As we approach the end of August, when it will be time for you to vote on your favourite entry in this year’s writing competition, we’re publishing this account by Chris Howard*, winner of our 2021 competition, of his long-postponed prize: a trip to see South Africa’s cherished old vines in person. Above, Chenin vines dating from 1964 successfully transplanted from the Paardeberg Mountains to the L’Ormarins estate in Franschhoek (photo: Gideon Nel). See also this guide to our extensive coverage of old vines and Jancis’s tasting article on old-vine South African wines.
Home to some of the oldest soils on earth, the Cape of Good Hope is also ground zero for South Africa’s burgeoning Old Vine Project. There I found the determination to preserve heritage vineyards is driven not only by the quality of the wines they produce but a conception of value that takes us well beyond economics and into ethical, aesthetic and symbolic territory. After an outline and update of the project, I offer some reflections on these dimensions and how the growing passion for old vines speaks of and to our times.
The Old Vine Project
The Old Vine Project’s twofold raison d'être is to preserve South Africa’s heritage vineyards and to encourage new and existing vineyards to grow old. With the realisation of viticulturist Rosa Kruger’s long-term vision, the project has been orchestrated by André Morgenthal since 2016. Membership currently sits at 142 and counting, with over 250 certified heritage vineyards. It’s not an all-or-nothing scheme; some producers make one or two old-vine wines, while others, such as Sadie Family, Rooderkrantz, Kruger and Kaapzicht, have dedicated old-vine ranges.
For a wine to be certified, at least 85% of it must be made from vineyards aged 35 years and older. This may not sound particularly old, but it’s the average age that vineyards are ripped out the replaced [which is why we chose 35 years as the minimum age for vineyards in our recently launched, global Old Vine Registry – JR]. The economic rationale is that younger, more vigorous vines typically deliver higher yields, thus maximising the land’s productive value. However, as the Old Vine Project is proving, there is a compelling value proposition for keeping old vines in the ground. In addition to promoting the category, the Old Vine Project provides educational programmes for vineyard workers and member guidelines on ecological stewardship, vineyard care and winemaking that respects terroir.
The reward of such efforts is wines of effortless integrity that speak of time and place, reflecting decades of environmental adaptation. The seasoned equilibrium of firmly grounded vines that are at home also makes the winemaker’s job easier. ‘The grapes come in pretty much perfect’, shrugs Heinrich Stipp of Stellenrust as we survey a block of Chenin Blanc bush vines planted in 1983. ‘We don’t have to do much.’ Old-vine winemaking, I gather, is mostly a matter of staying out of the way.
Another winemaker following the old-vine path is Ian Naudé. At a Stellenbosch bistro, he tells me his story before we taste a few of his wines. ‘Until only recently, South Africa was ruled by co-ops’, he begins. ‘I didn’t fit into this box. Eben Sadie and I were the first [winemakers] to go abroad. We were the two weirdos. But we stuck to what we believed.’ Naudé claims he was among the first to start thinking seriously about terroir in South Africa. Traditionally, vineyards have been planted on large, mixed-crop farms to recognised and widely available cultivars, regardless of site specificity. The grapes went into generic blends made at the co-ops or were used for brandy.
As Naudé recounts his colourful winemaking career, his restless and rebellious spirit is evident. Whether on principle or instinct, wherever the mainstream is going, Naudé heads in the opposite direction. In doing so, he’s often been ahead of the curve. He was making big, buttery Chardonnay at Robert Young in Sonoma County before it became the thing in the 1980s. Then he was crafting Chablis-styled, Chenin-based blends in South Africa before they gained popularity. Tiring of Chenin, Naudé turned to single-vineyard, old-vine Cinsault a decade ago and, more recently, Colombard. ‘It’s the new Cinsault, which was the new Chenin!’ he beams. Tasting his elegant Longpad Colombard 2022, made from vines planted in 1983 in the Vredendal area on the west coast, I think Naudé might be onto something.
‘It’s important’, he says, ‘that South African wine finds its own identity; wines that say, “this is us, this is who we are”. Sure, we can make great bordeaux blends and Chardonnay, but what is uniquely ours, what is distinctive, what speaks of our terroirs?’ These are questions that all wine regions, and reflective wine drinkers, inevitably must ask. For Naudé and other old-vine advocates, the way forward lies in honouring the past.
‘As a winemaker’, he tells me, 'the older you get, the more respect you have for the significance of place. You come to understand the importance of honesty and old vines in capturing its nuances in a bottle of wine. An old Greek winemaker once told me a winemaker’s job is to take a liquid photograph of a place and bottle it.’
His photogenic range, based on single, certified heritage vineyards, are delicately expressive, minimal-intervention wines, mercifully low in alcohol and high in finesse. Naudé has such a passion and belief in old vines that he has essentially built his business model and brand around them. Other winegrowers I met share this passion and are making similar moves, the triple bottom line being quality, ecology and heritage.
Elevated quality, deep ecology
Old vines make up for lower yields by delivering grapes with greater flavour concentration and balance. Their well-established root systems are deep (or long, depending on the soil), tapping into moisture, minerals and nutrients out of reach to younger vines. Many old vineyards are dry-farmed, though given South Africa’s scorching summers and recent droughts, some farmers irrigate as needed. Rotating cover crops, a focus on soil health and farming as close to nature as possible are the norm. ‘I don’t need money’, says Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines as we walk an old Swartland vineyard, ‘I need soil!’ Ripping out vineyards not only damages soil ecologies that take years, if not decades, to develop but releases CO2 into the atmosphere. Thus, along with minimal or ‘no till’ farming, the best thing to do is to take care of vines and let them be.
[A high point of Howard’s trip, and one of the reasons he was so keen to go to South Africa, was surfing with the Sadies and Duncan Savage. He will be writing about the experience – JR.]
The quality in the line-up of old-vine wines I tasted at Kaapzicht, in the picturesque Bottelary Hills region just outside of Stellenbosch, was unquestionable. Of the many superb Chenins, Stellenrust’s 2020 (vines planted 1983), Steenkamp’s 2022 (1981) and Kaapzicht’s 2021 (1947) were standouts. Along with the Certified Heritage Vineyard seal, some of these bottles prominently display the vineyard age on the label. We are conditioned to consider a wine’s vintage but now there is a second temporal element in play – the planting date of the vineyard.
As Rosa Kruger observed in the recent launch of the Old Vine Registry, ‘One of the most important things about old-vine wines is that they bring attention to the vineyard, not just what’s in your glass.’ In doing so, we become more mindful of wine as agriculture, a practice in which the relationship with the land is the cornerstone. Attending to the age of the vineyard also reminds us that terroir is not just about place but time. Perhaps in the future, vineyard age will be almost as important as vintage …
Bringing the year of planting into the picture can have other interesting effects. Tasting Kaapzicht’s 2022 old-vine Chenin, The 1947, I see a cascade of images of my father, born that year, flash before my eyes. In less than two seconds, I see him at different ages and stages, a man in the wild sweep of the 20th century, a life unfurling like a vine, bearing fruit and weathering storms; a vine that will always, irrevocably, be rooted in northern California. The images flicker along bright, acid lines and mineral layers, dissolving into delicate flavours of quince, lemon and white flowers. Tasting Kaapzicht’s equally excellent Kliprug Chenin 2022, planted in 1982, the year I was born, I catch fragments of my own, less firmly rooted life. Such is the pathos of old vines, evoking reveries like something out of Drops of God.
One of the most rewarding wines of my trip turns out to be from the Old Vine Project’s oldest registered vineyard. Planted in 1900 in the Wellington region, Mullineux’s Leeuw Passant Cinsault 2021 brings the momentous, calamitous 20th century into vague relief amid this perfumed, concentrated, shimmering beauty of a wine.
The power of old-vine wines thus resides in their ability to connect us not only to place but time. For without a sense of time, observed Diderot, ‘life would be an uninterrupted sequence of sensations with nothing to connect them’. Is this not what characterises our temporal crisis today? Time flies, but without direction, rhythm and anchoring points. Activating our historical imaginaries, old-vine wines invite reflection and repose, as during visits with ageing parents or grandparents. You turn your phone off and linger with these slow spirits who ground you in time and place.
It must be said, however, that old vines do not always and necessarily make better wine. ‘You can make good wine from vineyards that are seven or eight years old. And you have to. We can’t wait around only until the vines are old’, says Jean-Claude Martin of Creation. His elegant Chardonnays, from 20-year-old vineyards in the cool coastal region of Hemel-en-Aarde (recently profiled by Jancis), are a case in point. And in 15 years or so, these vineyards will come of age. ‘My kids will have old vines. They’re for them’, he says. This is something I hear repeated across the Cape and is an aim of the Old Vine Project: planting to grow old. The Old Vine Academy, offering a certificate in old-vine farming, has been established to ensure it happens.
Reflecting the efforts of the Old Vine Project and its members, there is a growing demand for old-vine wines from the public and trade in South Africa. Stipp mentions how at a recent wine fair, attendees were specifically asking for certified heritage wines and looking for the seal. Momentum for this once-niche category is building, thanks to the coordinated efforts of the Old Vine Project and related initiatives like the Old Vine Conference, The Old Vine Registry, California’s Historic Vineyard Society and associations from Spain to Slovenia, Chile and Australia (see JancisRobinson.com’s ever-growing guide to old vine coverage here).
Questions of value and values
Of course, there is an economic dimension to preserving old vines. Many of South Africa’s old vineyards are on large, mixed farms where vines must pay their way or face the consequences. Ken Forrester explains how he saved a precious old Chenin vineyard from annihilation, but only after numerous moral and financial appeals to the roughneck farmer who was hell-bent on using the land for gravel production! Old vines are constantly in danger and, unfortunately, not all vineyards are saved. Yet as the poet Hölderlin wrote:
But where danger is, grows
The saving power also …
As Jancis has pointed out, to survive, old-vine wines must ‘achieve selling prices that will allow grape prices to rise and become sufficiently attractive to farmers that they will not be tempted to pull out the older, less productive vines that may well make some of the finest wine.’ After 20 years, Rosa Kruger’s old-vine vision has proven this to be viable. The bottom lines add up, but understanding the growth of the initiative and category requires a broader economic perspective.
As the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde argued over a century ago, capitalism is not simply a system of cold calculations – rather, it is a constant amplification in the intensity and reach of passions. Challenging still-dominant economic theories that focus primarily on rationality and self-interest, Tarde argued that economic behaviour is driven by ‘passionate interests’ – emotions, desires and social influences. Everyone I met during my week in the Cape, from Kruger and Morgenthal to Sadie, Naudé and Forrester, was driven foremost by a passionate interest in old vines, which are not merely a source of income but of meaning.
The influential contemporary economist Mariana Mazzucato has argued for a clear differentiation between value creation and value extraction, the latter being more rewarded by modern capitalism despite the former being what actually drives a healthy economy and society. For Mazzucato, shifting from a system based on taking to one based on making requires rethinking where wealth comes from, asking which activities create it, and which extract and destroy it.
As the Old Vine Project has demonstrated, old vines create value – for farmers and winemakers to hospitality workers, wine lovers and future generations. What’s more, they do so from an existing resource, well-established plants that ask for little more than organic inputs. But the concept of value here goes well beyond economics and into ethics, aesthetics and symbolism.
Ethically, old vines preserve cultural heritage and consume fewer resources. In their seasoned ability to express terroir, they speak to the value of truth, itself resting on the values of accuracy and sincerity. Aesthetically, they make some of the finest wine around, not to mention the sublime beauty of weathered old vines. Symbolically, they temper the zeitgeist, our current anxious era when time dances out of step, when we must face the tragic imbroglios of the climate mutation, retrogressive wars and uncertain futures.
With their roots deep in the earth and muscled arms raised to the sky, is there not something hopeful and life-affirming about old vines, these living monuments of terroir? The way they go on creating ever more perfect grapes in spite of it all. Do they not symbolise our own mortal desires to be at home in the world yet to taste the divine? If so, the passionate interest we see in South Africa and other old-vine outposts is a sign of hope and humanity.
Recommended South African old-vine wines
Beaumont, Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc 2022 Walker Bay 13.3%
Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2020 Franschoek 13%
Delheim, Old Vine Chenin Blanch 2022 Simonsberg-Stellenbosch 13%
Fairview, Bloemcool Ploegperd (Palomino, Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc) 2022 Piekenierskloof 12%
Ken Forrester, The FMC 2022 Stellenbosch 13%
Kaapzicht, Kliprug Chenin Blanc 2022 Stellenbosch 13.2%
Kruger Family Wines, Old Vines Grenache 2018 Piekenierskloof 13%
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, Leeu Passant Cinsault 2021 Wellington 14%
Naudé, Longpad Colombard 2022 Vredendal, Western Cape 11%
L’Ormarins, Die Ou Bosstok Chenin Blanc 2022 Franschoek 12.5%
Rootskloof, Rhenosterbosrug Chenin Blanc 2021 Swartland 12.7%
Sadie Family, Pofadder Cinsault 2021 Riebeeksrivier, Swartland 13%
Steenkamp, Ou Bosstok Steen (Chenin Blanc) Stellenbosch 2022 13.5%
Stellenrust, Old Bush Wine Chenin Blanc 2020 Stellenbosch 13.9%
Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The first 5,000 years. New York: Melville House.
Mazzucato, Mariana. 2020. The Value of Everything: Making and taking in the global economy. New York: Perseus Books.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2014. Beyond Good and Evil. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Tarde, Gabriel. 1902. Psychologie Économique. Paris: Felix Alcan.
Williams, Bernard. 2002. Truth and Truthfulness: An essay in genealogy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
*Chris Howard is an anthropologist and wine writer based in Paris where he is a researcher at the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD). Originally from Sonoma County, he has a passionate interest in old vines. He would like to thank the Old Vine Conference, Old Vine Project and the JancisRobinson.com team for their sponsorship and support in making the trip to South Africa possible.