When he shouldered through the lines
Of our cropped and mangled vines,
His unjaded eye could scan
How each hour had marked its man.
- Rudyard Kipling
Things have been getting quite emotional about the gnarled old vines scattered throughout the Cape Winelands. And yes, they are magnificent plants adding to the brooding atmosphere of some of the more robust and rural wine regions. The sight of an ancient vineyard, dense and obtuse vines pointing their wrinkled shoots at the heavens, set among the rolling hills of Bottelary or Malmesbury, can be mesmerising.
These vines of 35 years and older also serve as a reminder that unlike many eager industry marketers would want us to believe, the South African wine industry did not begin 26 years ago with the advent of democracy. For decades before then, committed farmers were giving their plants the same amount of affection and care as today’s vineyards are getting from newcomers.
Currently these old vineyards are getting a lot of airtime. There are the off-piste producers employing them as the foundation for their wines’ marketing efforts, using both provenance and the perceived quality of the old vines’ meagre grape yields to lend an air of rarity to the finished wines. Then one finds the old vine advocates walking the Save the Rhino path, implying that these pieces of botanical antiquity deserve to be protected instead of replanted to new clone Pinot Noir or their turf used as a golf-course extension.
With over 1 800ha of old wine-grape vines among the 100 000ha national planting, they are indeed a dying breed. But should we get all dilly and emotional about conserving them?
That old vines make better wine is one of those marketing slug-lines that sounds terrific and worthy of supporting, without having any factual evidence to prove it. Grenache appears to be one exception where vines over 30 years are accepted as bearing fruit showing more balanced chemical compositions than plants 20 years and younger. But for the rest of it, a 30 year old vine is going to produce no lesser a wine than a demented 80 year old piece of wood.
In this regard, it is all marketing hype and touchy-feely stuff.
Having said that, I do believe that the presence of old vines – here I peg them at 50 years and older – form an important piece of the Cape’s vinous legacy which should be protected.
As mentioned, they look damn good and an internationally syndicated photograph of a 70 year old Muscadel vineyard at the foot of the Langeberg says more than a 1 000 words of waffle about the history of the South African wine industry. Great for image, and image is everything in South Africa’s attempts to further our footprint in the global market-place.
But what about the physical attributes of the plants themselves? As far as I can ascertain, not much has been done to explore the ways the genetics of these old vines can be used in contributing to developing new plant material. With sixty, seventy years in the soil, Chenin Blanc and Pinotage – to name two varieties – could show signs of mutating with their natural environment bringing deeply complexed qualities of terroir to the fore, just as the older vines of Burgundy have done.
Who says that new, Cape-specific “old vine” clones could not be developed from these old timers, leading to material with the best characteristics drawn from their great-grandparents combined with the fresher, cleaner DNA of today?
Saving the Old Vine is not easy. A hectare of ancient Chenin Blanc producing three tons of fruit will struggle to net R6 000 for the farmer on whose land the vineyard is planted. And placing the pressure on the farmer to conserve and save these old vines is just not fair.
This is yet another challenge to the South African wine industry, but one which could bear fruit of a higher yield than those old bosstokke are currently producing.
* For further information, check out Rosa Kruger’s terrific website www.iamold.co.za.
– Emile Joubert