Janus Boonzaier is the sixth generation to work his family farm in the Western Cape’s scenic Breedekloof valley. Here on Gevonden, beneath the high peaks of the Du Toit’s Kloof Mountains, Boonzaier’s 38-hectares of vineyard roll slowly downstream on the banks of the rocky Molenaars River.
But there’s one hectare in particular I’ve come to admire, a block of gnarled and rambling Muscat d’Alexandrie. It’s a grand name for the grape most locals know simply as Hanepoot.
The world was a different place in 1910, when Boonzaier’s great-great-great-grandfather Jakobus Hendrik de Wet was planting these vines. George V would ascend to the throne that year, Captain Scott was sailing to the Antarctic in his race to the South Pole, and the Union of South Africa was about to be signed into being. An adjoining block dates back further still; officially recorded by the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging (KWV) in 1900, family lore suggests the vines were actually planted around 1880.
“Ja, it’s a real piece of history we have here,” smiles Boonzaier, casting his gaze across the unruly rows of knotted and twisted vines, flush with new growth ahead of their 117th harvest. “It’s hard work, and expensive, to farm this vineyard, but I’d like to keep it in the ground as long as I can.”
Keeping vines like Boonzaier’s Muscat block in the ground is precisely the aim of the Old Vine Project, a remarkable initiative begun in 2003 by respected viticulturist Rosa Kruger.
“While travelling overseas from Germany to Spain to France to Argentina I saw how much respect old vineyards were given. And, how much more people were willing to pay for the wine from those vineyards,” says Kruger, South Africa’s most respected authority on old vines.
On her return home, and without a comprehensive list of old vineyards readily available, Kruger hit the road.
“People would call up and tell me about their neighbour or auntie or friend who had old vines still in the ground. I’d scribble it all up in a little book, and spend my weekends driving around the countryside uncovering old vineyards,” remembers Kruger.
Thirteen years later Old Vine Project (OVP) has grown from Kruger’s passion project into a touchstone for South Africa’s viticultural history. In 2016 the project received a financial boost with funding from businessman Johann Rupert, owner of Franschhoek estate L’Ormarins and Anthonij Rupert Wyne, re-launching it as a not-for-profit public benefit organisation. The seed funding has allowed Kruger to hand the reins to Andre Morgenthal and viticulturist Jaco Engelbrecht, while Kruger remains on the Project’s board of directors.
To date more than 2600-hectares of vine, across more than 1000 vineyard parcels, have been identified as being more than 35 years old; the threshold for ‘old vines’ in South Africa [see sidebar].
This includes blocks of century-old Muscat d’Frontignan in the Robertson Valley, while on the outskirts of Franschhoek the ‘La Colline’ Semillon vineyard dates back to 1936, the same year Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the United States. On the high slopes of the Skurfberg Mountain between Lamberts Bay and Clanwilliam, the Chenin Blanc vineyards of farmers Basie van Lill and Joshua Visser were planted in 1964, the same year the Rolling Stones released their debut album.
There’s a wealth of winemaking heritage bound up in these gnarled old vineyards, and the aim of the Old Vine Project is simple.
“We want to help South African winemakers make better wine by working to keep these old vines in the ground,” explains Morgenthal, who spent 15 years at not-for-profit export promotion agency Wines of South Africa (WoSA).
A decade ago many would have scoffed at old vineyards yielding just a few tons per hectare, but today some of South Africa’s most lauded winemakers are tapping into the potential of old vines; the likes of Adi Badenhorst and Chris Alheit, David Finlayson and Andrea Mullineux.
“Old vine wines have deeper definition. They’re more textured and they often display great ageing potential,” explains Eben Sadie, whose Old Vine Series is arguably the finest showcase of what South African old vines can produce.
Sadie draws grapes from vineyards scattered across the Cape winelands: Grenache Noir from the cold high slopes of the Piekenierskloof above Citrusdal, Tinta Barocca from the sun-baked vineyards of the Swartland, and the ‘T Voetpad mix of Semillon Blanc, Semillon Gris, Palomino, Chenin Blanc and Muscat d’ Alexandrie vines planted on the far-flung slopes of the Piketberg Mountain north of Cape Town.
“Old vines really do magnify their sense of place,” says Pieter van der Merwe, winemaker at Stellenbosch cellar Edgebaston, whose Camino Africana Chenin Blanc bagged a Five Star rating in the 2017 Platter’s Guide to South African wine.
The grapes for this remarkable wine are sourced from a one-hectare block of Chenin Blanc planted in 1947 on the farm Kaapzicht. In these hot sandy soils the vineyard hides from the summer south-easterly below the ridge of the Bottelary Hills, the bush vine rows planted just wide enough for a traditional vaaljapie tractor to pass between.
“In the cellar we do as little as possible to the wine. We simply want to let the wine show us what’s in the vineyard,” adds Van der Merwe. “Every year the vine improves its focus on the terroir, and as it ages the concentration of flavour improves.”
With winemakers fast waking up to the benefits of working with old vineyards, the OVP aims to become a matchmaking resource for the wine industry; connecting ambitious winemakers with farmers loyally tending pensionable vines. If the price is right the vines stay in the ground, and great wines get made.
Because, perhaps unsurprisingly, the real threat to South Africa’s old vineyards isn’t drought or leaf roll virus or phylloxera, but money. Old vines produce fewer, smaller grapes and so the yield per hectare of vineyard falls with age. With grape farmers typically paid by the ton, a lower yield means less income per hectare of vineyard and the temptation to replant with more vigorous younger vines.
“After 20 years the yields drop so much it’s not always sustainable for the farmer,” explains Stephan Joubert, viticulturist for wine producer DGB. “But it’s simply about getting the price right. In the past there weren’t enough people paying a high enough price, but that’s changing.”
The growing clamour for wines from old vineyards is slowly allowing winemakers to charge more, and pay the farmer a better price per ton of grapes.
However, if winemakers are required to pay more for the grapes to encourage farmers not to haul out the plough, it means selling their wines at a higher price. But are consumers willing to pay more?
“We sit with a general resistance in price for South African wine and we’re losing a lot of our heritage,” laments Sadie. “Many old vineyards are getting uprooted because farmers simply can’t get a decent price for the work required in the vineyards. There’s a vast volume of vast volume of wine being sold for R35 a bottle. Where’s the sustainability in that?”
In the sun-baked valleys of the Breedekloof and on the cold high slopes of Skurfberg, perhaps visible outside the window right now, old vines continue to thrust their roots deep into the soils of the Cape winelands. But for how much longer? Well, perhaps that’s up to you and me?
Life begins at… 35?
Why is a vine ‘old’ at 35? Although there is no international standard for an ‘old vine’, “this is such a difficult climate for grape vines,” explains Kruger. “There’s nowhere else in the world with so much heat, so much drought, and so much wind. Once a vine has survived to 35 years there must be something special about it.”
But the Project is also focused on keeping vines younger than the 35-year threshold in the ground; planning ahead for tomorrow’s old vines. And the threat is real: in the past decade the Stellenbosch district has lost half of its Chenin Blanc vines older than 20 years, while in the overall Coastal region 70 percent of similar vines have been uprooted.