As neglected vineyards across South Africa are brought back to life, Christine Austin raises a glass to the ways of the past.

The vines grew close to the ground, straggly and twisted by age, and while they looked healthy enough, this was no manicured vineyard. There were no straight rows, there were plenty of gaps and weeds grew tall between some of the vines. The fruit was also quite difficult to find. It was hiding in the heart of those bush vines in small bunches of tightly packed grapes.

‘This is the oldest Chenin Blanc vineyard in South Africa,’ said André Morgenthal, formerly of WOSA, the wine promotions organisation of South Africa, and now in charge of The Old Vines Project, ‘and I think you are the first journalist I have brought to see it.’

Mrs Kirsten’s tiny vineyard is in the Jonkershoek valley at the foot of the Bothmaskop Mountain and it was planted with Chenin Blanc vines sometime between 1905 and 1920 to produce grapes for the family farm. Mrs Kirsten died some years ago and the vineyard slowly sank beneath the weeds, neglected and unpruned.

It was rediscovered by The Old Vines Project whose mission is to bring old vineyards back to life and preserve not just that particular patch of vines, but to revitalise the soils, produce a crop and get a decent price for the grapes which are then made into wine.

But why? Why would anyone spend time rescuing a patch of vines that are quite so old? After all, yields fall as the vine gets older and it is much easier to rip out old vines and replant with new.

‘I believe that these old vines represent part of South Africa’s heritage and it should not be lost,’ said viticulturalist Rosa Kruger who has become the Indiana Jones of old vines in the Cape. She encourages farmers to contact her about plots of old vines that they have on their properties, then visits and assesses their potential. ‘Most of these vines were planted long before we had irrigation in vineyards. These vines have seen droughts come and go and somehow they have learnt to survive. The roots may have gone down deeper, or perhaps they have spread out across the land, to make the most of whatever moisture is available, but they have adapted to their particular location.’

Winemaker Ian Naudé with viticulturist Rosa Kruger and André Morgenthal

With South Africa suffering its third year of drought, perhaps the genetic material of these vines holds a secret about the way vines can survive in dry conditions.

Older vines are generally believed to make better wines, but Kruger shakes her head at this. “I have never said this, but I do believe that they make different wines. Old vines adapt to their location and after a time the clonal variation disappears because the vine acquires a new identity linked to its location and climate. I would like people to pick up a glass of these old vines wines and say ‘this is from South Africa’.

It is a huge challenge ahead for the Old Vines Project because many of the old vines are in small uneconomic plots and so farmers are keen to pull them out. But Rosa has contacts across the industry and she puts farmers in touch with winemakers who often incorporate these concentrated, individual-tasting grapes into their flagship wines. With love, care and support the vines can be coaxed back into producing more grapes. ‘We are also filling in the gaps where some vines have died’, said Kruger. This is trickier than it sounds because new plantings come from the existing vines, and are checked to ensure they are disease-free before propagation.   Because of such work, that straggly parcel of Chenin Blanc that I walked through has gone from producing a few boxes of grapes, to an almost-economically viable vineyard.

In South Africa old vines are now categorized as being at least 35 years old and there will soon be a sticker approved by The Old Vines Project which will verify any statement about old vines. Many of established winemakers have been discovering and using old vines to add intensity of flavour and nuances to their wines for several years. These wines will never be at the cheaper end of the price range. Old vines produce fewer grapes and so prices are inevitably higher, but so is the quality and individuality of the wines.

Until we start to see those old vines stickers on the shelves, here are some of my favourite South African wines made from old vines.

Bellingham ‘The Bernard Series’ Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2016, Majestic £13.49/£10.99 on multibuy

From 40 year-old vines this is a distinctive, complex wine with notes of peach and passion fruit followed by savoury, oaty flavours on the palate, ending with freshness and length. This is an excellent wine to start exploring old South African vines.

Mullineux White Old Vines 2015, Swartland, Berry Bros (London) £22.25

From 70 year-old, mainly Chenin Blanc vines with Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Semillon in the mix, this is a rounded wine full of white peach and apricot notes, dry and fresh-tasting with a silky texture. Excellent with chicken and fish dishes.

Naudé Old Vines Cinsault 2014, Handford Wines (Kensington, London, wine@handford.net), £32.95

‘I think this is the best Cinsault I have tasted’, said Rosa Kruger to winemaker Ian Naudé and I have to agree. Made from a 55-year old vineyard this is elegantly stacked with raspberry and wild strawberry fruit, combined with rose petals, savoury complexity and ends with a long, cinnamon-edged finish. Delicate, persistent and perfectly balanced.

Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2015, House of Townend, £32.99

Sourced mainly from Semillon vines planted in 1902, with additions of grapes from younger vines (1936 and 1942) this is so much more than just a Semillon. It has intensity, finesse and brightness of style. I also tasted the 2005 vintage which had become savoury honeyed with touches of lemon curd on toast.

Mev. Kirsten 2015, Eben Sadie, Hedonism (London www.hedonism.co.uk) £114

The product of those rescued vines a Mrs Kirsten’s vineyard and the most expensive Chenin from South Africa. Concentrated and delightful.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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