Attending the Old Vine Project's heritage seal launch

By Jamie Goode | 10 May 2018

Don't you just love coincidences? Well, how's this for one. During my last trip to South Africa in February, I took a break from vintage to head over to the Swartland, for a tasting of old wines from Piedmont – mostly Barolos and Barbarescos from the 1960s. This was on Friday night, and it was amazing. I stayed over with my friends Ryan Mostert and Samantha Suddons, who make wine under the Silwervis, Smiley and Terracura labels. The next day they took me for a drive to see some of the vineyards that they work with. We headed out along the backroads of the Swartland, travelling from one farm to another, on a gorgeously bright, sunny Saturday morning, riding in Samantha's Range Rover. Now a Range Rover is a four-wheel drive car for fancy people, and this one was a bit pimped up with low profile tyres on after-market alloy wheels. You can guess what happened next.

 

As we drove along another unsealed back road, we had a blow out. Annoying, for sure, but not usually a really big problem. We had a spare. So we pulled the car over to the side of the road and began jacking it up. This is where we hit the first problem: the wheel nuts for the fancy alloys were a different size to the standard Range Rover spanner. A long delay followed while we got hold of a spanner that actually fitted these smaller nuts, and eventually Ryan managed to get the wheel off. He replaced it with the spare (an original Range Rover wheel, not one of the fancy alloys), and tightened all the nuts. The wheel promptly fell off. It turned out that the nuts from the fancy alloys were too small to hold the original wheel on. So we had a proper problem; one that was going to involve borrowing a vehicle and heading into Malmesbury to try to source the right nuts.

 

This is where the coincidence kicked in. We'd actually had the blow-out within 200 metres of the farm of Christa von La Chevallerie, who grows Chenin Blanc that's bought by many of the superstar producers such as Chris Alheit, Donavan Rall, Peter Allen Finlayson and the Mullineuxs. And that morning, Christa was hosting a brunch for the launch of the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal, which is an initiative of the Old Vine Project. So while Ryan borrowed Christa's bakkie and headed off in search of nuts, Samantha and I joined the brunch, just as the first guests were arriving. There was Ina Smith of the Chenin Blanc association, journalists Cathy van Zyl, Tim James and Christian Eedes, Rosa Kruger and Andre Morgenthal of the Old Vines Project and many more. It was perfect timing.

 

I've mentioned before here about the Old Vines Project. For a while now, viticulturist Rosa Kruger has been using the SAWIS database to locate all the vineyards aged 35 and over in the Western Cape, compiling a list with the contact details of the farmers and information about the varieties grown. The idea is to help match ambitious producers with these old vineyards, so that the grapes fetch a decent price and make preservation of these vineyards sustainable.

 

The problem is that old vineyards often yield very few grapes, and the price paid for grapes in South Africa is low. Christa's 20 hectare vineyard was planted by her father in 1974, and consists of unirrigated bush vines. These days they yield just 1.2 tons of grapes per hectare, which is the same as 9 hectolitres a hectare – a properly miserly yield. Fortunately Christa sells to producers who are making serious wines and are willing to pay the 13 000 Rand a ton that she charges. The grapes are exceptional, which is why no one blinked when in 2011 she raised her prices by 40%. But most farmers aren't getting prices like this, and are making very little money. The consequence is that when the vines get old and start producing fewer grapes, the vineyards get pulled out. We were given a stark reminder of the vulnerability of vineyards here as we waited by our stricken vehicle on the Paardeberg back roads. We were passed by a number of sand trucks: vineyards here are being removed and the land leased to sand mining, which gives the farmers higher yields. In 2017 the local municipality awarded two new licenses for sand mining operations, a move that was hotly protested against by the Swartland winemaking community because of its effects on the environment and potentially on wine tourism.

 

As well as selling grapes, Christa has, for a number of years, been making a sparkling Chenin called Filia. In 2017, for the first time, she made a still Chenin Blanc named after her farm, Nuwedam. This wine was made jointly at Chris Alheit's winery and Eben Sadie's winery, and was the first to have the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal. So the brunch was a launch event both for her wine (which is excellent, by the way) and the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal. In the coming months and years, more wines will be released with this seal. Of course, vineyards over 35 years old, which qualify as 'old', are only a tiny portion of the vineyard area of the Cape. The success of the old vine program will, it is hoped, not only benefit and help preserve old vineyards, but will also have a knock on effect on middle-aged vineyards that will soon be qualifying for the old vine program. Increased attention on the potential of these vineyards could ensure that they have a healthy future: a sustainable one, where the growers make enough money to look after these viticultural treasures properly.

 

 

 

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