Old vines – invaluable heritage or uneconomic nuisance?

Over the past five years or so, much attention has been paid to old vines and the wines they produce. It was likely Eben Sadie’s first Ouwingerdreeks (Old Vine Series) collection from 2009 that drew wider attention to the worth of South Africa’s old vines. Since then, the quest to identify more has gained momentum.

What is the attraction of these vineyards, some representing long-neglected varieties? For me, it lies visually in the majesty of the vines themselves (as I hope the two images accompanying this blog show). The strange, wondrous and often beautiful shapes they’ve grown into over the years; the rough, weatherworn look of the wood; the way each fills its space in the vineyard, many like a work of art – all these factors imbue them with such character. I could spend all day wandering through old vineyards – preferably with a glass of old vine wine in my hand. Ah, the wine! Like the vines, which have found their own happy place, wines produced from them seem effortless in their concentration, there’s nothing strained or forced.

Thank goodness the majority of men and women taking fruit from old vines are treating it with the respect it deserves and letting the site express itself. Thank goodness, too, for the owners of many of these vineyards who are prepared to put in the effort and lots of tender loving care to keep them alive and bearing quality fruit. The costs are high, the rewards often in the wine itself rather than sufficiently monetary.

Where to from here? These old vineyards are part of the Cape’s heritage, but is keeping them alive impractical or uneconomic? I had a chat with Rosa Kruger, the viticulturist who’s been at the forefront of tracking down old vines and encouraging farmers to keep them.

First, I asked her why the vines had to be 35 years to qualify for ‘old’ status. “The life expectancy of vines in South Africa is 25 years,” Kruger told me. “So anything older than that is lucky to be alive.” Even 25 seems old, when many farmers replant before the vines have reached their 15th year due to virus or other causes. If that isn’t necessary, Kruger said that by the time the vine reaches 30–the 35 “it looks really old and shows the symptoms of its age, ie lower yields and balanced growth”. Putting this into international context, to find Vieilles Vignes on a French wine label will mean that the vineyard is around 40 years of age.

As we humans age, we have to take greater care of ourselves, as our bones become more fragile, and our eyesight and hearing less acute. Is this the same with old vines? Do they need to be treated differently from younger ones? “Most definitely,” Kruger confirmed. “They must be pruned lighter, their shoots thinned much lighter and pruning should focus to encourage growth on the stronger parts of the vine to invigorate them.

“Hold back on the fertiliser, too,” she added.

According to Kruger, proper, careful treatment of the vine can also account for the concentration I’ve noted in the wines. “An old vine, naturally in balance, hardly ever yields too much and its grapes tend to ripen at a lower Balling.” This benefits the farmer, said Kruger, who “does not have to do too much crop thinning, so the grapes develop beautifully at their own pace and ripen free of interference”.

So far, so encouraging, but Kruger has warned of old vineyards being uprooted. What are the reasons for this, I wondered? Beyond not all old vines being perfectly matched to the site, with a sad shake of her head, Kruger admitted that “it’s a tragedy, but many have been uprooted during the last year, despite the price for grapes increasing. Where yields are lower than six tons per hectare and the farmer still gets paid the normal price of around R4 000 per ton, it is totally uneconomic. The farmer cannot survive.”

So, what is the answer? “Pay more for grapes and have an awareness that old vines make good wine,” stated Kruger. I might add to that: “Consumers pay more for the wine.” But that’s just one part of Kruger’s solution.

Recently, she’s been approached by a group of influential businessmen, not all necessarily involved in the wine industry, who are also concerned about the loss of potentially great sites of old vines. Kruger is rightly enthused that there are people who believe the Old Vine Project is a just cause. “The sooner these old vine blocks are identified, the sooner winemakers can hopefully pay more for the grapes, make the wine and encourage the grower to the keep the vines.” She added: “I really think the Old Vine Project has alerted winemakers to the fact that if we do not pay more for grapes from old vines, these vines will definitely be taken out.”

Kruger outlined further just why the group has got involved. “They believe that these old vines form a chapter in our history and have a significant role to play not only in terms of our heritage but also as a source of great wine and academic research.”

It’s still early days, with the ‘i’s’ and ‘t’s’ yet to be dotted and crossed, but Kruger hopes the website (www.iamold.co.za) will become more interactive, with more photos and articles written about old vines, plus a list of wines made from them. Kruger also has the goal of working more directly with farmers, encouraging them to get in touch with winemakers.

As of June 2014 there were 2 500 hectares of Cape wine vines over 35 years old. I, Kruger, the group of interested businessmen, winemakers, farmers and consumers, I hope, will see that area grow as the years go by and more vineyards join this illustrious list. As so many of the wines produced so far confirm, these vines are a valuable heritage and worth fighting for.

– Angela Lloyd

              Landau Old Sémillon Vineyard                                                                                       Kanonkop Old Pinotage Vineyard