South Africa’s Old Vine Project looks to the country’s past to secure its future

South Africa’s Old Vine Project looks to the country’s past to secure its future

Those fortunate enough to attend last week’s tasting hosted by Wines of South Africa to celebrate The Old Vine Project (OVP) in London have described it is one of the most interesting and exciting events in year.

Particularly if you are interested in seeing what terroir and age can do to wines produced from grapes from vines that go back at least 30 year. The project has been going for some 15 years, but has been given a new lease of life by Andrew Morgenthal and Jaco Engelbrecht as they continue the work, first started by winemaker, Rosa Kruger, to protect, promote and certify old South African vines. It now has eight wineries formally signed up to the initiative with other winemakers willing to share wines and their expertise in helping to promote it.

Andre Morgenthal says it is going to be a long job but well worth it

Most of the vines in the project go back beyond 35 years and the idea is to be able to give them a certification which can be used as part of the wider marketing.

This is not a trip in to the past for the sake of it. The hope is that by understanding their winemaking roots,  South Africa’s new generation of winemakers can make better wines, using older vines. 

It’s a mammoth task and of the 2,621 hectares of vineyards known to be in South Africa of this age, about 1% of the total vineyard land, but only around  7% have been identified and resuscitated as it were. The rest remain at risk of being pulled up and lost forever.  Around 1,300 ha are Chenin Blanc, followed by another 38 varieties including Cinsault, Grenache, Semillion, amongst others. “There’s a long way to go”, admits Morgenthal.

The OVP is urging grape growers not to systematically grub up older vines but look at the potential they have. But it is an issue for smaller wineries faced with commercial difficulty and managing old vines can be costly with on average, a hectare of old vines costing around ZAR45,000 to work for an average yield of three tons, according to Morgenthal.

To be financially viable, growers need around ZAR 15,000 a ton, but many are operating for as low as ZAR 4,000 a ton. So it is not an easy issue to address.

But it is part of the project’s work to put the focus on these old vines and make them more attractive in their own right. 

The oldest vine in South Africa is in Heritage Square in the centre of Cape Town. A Crouchen Blanc that dates back to around 1771. 


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