Malu Lambert: Preservation versus progress in the Helderberg
By Malu Lambert, 9 November 2022
In 1957, Egypt re-opened the Suez Canal, the H2N2 pandemic was at its height, and more innocuously the first Frisbees were released for sale. It was also the year some cinsault vines went into the ground at the property Klein Helderberg on Stellenbosch’s Lower Helderberg.
In 2022, this same farm saw the most grubbed up vines in recent history, with reports totaling around 30 hectares and counting. Proof of this is a wall of uprooted vines on Klein Helderberg Road, which according to some estimates measured around 200 metres long and four metres high.
Own-label producer Wade Metzer, who made a wine from that old cinsault, was the unfortunate witness to the site being dug up. He was understandably taken aback as he had no forewarning. “I coincidentally drove past one day and saw two digger-loaders in the vineyard!” His agreement with the grower was a ‘handshake deal’.
“A sad day for our fledgling wine business as a beautiful parcel of 1957 cinsault is ripped out. 65 years of vinous heritage gone in a morning’s work… all in the name of progress and shareholder value,” he lamented on Twitter, complete with a video of the vines being dug up.
Metzer & Holfeld Family Wines is a boutique concern focusing on making wines from special parcels in Stellenbosch’s Helderberg. Metzer says that in just a few weeks he has lost four of the six heritage vineyards he works with.
Also planted on Klein Helderberg farm is a bushvine chenin block planted in 1964, from which Metzer makes his critically acclaimed Montane Chenin Blanc. It’s been spared the chopping block for the moment. DGB, the company behind the development, has granted him two more years to work with it.
For Metzer it’s not as simple as finding new vineyards. His brand is centred on Helderberg sites, narrowing the pool of potential sources. Making wine is a long-term investment – he’s got to see if the wine is any good before putting his name on it.
Metzer isn’t the only producer who has been affected. A number of new-wave brands – the kind that excite critics – are likewise feeling the shock. In a timely letter to the editor, leading industry figure Anthony Hamilton Russell underscores how grape growers that struggle to stay in business may end up “removing South Africa’s most exciting vineyards” and proffers a smart proposal on how to mitigate that, in essence mirroring the model in Burgundy where single rows or blocks on a farm can be bought by the producer.
With land out of reach for most independents due to price, especially in prime areas like the Helderberg, it’s a marvellous, poetic idea. But is what’s happened at Klein Helderberg just about profit? And to be fair, keeping afloat is reason enough for any struggling farmer to grub uneconomical vineyards.
Another independent producer in the area, Bernhard Bredell of Scions of Sinai is reflective on the matter: “It’s a sad situation, but this will always be the reality. Old vines aren’t just good because they are old. The ones that work and on the right sites, work exceedingly well. Those are worth preserving. As independent producers we need to be 100 per cent invested when sourcing old vines from farmers. The time of just pitching up and buying grapes is gone. Getting involved and spending time, patience and understanding with any farmer we buy from is paramount. We can’t expect the farmers to do all the work on their budget; offering our own time, energy and finance to help preserve and care for these vines is a necessity.”
The issue is complex. I contacted to Heinie Nel, the group viticulturist for DGB, for his side of the story. DGB as a company is proponent of old vines. Bellingham’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc is the country’s largest volume old vine SKU. There’s the Old Road Wine Company, too, that focuses exclusively on old vine pockets in Franschhoek, among many other projects.,
“With climate change the Helderberg is becoming a big focus for us as a company,” says Nel. “The cooling effect of the ocean combined with the ancient soils makes for prime terroir in a changing agricultural landscape”.
DGB has come to a long-term rental agreement with the owner of Klein Helderberg as well as its neighbour, Helderberg Kloof. Ostensibly the contract is valid for just under ten years (the legal limit) but DGB has plans to double that term. The whole project equates to approximately half a million rand per hectare. Nel estimates only in year 13 that the company will break even.
“If we don’t do it, someone else will,” he says simply. “The owner doesn’t want to farm any longer. Most of the smaller guys only buy a few tonnes of grapes as well as rely on the farmer to do the labour, and this isn’t sustainable for him. And we don’t want yet another overseas company snapping up prime land. Somehow we must keep it in local hands.”
After the uprooting, the plan is to leave the soil fallow for two years before replanting with red Bordeaux varieties, well suited to the area. This gap is in place to rid the soil of the mealy bug, the insect that transmits the leafroll virus.
This is the crux emphasised Nel. “There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing an old vineyard still delivering sustainable volumes with grapes commanding prices that are viable for the grower. I really wanted to keep the old cinsault vineyard. But it wasn’t possible”.
“We couldn’t continue as is. The vines were full of virus as well as dead vines, and even if we replanted with young vines in those places it would amount to around 70 per cent of the block. So it didn’t make sense at all.”
Red varieties are also at greater risk to leafroll and resultant wine quality. “We want to compete with the best wines in the world, and we can’t do that with virus. If we leave in the virused blocks, in five years’ time the new plantings will be infected. As a company we can’t take that financial risk.”
Paradoxically, Nel says they are planting the old vines of the future. “Because of leafroll South Africa doesn’t have a lot of old red wine vineyards. Currently one will last till 16 to 18 years. If we can extend that lifespan with the right clones and clean planting material the leap in quality will be unprecedented.”
Speaking to Andrew Harris, the marketing director for wine at DGB he stresses the point: “Old vines are a huge part of who we are. They have been dear to us for more than two decades.” He elaborates on this statement with the story of Bellingham’s Maverick Chenin Blanc, released in 2002 from what became the Radio Lazarus vineyard. “But the vineyard also needs to be sustainable and healthy for the long term. Otherwise the grower will pull out the block and plant something else, the more profitable apples and pears, or they’ll sell the land.”
He’s touched on a very real threat to prime wine growing terroir, the encroachment of the urban sprawl. Real estate in Stellenbosch is in hot demand. Farmers struggling to make margins are justifiably tempted at offers that will lead brick and mortar developments rather than vineyard.
And yet another threat is the ceiling of retail pricing, which in turn determines the price of grapes. As Michael Fridjhon wrote on this site, “the permanent loss of hundreds of hectares of vineyard every year provides concrete proof that sales below cost are not a sustainable business model”.
Unsustainable pricing tiers and grape prices, virus, the brutal, unprofitable realities of farming, property development, climate change – and with it all the sobering threat of losing some of South Africa’s most exciting vineyards. It’s a hot mess.
Moving forward how do we navigate the fine balance between progress and preservation? Let’s start having those critical conversations.
- Malu Lambert is freelance wine journalist and wine judge who has written for numerous local and international titles. She is a WSET Diploma student and won the title of Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2019. She sits on various tasting panels and has judged in competitions abroad. Follow her on Twitter: @MaluLambert
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