Coming in from the Old

Wine has a true friend in time, that concept of the aged and old, the historical and antique deemed nothing but beneficial and revered in the halls of wine-speak. A bottle bearing a label attesting to that wine having been made 40 years ago or more is carefully held in hands slightly trembling in awe, the contents spoken of in hushed tones of respect and anticipation. It is the names of wine cellars from Bordeaux to Piedmont, Rioja to Stellenbosch, Napa to Robertson who have been making wines for decades and centuries that command admiration on account of their legacy and reputation, places whose history and generations of cellarmasters underscore and extend the providence of the wines they have made for years, and will be making for years to come.

The old vineyards from which wine is made, too, bear a gravitas. These living plants rooted for years and generations in patches of soil they call home. They have withstood the challenges and tests of time by, year-in and year-out, ripening bunches of fruit from which the wine is made. Stormy winters belted their leafless shoots and gnarled trunks with wind and rain, snow and sleet. They have battled under the sun of scores of hot summers, offering a warrior-like and formidable resistance to the harsh rays’ heat and the parching dryness it brings to the soils, where those life-giving roots lie deep and true. These senior sages have adapted to the heartless vagaries of nature, learnt to exist in its ever-changing rhythms.

South Africa did not invent the concept of recognising and honouring the unique properties of old vineyards and the need to embrace them as an integral part of a country’s wine legacy. Europe, Australia and the Americas have older vineyards than South Africa, and more of them. But through innovation and will, a proud realisation of the role old vineyards offer a country’s legacy as well as current wine profile, South Africa has to a large extent taken charge of a rebirth in the global recognition of the role old vines play in the wine.

That’s why the name Rosa Kruger can be found at the top echelon in terms of South Africa’s most important wine people. Back in 2002 this former lawyer and journalist fell under the spell of the many old vineyards she had encountered during her forays as viticulture consultant.

Timeworn patches of vines, many forgotten, were tracked down in the Swartland, outside Vredendal and in Citrusdal. Spirited place-names such as Piekenierskloof, Skurfberg and Moutonshoek added to the allure. And once rock-star winemakers like Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and Chris Alheit showed  – with the inspiration of Kruger – an interest to vinify the fruit from these low-yielding far-flung vineyards, it all began falling together rather nicely as a greater understanding of South Africa’s old vineyard treasures made its way into the public domain. Then in 2016 the Old Vine Project was launched to map all vineyards over 35yrs old and whereby wineries wishing to do so could honour the wines made from these mature vines with an official seal.

Rosa Kruger

The Old Vine Project’s innovative approach to creating a platform from which the magical appeal of old vineyards and their resulting wines could be expressed did not only capture the imagination of the local wine world. Kruger’s brain-child and her unbridled commitment to these vinous treasures in Southern Africa sparked an interest in old vineyards from around the world, and among the many international accolades she has received has been Wine Personality of the Year for 2018 at the International Wine Challenge.

Time and age are synonymous with romance. And for sure, as with any art form, romance has a vital role to play in wine, otherwise it would not be the multi-layered and diverse offering it is – no other consumed product has more labels portraying more countries and areas of origin than wine. Throw-in 6000 years of wine’s presence in the world presided over by humankind, and the romance is unavoidable.

But today is today, with consumers becoming more questioning and discerning. And the ask is, besides all the nostalgia and violin-playing to honour vineyards that have stood in the soils for 40, 50, 60 years, do they make better wines? If not, what is the song and dance all about?

Kruger herself says: “Do old vines make better wine? I believe they very often do. Age in vines brings an intensity, a perceived freshness, a texture and a sense of place. They show less fresh fruit and varietal character, and more terroir and soil.”

But it is to the winemakers I want to go to get an explanation, they who oversee the farming of the old vineyards and who at harvest-time must send the bunches of ripe grapes on the road to becoming a bottled wine. And here it is apt to turn to those who make Chenin Blanc, the erstwhile work-horse grape of the Cape wine industry that understandably represents the greatest mass of the country’s Old Vine spread. Of the 4 292ha of vineyards aged 35 years and older, Chenin Blanc represents 2 207ha – the next largest is Sauvignon Blanc at 454ha, to give an idea of Chenin Blanc’s dominance.

Tertius Boshoff

Stellenrust in Stellenbosch is one of the country’s great Chenin Blanc brands  – in 2023 four Stellenrust wines found their way in to the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10, with a wine made from vineyards planted in 1964 being among the farm’s most revered offerings.

Tertius Boshoff, co-owner and winemaker at Stellenrust, is not hesitant to reveal the intoxicating effect of old vineyards, remaining pragmatic before a poetic tone embraces his words.  “It’s not that old vines – 35 years or older – necessarily produce better fruit,” says Boshoff. “Often yields decrease as the vine ages – so it’s not all sunshine and roses. But Old vines are like old people – they have seen good times and bad come and go, and are at peace with themselves, comfortable in the knowledge that they can deal with anything.” 

He fiddles with a cork-screw and smiles. “Young vines, like young people, are often enthusiastic growers and a touch too vigorous. They set more fruit than they can ripen. But as they age, vines learn to self-regulate. Yields come into balance and the grapes ripen slower and more evenly. Older vines produce smaller berries, which leads to powerful fruit concentration and consequently more structured wines; there’s a greater ratio of tannin-packed skin to juice. We see vintage-on-vintage consistent premium quality and beautiful pH levels in the juice.”

Stellenbosch, in fact, is the headquarters of South Africa’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc offering, carrying 558ha of the total national spread of 2 207ha. Kleine Zalze Wines uses the largest portion of Stellenbosch Old Vine Chenin Blanc, the enticement of this category shared by Kleine Zalze’s French owners Advini who deem it a jewel in the Cape wine crown.

RJ Botha in an old Kleine Zalze vineyard.

RJ Botha, cellarmaster at Kleine Zalze, relishes in this offering of Old Vine Chenin, deploying the fruit in a diverse range of the marque’s wines.

“There are two ways of recognising the allure of Old Vine Chenin Blanc,” says Botha. “On the one side, there is the attraction of each vineyard having a story to tell. These are of old, gnarled vineyards growing on tough granite soils that have for over three decades been exposed to stormy winters, breezy spring seasons and sun-drenched summers. Through age, they have become a part of the soils and their environment, able to truly express the world in which they have lived – which we on the outside call terroir.”

This brings Botha to the second beguiling factor of Old Vine Chenin Blanc: and that is, when it comes to working with the grapes in the cellar, the character of the grapes deserves the aforementioned respect they deserve.

“Old Vine Chenin Blanc vineyards express the varietal character and terroir more vividly than younger vines do; it’s as simple as that,” says Botha. “You see it in the tight bunches of small berries. The juice spreads its intoxicating aroma through the cellar at harvest time. And the balance between sugar and acid is tense, almost electric, leading to wines of multi-layered complexity.”

Studies done by the Old Vine Project show that wines from old vineyards have discernible differences to those from younger wines, mainly in terms of concentration, texture and length.

“No-one says old vines make better wines, but that the wines have an own personality and individual finger-print, this is non-negotiable.”

Chenin Blanc might be ruling the roost in the Old Vine scenario, but South Africa’s national red grape of Pinotage delivers two of the country’s greatest red wines made from historical vineyards in the Lanzerac Commemorative Pinotage 2019 and Kanonkop’s perennial iconic Black Label Pinotage. Both wines, incidentally, made from vineyards planted in 1953.

Wynand Lategan, cellarmaster at Lanzerac who had the honour of making the Commemorative Pinotage from an old vineyard planted in Stellenbosch’s Bottelary appellation, says this wine would not have been what it is without the old vineyard fruit.

“I just think old vineyard fruit brings soul to a wine,” he says. “Compared to the other vineyards I use for our Lanzerac wines, I look at an old vineyard as the Chairman of the Board. The grapes don’t always have the virility and up-front fruit you find in younger vines, but the Chairman has seen it all. He isn’t easily affected or influenced by storms, drought or wind, nor the discrepancies of different seasons. There is just that quiet confidence honed by decades of having seen and lived it all. It is almost as if the old vineyard is saying ‘don’t sweat the small stuff in life’. Because the old vines bear fruit that have an immovable gravitas, leading to wines of assured length and substance that will prevail over everything else.”

Gravitas in wine, seemingly, but Old Vines also carry a hefty marketing clout. Few realise this better than Shirley van Wyk, MD of Franschhoek luxury wine destination Terre Paisible which includes a historical vineyard Sauvignon Blanc in its portfolio, Les Dames de 1987 Sauvignon Blanc made from a vineyard planted in 1987.

“Despite being a new destination, I was from the outset adamant about cherishing our old Sauvignon Blanc vineyard through a wine aptly called Le Dames de 1987 in the Terre Paisible line-up,” says Van Wyk. “History, provenance and legacy will always have tremendous marketing appeal, so if you have access to these traits in any of your offerings – use them. For us, an Old Vine Sauvignon Blanc is a major benefit for Terre Paisible, not only honouring our but also the whole of the Cape’s winemaking heritage.”

Known as one of South Africa’s leading wine marketers with a background in advertising and film, Van Wyk talks the Old Vine talk with charming conviction: “Old Vines are like beautiful history books – they carry the stories of all the harvests past and when we take the time to nurture them, they have so much to give back. These vines have survived many seasonal changes and climatic extremes and are now so resilient and adapted that they easily bear fruit each year which carry the nuances they have so carefully cultivated over the year. It is a gift to work with these vines and to capture their essence.

 “In a time where there is such a rush for instant gratification, new technology, innovation etc – it is ever more important to protect, respect and cherish our heritage wherever we can. Our old vines are treasured, and we are doing our best to ensure we look after them for many years to come.”

A search for a pragmatic and less romantic explanation behind the allure of wines made from old vineyards led me to Robertson and De Wetshof where my personal wine sage Danie de Wet planted a block of Chardonnay in 1987, the 37-year-old vineyard still harvested for making De Wetshof’s magnificent Bateleur Chardonnay.

“My answer as to the merits of old vineyards? Well, each year when the De Wetshof team tastes the barrel and tank samples of that season’s harvest it is the Bateleur that comes out as the best wine in the cellar,” says De Wet. “And it is made from the oldest vineyard on the farm, so if you put two-and-two together, the answer could be that more mature vineyards give an added dimension.”

Being a man of science but with enough experience and savvy to realise that vineyards and wine do bear unanswered mysteries, De Wet is not going to pin-point a specific reason for this added dimension. But he turns to the subject of soil, and he goes deep.

“Above the surface, the vineyard changes in each season as shoots are pruned, leaves grow and drop-off, grape-bunches develop and are then removed when ripe,” he says. “But what happens beneath the soil, there where the vines’ roots are, this we never know. An old vineyard can have roots going down to 10, 15 metres beneath the surface, prodding between the soils’ various layers, seeking nutrients and carrying what has been discovered deep below the earth through the vine and into the grapes as they ripen. I can only think that it is what these older roots find deep down below that adds another level of character and personality to the vine itself, which finds its way into the final wine.”

That the time is right to talk of the hot topics that are old and age in vines and wine, this is a given. But the finding of the answers is going to demand a lot more time, and this has still to come. If ever  – sometimes a mystery should remain shrouded, especially one that is as fascinating as this.

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