Bruwer Raats Gives a New Take on Old Vines

Daring to question the praising of old vineyards places one in the same category as those supporting rhino poaching, the clubbing of baby seals and the banning of anything sounding like Leonard Cohen. South Africa has an enthusiastic Support the Old Vines lobby. With the zeal an anti-foie gras activist would be proud of, these lobbyists host emotional wine tastings underscoring the need for seasoned patches of weary vineyards to be conserved. For not only do such geriatric vineyards produce remarkable wines – apparently – they form an integral part of the country’s vinous legacy in terms of cultural and human provenance.

It is the role of a journalist to remain objective in such matters. That is why it is important to also look at reasonable and informed voices holding a different view on this sensitive, yet ubiquitous topic. Bruwer Raats, a highly respected winemaker who usually lets his Raats Family wines do the talking, recently stepped out of the cellar to offer Wineland Magazine his take. Herewith the translation from the original Afrikaans:

Most of our vineyards of 35 years or older were planted at a time when the South African wine industry was exclusively focussing on volume production. This means that the clones selected, the cellars built and basically the formation of the industry was aimed at producing as many grapes and as much wine as possible. Quality featured nowhere.

Soil analyses and the concept of terroir did not exist, the soul factors being anything necessary for mass production, and on basis of this South Africa’s vineyards were planted. Most of which were unsuitable varieties planted on wrong sites.

The general perception today is that if a vineyard is old, it must be good. But in most cases this is simply not the case. While it is true that the yields of an old vineyard are not the same as that of a young one, it is pure coincidence when the grapes from such a (old) vineyard are exceptional.

So how to take the industry forward? Where is the wine industry going to be over 10 and 20 years if those leading it now are no longer in charge? Well, we definitely do not need more wine makers looking for old vines. We simply need to plant new vineyards!

The best material needs to be planted on the right sites, with implementation of the correct trellising systems. One can talk of “quality by design”. This will ensure obtaining the best grapes from day one. There are too many old vineyards in South Africa rooted in good soils. These must be pulled-out and replaced with new vineyards.

I experienced this myself in 2008 when I planted Chenin Blanc – new clones in the right places, and suitably trellised to boot. Over a period of five to six years and using blind tastings I saw how wines from new vineyards proved to be far superior than those from old vines in terms of concentration, quality and consistency.

The other question is: What will the potential be of new vines planted on soils where old vines stood? If one ticks all the right boxes, will the grapes from the new vines not be better? That is what I set out to discover with my Eden Project where I established high-density vineyards (1m x 1.2m). The resulting wines performed exceptionally – Cabernet Franc scored 95 in Parker and 94 with Tim Atkin. The latter tasted also scored the Chenin Blanc at 94. This implies these wines faring better than 99.9% of all Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc wines in South Africa.

Bruwer Raats.
Foto: CWG

What I wanted to prove was that you don’t have to wait 35 years before a vineyard starts giving quality. Where in the past the industry relied on “quality by default” we now need to strive towards “quality by design”.

This implies planting vines committed to quality from the outset as well as achieving good prices for the grower. In Stellenbosch, for example, the grower has to realise R8 000 a ton for his or her grapes in order for the vineyard to be economically viable. One must remember that wine regions currently still doing well are those where yields of between 30t and 40t per hectare are picked. Even if the farmer only receives R2 000 a ton, profits are made due to the high yields.

Just think of the unbelievable quality that is possible from new vineyards over the next 20 to 35 years if the principal of “quality by design” is adhered to.

Unfortunately the concept of old vineyards has become a marketing gimmick with high prices being asked if the words “old vines” are to be seen on the bottle. Although good wine can be made from old vines we are moving laterally and not forward if we persist to emphasise the “old vines” concept. We just can’t afford to co-incidentally make good wine from old vineyards.

We can only progress in the vineyard through embracing “quality by design”.

Addendum: The fact that no formal legislation exists defining the parameters as to what “old vines” entail, is further hampering the industry’s attempts to market this concept convincingly. Hereby further confusion is unfortunately created.

3 thoughts on “Bruwer Raats Gives a New Take on Old Vines

  1. Spot on. The crucial point is correct vines on correct sites. When those “quality by design” vines get old, they may even produce still better wines. When the current set of great “old vines” produce great wines, then it is more likely chance and serendipity that the correct vines were on the correct sites, thus resulting in great wines

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