The beauty of aged vines

Friday, 21. April 2017 - 11:45
Gert Cloete/WOSA
It’s a quiet, warm night in downtown Stellenbosch, and André Morgenthal pulls out some bottles and stands them on the table. They’re all old vine Cinsault, which can command up to five times the price of wines made from younger vines. Gnarled old vines are the alchemists of the wine world, whose deep roots tap the truest expressions of terroir, producing grudging quantities of intensely flavoured grapes.

There are, it’s thought, many of these old vines planted in out-of-the-way places in South Africa, and Morgenthal is on a mission to find them.

The project
In the 1990s, explains Morgenthal, a lawyer called Rosa Kruger got tired of practicing law in Johannesburg and moved to Stellenbosch, where she self-trained as a viticulturist. “After she travelled the world to taste and experience wine, she ended up being very excited about old vines.” When she returned to South Africa, she began cataloguing old vine vineyards. Later she worked at Johann Rupert’s prestige winery L’Ormarins, and with Rupert’s backing, Kruger continued her quest to find old vines in neglected blocks. Some were found in the Swartland, and “pioneers like her friend Eben Sadie made people aware they were sitting on these gems, and suddenly we were seeing old vine wines out of a region that we never knew about.”

After the spectacular international success of Sadie’s Old Vine Series wines, launched in 2009, Kruger began hearing both from farmers anxious to offload their grapes, and winemakers trying to find them. She created the Old Vine Project to map out where these vines might be hiding, and recruited André Morgenthal, formerly of Wines of South Africa, and viticulturist Jaco Engelbrecht to find them. The Rupert Foundation is providing seed funding.

Morgenthal says there are an estimated 2,662 ha of vines that are at least 35 years old, and sometimes over 100 years old. So far, around 7% of the total have been identified. “A lot of the grapes are already taken by an Eben Sadie or a Rupert.” Of what’s left, Morgenthal says he thinks a third of it will be “useless – not all old vines make great wines”. And, unfortunately, he thinks another third will be pulled out before the team can get to it.

The problem is that they are mostly low-yielding bush vines that are difficult to prune and pick. “An old vine needs to be treated like an old person, with care and respect,” says Morgenthal. “Pruning is basically sculpting – each old vine has developed its own personality.” Old vines also dislike weeds, and when one dies, it’s hard to plant something in its place. “Old vine vineyards are like old age homes – you have a funeral every week or so. You have to fill the gap.” The problem, he says, is that the old vines take all the food and “bully the new vines”.

And yet for all this hard work, “the farmer doesn’t get enough rand per ton, and it’s not worth it.”

Making it pay
Old vineyards yield between 1.5 to 5 tons per hectare, says Morgenthal, and the grower needs to earn at least R12,000 ($917.00) to R25,000 per ton to be economically viable.

But around 80% of the old vines lie within the cooperatives, some of which impose a penalty of up to 15% for selling the grapes elsewhere. “We’re trying to convince the cooperatives or the rock star winemakers to pay more to keep these farmers in business,” says Morgenthal. He says some cooperatives have now reduced the penalty to 5% or even zero, while another has decided to pay more for old vine grapes, to develop its own higher-quality wine.

The Old Vine Project is developing a website, to map out the vines and connect farmers and buyers. Morgenthal has also started a group with winemaker Mike Ratcliffe, called Rootstock. Every month they bring people together for wine talks. In the first month they had an old vine discussion. “One winemaker raised his hand and said, ‘How do I get hold of some?’”

Seeking out old vines is tough work, and so is convincing growers not to pull them out. But Morgenthal is optimistic. “It’s like saving the rhinos – you can work as hard as you can, and you’ll save a few in the end, but not all of them.” Sometimes, it’s really satisfying work. “One farmer told us he can now put his daughter through university because he was put in touch with four winemakers.”

And with that, Morgenthal carefully removes the cork from one of the bottles of Cinsault.
Felicity Carter