Last Thursday evening, winemaker Chris Alheit phoned André Morgenthal of the Old Vine Project and announced: “I want to join!” By midnight, he’d paid his subs and Alheit Vineyards became the 30th member of the OVP. Next day, Chris was there, clutching bottles of La Colline and Radio Lazarus, at the launch in Stellenbosch of the Certified Heritage Vineyard seal.
That seal makes South Africa the only country whose wines can put forward a claim to be made from fruit off old vines (defined for present purposes as more than 35 years of age) that is certified by the regulatory authority. Members of the OVP may use the seal, and include the planting date of the vineyard.
The launch marked just how far the movement to protect and publicise the Cape’s best old vineyards has come, since it was merely a burning ambition in the mind and passionate heart of viticulturist Rosa Kruger. Believing in the historical, cultural and wine-producing value of old vineyards, she started her search for them in 2002, when she was managing vineyards for L’Ormarins (whose owner, Johann Rupert still supports the project). Most old vineyards back then were sending their modest yields to disappear into the vast blending tanks of co-ops and merchants. The growing list of old vineyards was, says Rosa “slowly recorded during many hours of driving, and lots of beautiful tales of history and culture, of families and seasons.”
In a profile I wrote of Eben Sadie, I told about the link between him and Rosa, who wanted to demonstrate the quality of the old vines by having some of their fruit vinified by a winemaker she respected.
“I knew,” she says, “that Eben understood the significance of old vineyards and I knew he wouldn’t mess them up.” She took him on some of her exploratory trips. Rosa tells of arriving at a vineyard of old red and white Sémillon in the Citrusdal Mountain ward of the Olifants River region: “I said to him, this is magical – please make wine from this vineyard! He immediately said – sign it for me!”
It was a crucial moment in both South African wine as a whole and in the development of Rosa’s project when Sadie brought out his 2009 Old Vine Series wines. More winemakers were seeking out, via Rosa, those old vineyards and paying the farmer a better return for the extra work and lower yields of old vines. Soon the full cooperation of SAWIS, the relevant authority, was obtained.
The old vine project was moving ahead; it acquired its capital letters and its logo in 2016, when Johann Rupert agreed to sponsor it for the establishment period. André Morgenthal and viticulturist Jaco Engelbrecht were already involved and were now formally appointed. Jaco has since left, and André is the dynamic driving force, though Rosa is, inevitably, still profoundly involved.
Thirty members, and growing, already including some of the great names of modern Cape wine. But what particularly impressed me at Friday’s launch was the presence of wineries that I hadn’t immediately associated with this sort of development – Meerendal, for example, showing their impressive old-vine Pinotage. And on the list of members, alongside some expected ones like David & Nadia, Hogan, Sadie, Mullineux, Reyneke et al, the names of Koelenhof, Wolvenhoek and DGB-Bellingham.
Something else that’s not obvious – well, not until you think about it – is the need to nurture younger vineyards into a healthy and productive maturity. Old vineyards don’t live forever, and some of today’s young vines must be nurtured to become the old ones of the future, rather than be summarily uprooted when their yields start to fall. The OVP says it “wants to focus the minds of winegrowers, winemakers and all wine drinkers on the benefits that come with age in vines.” Another benefit for OVP members is specialised old vine pruning courses for vineyard workers (sponsored by Felco, manufacturer of pruning shears).
I reckon that by the time the OVP is showing its stuff to the world at Cape Wine 2018 later this year, membership will have grown a lot, and there will be more wines bearing that seal. Look out for it. It means something good.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.