In with the Old….
There’s always a quest for the new, the trendy, the hot and happening “it” thing. In South African wine circles the hot “it” thing at the moment is old vines.
One of the first things taught at any wine course is the composition of the national vineyard and how it has changed. Semillon was once so ubiquitous that it was simply known as Wyndruif (wine grape) or Groendruif (green grape). Similarly, in the second half of the last century, nearly a third of all local plantings were Chenin Blanc. Brandy, dry, bubbly and sweet wines were all made from Chenin.
It was a treasure trove of gnarled old Chenin bush vines that convinced Ken Forrester to buy neglected Stellenbosch farm Scholtzenhof. Forrester became the country’s most vocal advocate for Chenin Blanc as a grape as well as for the preservation of old vines.
In 2009 the Chenin Blanc Association recognised as many old Chenin vineyards as possible. At the time Chairman Ken Forrester said: “These vines represent our past and our future. They’re testament to the faith shown in them by these producers over the years. They cared for them when many others would have ripped them out, and the exciting new wines they will produce are undoubtedly going to add massive momentum to the excellent reputation South Africa has for its Chenin Blanc.”
About a decade ago, maverick winemaker Eben Sadie came across one such old vineyard – planted during the War years, in 1942. He hand pruned the gnarled vines from the one hectare block, and in 2008 released less than 1 000 bottles of Mrs Kirsten’s Chenin Blanc – for the princely sum (then!) of R824 a bottle. Nowadays it comprises one of his Ou Wingerdreeks wines – the rest being the beautifully named Pofadder (a Cinsaut rated 5 Stars in the 2015 Platter Guide), Soldaat (Grenache), Treinspoor (Tinta Barocca), Skurfberg (Chenin), T’ Voetpad (Semillon, Chenin, Palomino and Muscat blend) and Skerpioen (Palomino and Chenin). All are from ancient vineyards.
The chorus of voices singing the praises of old vine fruit grows ever louder. A glance at the 2015 Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 reveals that old vines contributed to all the winning wines! Aeternitas 2010 had 49-year-old vines to thank, Boutinot Tea Leaf 2014 – fruit off 40-year-old vines, De Morgenzon Reserve 2014 from a vineyard planted in 1972, KWV Cathedral Cellar 2014 from 25-, 30- and 36-year-old vines, L’Avenir Single Block 2014 another 1972 planting, Leopard’s Leap Culinaria Collection 2014 fruit 30 – 40 years old, Perdeberg The Dryland Collection barrel fermented 2014 – 26 to 30-year-old vines, Simonsig Avec Chêne 2014, a vineyard planted in 1986, Spier 21 Gables 2014 40+ years and Stellenrust 49 barrel fermented 2013 – from a vineyard planted 49 years ago.
What makes old vines special? Concentration of fruit, lower yields, balance – and the fact that the grapes ripen at a lower sugar level and consequently lower alcohol levels. Expect to see more respect paid to some of these great oldies – and not just Chenins either. We’ll soon be hearing of more Cinsaut, Grenache and Semillon – the old being “new”.
Fiona McDonald is the former Editor of Wine magazine and serves as a taster on numerous international competitions, including the International Wine Challenge, Decanter World Wine Awards and the International Wine & Spirit Competition.