In 2002, inspired by the old vines she had seen on a trip to Europe, Rosa Kruger decided to seek out and try to save South Africa’s oldest vineyards. Twenty years later, the drive to record and preserve these vinous veterans has grown into a global movement, with her efforts widely regarded as an exemplar.
Kruger officially launched South Africa’s Old Vine Project in 2016, supported by sponsorship from the billionaire industrialist Johann Rupert. Within two years, it had launched a pioneering ‘Certified Heritage’ seal to authenticate wines produced from vines of 35 years or older. It’s still the only such scheme in the world. The seal, made possible by detailed planting data, has created an eye-catching new indicator of provenance to encourage drinkers to engage with the preservation of older vineyards.
‘When we pull out old vines we are pulling out livelihoods, not just our viticultural heritage,’ says project manager André Morgenthal, who works alongside Kruger. ‘What we are trying to do is to save our old vines, but also plant to grow old so we can have a sustainable model of viticulture to keep our vineyards, our growers and our workers in business.’
Morgenthal says that the certified heritage seal also guarantees authenticity and traceability. ‘Our planting records go back to 1900 … nobody else has got that sort of data. It’s not just a romantic story, it’s fact.’
South Africa has around four thousand hectares of vines officially classified as at least 35 years of age, with the oldest, Cinsault, already in the ground when the record-keeping began. The Old Vine Project seeks to identify such vineyards to encourage their preservation through classification, while also promoting best practice for vineyard management, such as specific pruning techniques. ‘Dealing with old vines is like dealing with an old people’s home. The pill box at 6 o’clock in the evening looks different for each resident and each vine is different,’ says Morgenthal. ‘We’re not really pruning anymore, we’re sculpting.’
Old vines aren’t just helping local vineyard hands learn new ways of working, they’re also a vital barometer within the context of the climate crisis
These plants aren’t just helping local vineyard hands learn new ways of working. They are also a vital barometer within the context of the climate crisis. ‘We are facing climate change [so] we are learning through research why those vineyards have been surviving there,’ says Morgenthal.
Indeed, many believe that older vines have a crucial role to play when it comes to the long-term future of the wine industry, as temperatures rise and water shortages become more commonplace. With its more extensive root system, an older vine can, literally, dig deeper for water, but many viticulturists also believe that, through their clonal material, long-established plants have a greater capacity to deal with disease pressures as well as extremes of weather.
Old vines, or ‘vieilles vignes’ have, of course, been mentioned on the front labels of specific cuvées for many years, with plenty of connoisseurs prepared to pay a premium for the privilege, yet because of the lower yields they produce, the viability of old vines is still widely questioned across the global wine industry, resulting in healthy, heritage plants being ripped out. So could South Africa’s certified heritage seal mark a turning point, creating a convincing commercial market for the fruits of older vines?
‘I think that what is particularly impressive about South Africa is that they have taken all of the different elements – viticulture, certification, marketing, education and tasting – and tied it all together,’ says Sarah Abbott MW, co-founder of the Old Vine Conference, a UK-based initiative to protect older vines globally. ‘South Africa is a benchmark for what the entire sector needs to achieve with old vine wines.’
South Africa’s Old Vine Project featured prominently as the IWSC took its 2022 South African assessment process to Paarl, with Morgenthal laying on a special tasting for the visiting international judges – including an incredible Cape of Good Hope Groendruif (the Afrikaans name for Semillon), from vines planted in 1956, and an Imvini Wethu Pinotage Cinsault, from those dating back to 1932 – providing convincing evidence of the impact on quality that older vines can provide.
‘They handle the drought better, but the main advantage with old vineyards is the smaller crop yield,’ says Richard Duckitt, winemaker at Bellingham, whose Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc was a Silver medal winner in the competition. ‘With that you also get a slightly more elevated acidity, the grapes are also more mature at a lower sugar level, which means you can harvest them at the right phenolic ripeness, with lower alcohol, but they still have a lot of concentration at the same time … the wines are just more mature.
‘Our old vineyards are something really special for us … we rejoice in them.’
Five award-winning South African old vine wines to try
Delheim Wines, Edelspatz Botrytis Riesling 2020
100% Riesling; 96/100
Enhanced aromatics with an abundance of complexity. Rich, ripe bruised apple with honey. Crystalline tropical fruits adding a sweet spice and Riesling signature. Complex, balanced with great concentration and a voluptuous texture. Rich and intense with a delightful finish.
£25.60, George Hill
Quest, Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2021
100% Chenin Blanc; 96/100
Typical characteristics of baked lemon, melon zest, citrus, oats and honey combining with rich oak, expressing a richly fruited and textured creamy complexity. On the palate shines the creamed pear, citrus fruit, lees integration, crisp acidity and stone fruited finish.
Kanonkop, Black Label Pinotage 2019
100% Pinotage; 95/100
Smoky nose with some floral perfume. Well balanced with restrained use of oak. The palate is tightly structured with a lovely clarity of red and black fruits. Fresh tannins and a good, long finish. Exceptional example of a Stellenbosch Pinotage.
£145, Frontier Fine Wines
Belle Rebelle, Mariette Chenin Blanc 2020
100% Chenin Blanc; 95/100
Complex bouquet of aromas and flavours with bruised apple, cinnamon, almond, quince, ginger, stone fruit and citrus notes. Sensation of crushed lime on the palate supported by fresh acidity, savoury characteristics and wet hay ending in a citrus driven finish.
D’Aria Winery, The Soprano Shiraz 2020
100% Shiraz; 92/100
Seductive nose of ripe berries, cherries and a plum crumble nose. Appealing herbal notes on the nose with undertones of pepper, spice and vanilla. Excellent concentration and tannins.
£18.70, Gnome and Away (2018)
You can hear more from Richard Duckitt and André Morgenthal on Episode 62 of the Drinking Hour with David Kermode, on Food FM