandskloof to Swartland, Stellenbosch, and now Wellington. Sangiovese hand-picked yesterday in the Groenekloof / Darling for the Terra del Capo Arne blend co-fermented with Merlot is being sorted by an optic sensor which sorts and spits out green pips and grapes. A marriage of old vines and high-tech winemaking takes place here – where red wines are slow fermented in a row of tulip-shaped Italian Nico Velo cement tanks “to build complexity on the mid-palate, to create a linear focus, purity” explains Vernon ”like they do at Cheval Blanc”.

The winemaker loves working on The Cape of Good Hope range, wines which tell these stories. He loves working with different components in a blend – especially the two Rhône expressions of Riebeeksrivier in the Cape of Good Hope range: the Southern and Western Slopes. We taste barrel and tank samples of the SMG (Shiraz, Mourvedre and Grenache) which illustrate the influence of terroir (soil, slope and micro-climate)on these old vines and wines. Vernon likes to use splashes of alternate varieties like Durif, Carignan, Cinsault and Roobernet to add “salt ‘n pepper.” One of my favourite wines in the tasting was the new Caroline 2018 wooded white Rhône MRV (Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and Chenin Blanc) from Riebeeksrivier in the Kasteelberg.

The highlight of a fascinating day out learning about old vine wines – mostly dryland bushvines, as traditional as winemaking gets – is the tasting over lunch at the Italian-inspired Terra del Capo restaurant in the cellar. The Laing Groendruif Semillon from old dryland bush vines (1956) in the Citrusdalberg grown by old vine hero Henk Laing, an old clone aged in old oak Fuder barrels, epitomises the elegance, balance and concentration of old vines – with delightful nuances of quince, a lanolin mid-palate and crisp minerality. We finished with Die Ou Bosstok Chenin Blanc, a gem only sold at the cellar-door, a world-first wine made from forty-year old vines transplanted from Nooitgedacht in the Paardeberg to Rupert in Franschhoek in 2008, a limited release. 

According to OVP / Sawis, South Africa has 3693 hectares of vineyards that are 35 years or older – a priceless heritage which is less than 4% of the national vineyard. The leading old vine variety by far is Chenin Blanc (52%) on a list of 39 varieties, including Cinsault, Pinotage, Grenache and Semillon. Stellenbosch has the largest plantings of old vines – followed by the Swartland, Paarl and Franschhoek. Twenty-two OVP wines won 5 stars in Platter’s 2020 which uses a new special symbol to highlight certified heritage vineyard wines – while many others won best in category.

The oldest vineyard expressions in South Africa include wines by AA Badenhorst, Eben Sadie’s Old Vine Series: Mev Kirsten Chenin (1920s), Skerpioen Chenin/Palomino (1960s), Kokerboom Semillon (1930s); Kaapzicht 1947 Chenin; Leeu Passant Cinsault (1900); Stellenbosch Pinotage (De Waal 1947, Bellevue 1953, Kanonkop 1953, Meerendal 1955, Slaley 1955); Franschhoek Semillon (Black Elephant (1905), Boekenhoutskloof (1902), Landau du Val (1902), Old Road (1936), Rickety Bridge (1905), Thorne (1964), Alheit (1936), Naude Old Vines; Bosman Optenhorst Chenin 1952, Stellenrust Old Bush Chenin, Cinsault (1964) and Cab (1942), Muscat 1905 from Daschbosch and Rietvallei (1908). And that’s not even all the wines from heritage vineyards older than fifty years.

Andre Morgenthal, head of OVP, comments, “Our challenge was to conserve the old vines, locked mostly in producer cellar systems (the old co-operatives). With the increased interest in old vine wines and demand for old vine grapes, we acknowledged the need to create a sustainable model for primary grape growers. Keep the vines in the ground - keep the growers in business and the workforce on the farms. By facilitating trading, we speed up this process and offer a smoother route for willing seller and buyer to engage”. By encouraging wine producers to buy and pay a fair price for low yield grapes grown on treasured old heritage vines nurtured by generations of grape growers – and consumers to explore these unique wines – the OVP is showing how we can play a critical role in supporting #wineforgood. 

There are plenty of good news stories about upliftment and transformation in the South African Wine Industry. The #wineforgood website, launched by wine.co.za in June 2016, hosts all the positive stories from the winelands, of which there are plenty. wine.co.za has made April a focus for #wineforgood stories. Share them far and wide and spread the good news about South African wine.