Vineyard Treasures: A Look at South African Old Vines

Within the sprawling vineyards of the South African wine regions lie hidden treasures…  The old vines.  Most people who have attended a wine tasting or even glanced at the back of a wine bottle will know that producers will be very quick to mention if their wine is made with grapes from old vines.  These ancient and weathered plants hold immense significance in the country’s winemaking industry.  While old vines exist all over the world in modern viticulture, significance is increasingly being placed not only protecting old vines, but cultivating new vines to become old.

 

Fast Facts

  • In South Africa, the Old Vine Project has set the minimum age for classifying a vineyard as old at 35 years.
  • South Africa has an impressive 3,693 hectares of old vines.
  • There are 10 vineyards in South Africa that are over 100 years old.
  • An incredible 2207 of the 3693 hectares of old vines are Chenin Blanc vineyards.
  • Stellenbosch lays claim to the largest proportion of old vines with 1014 hectares.
  • The oldest vineyards in South Africa date back to 1900 and are Cinsault and Muscat d’Alexandrie.
  • Franschhoek is home to one of the oldest Semillon vineyards in the country. The vines are related to the original vineyard material brought to the Cape in the mid-1600s. Generations of farmers selecting their plants over centuries has led to some unique genetics: there are now several different colours of Semillon growing side by side in the vineyard. The grapes are used for Chris Alheit’s ‘Monument’ Semillon and as a blending component in Alheit’s Cartology.

 

The Old Vine Project

The Old Vine Project is a non-profit organization pioneered by Rosa Kruger, a living legend, who has recently been inducted into the Decanter Hall of Fame. She is the only South African to hold this prestigious honour.  Rosa initially started the project as a simple search for old vineyards across the country, but it has since gained massive momentum; turning into the internationally respected Old Vine Project we know today.  The Old Vine Project has played a pivotal role in raising awareness and preserving South Africa’s old vineyards.  Through education, certification and advocacy, the project promotes the recognition and protection of these vineyards as living heritage sites.  By collaborating with winemakers, vineyard owners and researchers, the Old Vine Project aims to ensure the continued existence of these vineyards and the production of wines that showcase their distinct qualities.  This approach, not only to promote the preservation of old vines but the further cultivation of new vines to get to Old Vines status will further cement South Africa’s place in the wine industry on the world stage.

 

Spectacular, gnarly 71 year old Chenin Blanc vines in South Africa.

Old vineyards generally exhibit exceptional vine health, low yields, and unique expressions of terroir adding a multitude of benefits that significantly impact wine production.  Their advanced age results in deeper and more extensive root systems, allowing the vines to access nutrients and moisture from deeper layers of the soil.  This natural resilience allows the plants to endure challenging conditions such as drought, which can greatly impact less hardy younger vines. Consequently, old vines yield grapes with concentrated flavours and enhanced complexity.  Their deep-rooted systems also contribute to the overall health and longevity of the vineyard, ensuring the sustainability of the ecosystem.

 

 

However, it is important to note that age alone does not determine the quality of the wines produced.  While old vines have the potential to produce spectacular quality grapes it is not always a guarantee of quality as wines made from old vines are not necessarily always better than those made from younger vines.  Talented winemakers are able to produce spectacular wines from young vines too.

 

Metzer Family Wines

Metzer Family Wines, known for producing outstanding quality wines, reflect both their heritage and the vineyard’s sense of place. Many of the wines come from old vines. Metzer’s Maritime Chenin Blanc is from grapes planted in 1980, the Montane Chenin Blanc planted in 1964 and the Cinsault planted in 1957. An impressive feat for any business considering that, while old vines have added benefits of hardiness, they generally produce much lower yields and therefore fewer bottles of wine can be produced.

Metzer, Maritime Chenin Blanc 2020

Metzer, Montane Chenin Blanc 2020

Metzer, OVP Cinsault 2021

The Seal of the Old Vine Project

Wines made with certified old vines will typically carry the seal of the Old Vine Project stating the vineyard age.  This has allowed the general consumer to foster a connection and appreciation with old vine wine on the shelf. Showcasing the Certified Heritage Vineyards label can also assist with providing the authenticity to market the wines successfully.

 

The Old Vine Project’s unwavering dedication to preserving and fostering old vines throughout the country has changed the way we view old vines.  Old vines now occupy a more revered space within South African wine regions, shaping the production of exceptional wines that embody the country’s winemaking heritage.  Their advanced age bestows upon them a wealth of benefits, including concentrated flavours, balanced acidity, and resilience to environmental challenges.  Not only can old vines produce outstanding wines, but they hold within their roots a depth of South African heritage and agricultural history, and of course, the hidden stories of those who farmed them.

 

 

This blog was edited and posted by Digital Squeak.