The plight of old vines, or more correctly, of the owners of old vineyards, has been in the media lately. It is becoming increasingly clear that, pretty much at the same time as we have discovered the joy of wines made with fruit harvested from old vines, we’re about to watch our heritage vineyards vanish into extinction. The KWV era which held sway for most of the 20th century ordained that volume was the highway to value. Growers were paid a fixed price based on tonnage, rather than on the quality of their fruit. The smartest amongst them moved to where sunlight and water were plentiful, pumped up their yields, and, in the immortal words of Evita, watched “while the money kept rolling in.”
North of the more fashionable appellations are vineyards which are not really part of the well-known wine routes. Planted in the vicinity of limitless supplies of irrigation water, they yield upwards of 30 tons per hectare (amounts in excess of 100 tons have actually be recorded). The warm dry conditions ensure that these vast tracts of vines remain largely disease free – thus minimising vineyard management costs. The long straight rows of vines have been easily adapted to mechanical harvesting. In short, they cost less to maintain than plantings sited in the lower yielding, more mountainous Coastal Region.
Of course, a ton of grapes from the land of Mad Max may not earn its producer much more than R1500, but at 30 tons per hectare his annual gross income per hectare is around R45k, and his farming costs are minimal compared with Stellenbosch or Paarl. It’s unlikely that he’s in the least bit envious about the R6k to R8k per ton that Coastal Region growers earn for their fruit. He knows that they’re averaging around 5 tons per hectare and everything from the cost of chemicals to the cost of harvesting is way more than he’s spending. Despite the fact that the KWV and its long defunct minimum wine pricing system has been gone for twenty years, the blueprint still drives the economics of the current Cape wine industry.
The cult of old vines is a relatively new phenomenon in the South African wine industry. It probably started with the Chenin renaissance (it was certainly part of my motivation when I first mooted the idea of making Chenin Blanc the focus of Cape wine – back in the early 1990s). It gained traction with the work done by Rosa Kruger in recording and documenting these heritage sites, and by avante-garde (at the time) producers like Eben Sadie who made the message part of his brand’s USP. Today we know a great deal about where these treasured vines are to be found, what is growing and how long they’ve been there.
We also know that there are only a few hundred hectares of the truly old vineyards (75 years or more) not all of which yield fabulous fruit. In fact, since many of these grapes vanish into the maw of some kind of cooperative crush, we know precious little about their potential. Only once these vineyards are farmed in a more hand-crafted way and their fruit vinified by someone trying to optimise quality will we be in a position to make an informed judgement. At the same time there are blocks which are old – rather than ancient – and which today are at risk of being grubbed up (either for higher yielding young vines or to be planted over to wheatfields or other crops). We need to know about these too – and sooner rather than in the fullness of time – because at present grape farmers are a threatened species.
In most of the places where there are vines of moderate age, yields have remained steadfastly low, and so have fruit prices. The Swartland, Piekenierskloof and Stellenbosch sites which are of potential interest are low-yielding, often unirrigated, many still with bush-vine vineyards which come with higher harvest costs. Even in vintages dramatically more generous than 2016 the grower crops less than 4 tons per hectare. Fruit prices need to be at around R12k per ton (double that when the volumes drop to under 2 tons) just to cover annual farming costs. This is not what winemakers are paying except where the grapes are purchased for an ultra-premium site-specific cuvée. Except where growers are banking this kind of revenue, they’re not recouping the money they need to fund a replanting programme. In time they will either simply abandon the site, or grub out the vines and replace them with a cash crop.
There are a number of approaches which could at least slow down the rate of extinction. One is a proposed leasehold arrangement which would give the grower a safe fixed income for a few years while the true potential of the site is assessed. This would require some philanthropy – either from individuals who care enough, or from the producing wholesalers. (The latter can easily average this cost into their operations and could justify the investment against a long-term option on the fruit – should it prove to be worth it.)
The second is a certification process that puts clarity – and marketing meaning – to the words “Old Vines.” At present the term is loosely used and has no denotative value. Is an old vine 20, 30 or 50 years old – and who checks? The certification mechanisms are already in place. What is required is agreement on what qualifies for the nomenclature, and regulations which prevent the term being used when the fruit has not come from properly certified sites.
Finally there should be an incentive which would serve both the growers as well as the often under-capitalised garagiste producers. It would require determining a fair price for the grapes in terms of what is needed to keep the vines in the ground – but at that point a sustainability seal could be issued. This would enable consumers to share knowingly in the cost of maintaining the vineyards and it would make their long term survival a matter of partnership between growers, winemakers and those who enjoy the fruit of those particular sites.
In an ideal world all three of these suggestions would need to be implemented to produce a result. However, unless two see the light of day (and of these, at least one would have to be a meaningful certification arrangement) it’s a racing certainty that our children and grand-children will have to look abroad if they want to taste wines made from the fruit of old vines.