Death of a Vineyard

No matter what the reason, the death of a vineyard is a sad occasion, one which calls for black attire, gleaming shoes and a slow march to the rhythmic tapping of drums in unison. If there is an old gun-carriage lying around, bring that along too. But do try to look manly as the warm wet tears roll down your clean-shaven cheeks while the trucks drive off with the lifeless gnarled shapes of uprooted vines.

Full Honors Military Funeral Service

I attended an uprooting of a 97 year-old Grenache vineyard in the Luberon a few years ago and will never forget that deathly grey silence as the wrinkled thick vines were plucked from the red clay soils, the far-away look in the eyes of Monsieur Treppaird, the vigneron who had made 49 vintages from those expired plants. “A dead vineyard is worse than a dead wife,” he told me. “For a good vineyard and the wines it produced continue to haunt you, while the death of your spouse is acceptable in its finality.”

Yup. Serious stuff. I thought of this the other day when visiting Glen Carlou in Paarl and was told that the farm’s Zinfandel vineyard is no longer, having been plucked from the soils to make room for…..I did not ask, nor cared to.

A dead Zinfandel vineyard is surely not that great a loss to the South African wine industry, which has never really embraced this grape. But I felt for Glen Carlou’s vineyard as it had been planted in the 1990s by then-owner Walter Finlayson who singlehandedly is responsible for there being a Zinfandel narrative in the country, having reached dizzy heights with this variety on Blaauwklippen in Stellenbosch.

Yet Zinfandel has not taken off here despite the best efforts of the current crowd at Blaauwklippen. Too few examples and too little active marketing has caused Zinfandel to be about as relevant to the local wine narrative as bacon sandwiches is to the food scene in Iraq.

Upon hearing of Glen Carlou’s dead Zinfandel vineyard, however, I hauled away a case of the 2009 vintage, the last gasp from this woody corpse.

The vineyard and its death were, of course, immediately toasted with a hefty glass of this Zinfandel, Glen Carlou’s having been the premier example of what this variety can do in South Africa.


As Zin tends to be in a warm climate, the Glen Carlou version is resplendent in a veil of black-fruited succulence, a juice monster with a feral sage-brush and buchu wildness to add verve to the coaxed fruit. The mouth-feel is broader than a dope-heads imagination, and from mid-palate to finish this is a big, heavy wine but without any icky harsh heat on the finish.

Of course, the one thing about Zin is that unlike Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz, it does not leave a fingerprint. There is a bit of steeliness one finds in Zins from the States to Italy to South Africa which could be seen as a common thread, probably the result of the grape’s skin being thicker than Cyril Ramaphosa’s wallet at a buffalo auction. But all-in-all, Zinfandel has always been an individual wine with each bottle bearing a somewhat ballsy and unrefined personality of its own. Red. Assertive. Fruity and untamed.

And of this, I would still like to find more about, but as the gun carriage moves east and the flags are half-mast, another Zinfandel vineyard is gone, leaving options, like, slim.


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9 thoughts on “Death of a Vineyard

  1. Another grape that has disappeared is Pontac. I believe the last was made by De Wet Co-Op in a fortified version (see De Wet Cape Vintage, page 129 of Platters 2013). It is one of our oldest planted grapes and I would love see its comeback. that is if there’s any old vineyard left out there.

  2. Dankie Hendrik. Daardie ou KWV ports is van Pontac gemaak, en hulle wys nog goed. Sal graag weer die opdiep van hierdie druif wil sien.

  3. I too think it sad that such a historic RSA variety as Pontac has been allowed to fade away. If Camphor trees can be made a national monument, surely a Pontac vineyard could – should – also, and if not a commercial proposition then why not a block in the state owned arena — i.e. Groot Constantia which was one of its original homes.

    I had a letter proposing this published in Wynland Magazine some years ago when Hartenburg pulled up their Pontac vines because of disease.

    Hartenburg 1998 was the last vintage of varietal Pontac made in RSA and it was a good wine that aged well — in 2005 the Pontac Hotel in Paarl still had stocks and was tasting great.
    Unless it’s changed recently Allesverloren still have Pontac which they use in their ‘ports’, and I know for certain, because I saw it earlier this year, that there is a block of Pontac at Elsenburg.

    If anyone wants to start a campaign for Pontac – count me in, my email is on my website

  4. Blaauwklippen het ook so 5 of 10% Pontac in hulle lekker (oorwegend Shiraz, as my brein nie te erg vrot nie) ports gebruik in die laat tagtigs. As ek my nie misgis nie, is Pontac boonop ‘n teinturier, wat dit nog meer fassinerend maak. Ek vermoed als is nou verlore, maar dit sal verblydende nuus wees as daar nog êrens ‘n ou mank stokkie of twee oor is.

    1. Hi Kwispedoor

      I put your post through Google translate and it says “is also Pontac a teinturier” and if that is a question the answer is yes. It is is one of the very few wine grapes with red flesh and juice. So it can be used to add colour to wines that are lacking colour, and as a single varietal has a really dense opaqueness about it.

      I understand in the olden days in the Cape a few Pontac vines were planted at the end of each row of other varieties as a baboon deterrent; idea was baboon enters vineyard, gets hand covered in deep red juice, thinks its blood and leaves.

      Another teinturer is Alicante Bouschet of which was widely planted in the Cape and now there is just 10 ha. I have not encountered a varietal South African Alicante Bouschet, but I have enjoyed them in California. I assume the little Alicante in the Cape is used to add colour…

      Roobernet was supposed to be a Pontac X Cabernet S. crossing, but DNA showed a mistake was made and it was Alicante not Pontac that was used….

      (and Roobernet Is another variety I’ve not succeeded in having a varietal from)

      1. I also can’t recall tasting a varietal Roobernet, but remember that Fleur du Cap had a blend from their Unfiltered range that included fair amounts of it. That was probably more than a decade ago, though.

        I remember speaking to Jacques Kruger (at the time Blaauwklippen’s winemaker) about the Pontac in his port and he said that it was a bit of a schlep working with it, as its juice was really thick stuff. A wild child, that grape is!

        1. Yikes – the Fleur du Cap Pinotage-Roobernet blend was vintage 2001(only one AFAIK) and I have one bottle in my cellar — time to drink up!

          How time flies…

  5. Ref Zinfandel: I’d have thought this Mediterranean variety would grow well in RSA. Perhaps the issue is to do with marketability – or more precisely export. Zinfandel is so associated with California that importers wanting Zin are more likely to get it from CA, just as New Zealand Pinotage producers have found it nigh impossible to get export sales because Pinotage is so associated with RSA.

    Perhaps labelling it as Primitivo ……?

  6. Ah, timing… Great news, Peter! Owners of Pontac vineyards should be making more of this marketing opportunity.

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