Saving Old Vines

By Jamie Goode | 6 July 2017

Old Vine Project

There's a lot of buzz around the subject of old vines in South Africa at the moment. To the outsider, this may seem very strange, but one of the keys to making fine wine is working with older vines, which, for one reason or another, seem to produce grapes that make more interesting wines. South Africa is very lucky because it has a treasure trove of old vineyards, many of which are currently unrecognized because their grapes are being sold cheaply, only to disappear into large blends. Now there is a concerted effort underway to identify all the old vineyards, and ensure their survival by making sure they are financially viable, lest they be pulled out.


Back in 2002, renowned viticulturist Rosa Kruger began trying to catalogue all the old vineyards in the western Cape. Initially, this was a painfully time-consuming project that involved a lot of driving around. But the Old Vine Project took a big step forwards when in 2014 SAWIS – the official body that kept records of all registered vineyards – agreed to let her have the information, on the condition that she shouldn't publish any details without the permission of the owners of each vineyard. After a lot of calling up farmers with the aid of a team of volunteers, she then launched the I Am Old website, which gave the details and contacts of all vineyards over 35 years.


Then, in 2016, Johann Rupert provided the funding that enabled the Old Vine Project to take the next step forwards. Two important people were hired. Viticultural consultant Jaco Englebrecht is helping growers to restore old vineyards, which, with a bit of skilled attention can be made to produce yields that are high enough (still low of course) to make them viable. And there's the popular and extremely able André Morgenthal, who for 15 years was marketing manager with Wines of South Africa.


The Old Vines Project is a not-for-profit organization, funded by membership fees. For a producer/winemaker, annual membership is 5000 Rand, while for a grower it is 1500 Rand. The idea is to help growers make their old vineyards financially viable by providing advice and matching them up with winemakers willing to pay a fair price for the grapes. Currently, only 7% of these old vineyards have been resuscitated and result in a serious wine befitting the vine age, perhaps where the vineyard is mentioned. The rest are at risk of being pulled up.


One of the problems is yields. As vineyards age, they typically producer fewer grapes. Unless the enhanced quality of these lower yields are being paid for, then it gets to a stage where the vineyard will be replanted. In the western Cape there is quite a bit of leaf roll virus, and this also contributes to diminished yields with vine age (sadly, often with diminished quality, too). For this reason, many vineyards here are replanted at age 15-20.


The typical cost of farming a hectare of vines is 45 000 Rand per year. If the yield is just 3 tons, then to break even the farmer needs to get 15 000 Rand per ton. You can pick up good Stellenbosch Cabernet for 8000 Rand/ton, so 15 000 Rand/ton is very high-end. Thus the need for this Old Vine Project.


So far, eight wine producers have signed up for the Old Vine Project: Adoro, Alheit, Antonij Rupert, Bosman, David & Nadia, Huis van Chevallerie, Mullineux and Sadie. More will no doubt follow. The certification process is underway.


Overall, there are 2640 hectares of vines that are aged 35 and over, which is around 2.5% of the vine area in the country. Half of this area is Chenin Blanc, but there are also another 38 varieties. But one of the other aims of the project is to give greater protection of vineyards currently 20-30 years old, which if nutured, will soon join the band of old vineyards.


This all raises the very interesting question of just what it is that makes old vines special. And there isn't a definitive scientific answer. But the fact that young vines just don't produce such interesting wines is well attested to: in Burgundy, it's not unusual for new plantings on Grand Cru sites to be declassified for as long as 20 years, while vine age builds up, even though there is a massive economic incentive to get the wine labelled Grand Cru rather than just blending it away.


Just how old a vine has to be to make interesting wine depends on the site and variety. In New Zealand, where a lot of Pinot Noir was planted more-or-less at the same time, growers report that they began seeing a big leap in quality as the vines got to around age 10. The younger vines made attractive fruity wines that spoke of their variety; the older vines produced more consistent wines that spoke of their place. Clonal differences became less significant and the vines seemed to be more resilient in the face of seasonal variation.


It's likely that many of the benefits arise from a more complete exploration of the soil by the root system, which is better able to tap into the water supply and seek out nutrition. But there's also potentially some benefit from the fact that as the vine ages, it becomes less vigorous and there's better balance between the canopy and the fruit. The yields are a bit lower, and the vine seems to be much more balanced, with less work needed to drop fruit, or cut back excessive growth.


But there's also another explanation that scientists are proposing, by which the vine adapts to its own environment by a mysterious process known as epigenetics. This is all a bit science-fictiony, but it involves heritable changes to the genes that don't involve modifying the DNA sequence. Instead, there are some changes that can occur to the structure of our genes (the DNA is wrapped up and packaged in chromatin) that alters the way they are read. Research is in its early stages, but scientists think that the environment a vine is exposed to can, over time, alter the genes by these epigenetic mechanisms to make the vine better adapted. In this way, epigenetics could be allowing the vine to 'store' environmental information, and this could be contributing to both terroir effects, and also offer some explanation as to why old vines just seem to make better wine.


Whatever the mechanism, it is great to see these old vineyards – a viticultural treasure trove that South Africa is lucky to have – now being taken seriously. The Old Vine Project is a welcome, timely development.   

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