In South Africa, not far to the north of Franschhoek, on the slopes of the Olifantsberg mountain, there’s a small patch of clairette blanche vines. This is a special place, situated just where the endangered Breedekloof fynbos meets the more lush vegetation of the Karoo.
The farm, which is called Avon, has a spring that even during severe droughts continues to run with crystal-clear water so pure that people come from miles away, throughout the valley, to collect their drinking water. The vines are a few decades old and not at their best, if we’re honest: a bit raggedy and neglected. But these tired-looking plants are exactly what Rosa Kruger and her team at South Africa’s Old Vines Project are looking for. Kruger and her colleagues are a kind of Red Cross-cum-missionary-cum-dating service for old vines grown in the big landscapes of the Cape; seeking them out, coaxing them back into flourishing form, then matching them up with winemakers who will be able to make good use of them.
Old vines are treasured by winemakers the world over because they have the potential to grow grapes with more intricacy and depth of flavour. Of course, there’s a snag – the more ancient the plant, the lower (very often) the yield. If older vines are to earn their keep, the wine they produce needs to make more money.
During the second half of the 20th century, in the days when the old-style, all-powerful KWV (Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging) maintained a stranglehold on the entire industry, South Africa’s focus on volume rather than quality made it hard for older vines to survive. The widespread practice of pulling out vines and replanting every 20 years to reduce the effects of leaf roll virus didn’t help either.
There’s been a wonderful renaissance in South African wine over the last two decades. The more traditional producers have finessed the way they work, the clones they use, and the places in which they plant classic varieties. New territory has been explored. Artisan (I hate that word but it’s the best fit here) winemakers are doing new things. The industry hums with ideas and a sense of adventure. An exploration and resurrection of the country’s old vines has been an important part of this.
South Africa is host to some 6,500 acres of vineyards aged 35 years or older, of which about 3,200 are chenin blanc, with 37 different grape varieties making up the remainder. The Old Vines Project, launched by Kruger last year, with seed funding from Johann Rupert of the Rupert Foundation, aims to hunt out and restore old vineyards, and help to promote and sell the wines.
“Most of the old vineyards are on the trade routes,” says André Morgenthal, the Project’s communications director, who jumped ship from Wines of South Africa where he had worked for 15 years. “The governor would send people out into the countryside to raise livestock. They’d establish farming stations, places where travellers overnighted and were given food. The vineyards were planted alongside fruit trees, for grapes for wine and raisins, but also witblits [moonshine].”
Kruger, a qualified lawyer, has been involved with the rediscovery and protection of old vines for some 15 years now. She’s the linchpin through which a network of producers and farmers communicate about new discoveries and buy and sell fruit and small parcels of land.
The pioneering producer Eben Sadie has been making wines for what he calls his Old Vine Series since 2006, and an enthusiasm for this way of working has spread. Kruger brings all her contacts, her depth of knowledge and experience, as well as her carefully compiled register of old vines to this new project. The hope is that the added firepower will move things on to the next level.
This isn’t just about preserving a country’s viticultural heritage, it’s about creating it, too. Morgenthal says: “We’re not only dealing with the vineyards that are 35 years and older, but also the 20-year-old vineyards that will get older. We also realised that we needed to plant to grow old.”
If old vines are to be economically viable, the juice needs to end up in bottles that sell for more money. There are still some bureaucratic challenges to achieving this. Eighty per cent of the old vines are still in the cooperative system, which doesn’t always have the wherewithal to produce and sell a boutique cuvée that would allow the grower to be paid more for his grapes. “Releasing them is quite a challenge as there’s often a 20-25 per cent penalty to take them out. We’re trying to get them to waive that, or only charge five per cent,” says Morgenthal.
That patch of old clairette blanche on the farm called Avon in the Breedekloof region is one such example.
“We’re very excited about it,” says Morgenthal. “It’s owned by a guy who farms mostly dairy cattle. Wine hasn’t been made here for a long time. But we hope that, by starting a rehabilitation process with the vines, within two to three years, the grapes will be good enough to make premium wine. It could push their value up from, let’s say, something like 2,500 rand (£145) per ton to 4-6,000 rand (£232-$348) per ton. It would save the vineyard. But this isn’t just about the vineyards. In so many cases it’s also about the farmer who needs to be saved to make his farm a viable economic proposition, then the vines can stay in the ground.”
Now that’s something I’ll drink to – and if you’re looking for a bottle, I’ve got three, below, to suggest.
BOTTLES OF THE WEEK
Made from cinsault grown on 45-year-old vines, this smooth, slightly translucent, red tastes of cranberries and rosehips. You’ll wonder how you ever did without it.
Mullineux Old Vines White 2014Swartland, South Africa (13.5%, Berry Bros & Rudd, £19.95)
Californian winemaker Andrea Mullineux has become one of the stars of the resurgent South Africa. Her blend that includes 80-year-old clairette blanche is knockout: textured and scented like waxy white flowers.
A full-flavoured, broad chenin blanc that comes with a swell of tropical fruit. Try it with Asian spiced belly of pork.