Recently a special tasting of Old Vine wines was held in Stellenbosch. It was an event I did not want to miss – I had filmed an insert for CNN’s Inside Africa on the Old Vine project, walked through vines at sunrise, tasted cold grapes at harvest, lingered in cellars and conducted interviews with passionate wine-makers – without drinking a drop of the wine old vines produce. We had too much filming to accomplish to sit back with a glass in hand. Now that production was over, it was time to sample just a few extraordinary wines made from grapes from veteran vines.
Until fairly recently, in South Africa, the lifespan of a vine was considered to be not much beyond 30 years. It is at this point that the vineyard’s yield drops, and they become less commercially viable. Or so it was thought.
Fifteen years ago, self-taught viticulturist, Rosa Kruger, started to explore the power and the glory of old vineyards, after many trips to wine-making regions in Europe. She became a champion of their cause, traversing the countryside in the Western Cape to find old neglected vineyards that might be rehabilitated to make beautiful wines. These wines are more expensive, making the old vines once again desirable. (Rosa is now a sought-after consultant, advising on harvests, and consulting in the vineyards, both young and old.)
Rosa’s conviction in the old, often abandoned vineyards, slowly turned sentiment around, partly due to her relationships with unique wine-makers and land-owners. Her special friendship with Eben Sadie, wine-maker extraordinaire of the Swartland, led to old vines playing an important role in the success of his wines. He has a well-deserved international reputation for fine wine; his wines sell out within a week of release.
Rosa also worked for Antonij Rupert Wines, where his brother, Johann’s interest in her project funded important data collection for what was to become the Old Vineyard Project. L’Ormarins has an old Vine wine range made from parcels of vines around the Western Cape, including the West Coast. Their locations, owners and ages are listed on the tasting room wall of that extraordinary farm. Johann Rupert is the founder funder of the Old Vine Project, although Rosa has moved on to private practice so to speak.
But she left behind her a young success story, a viticulturist who is walking in her footsteps. Deborah Isaacs interest in terroir started as a girl. Her father taught her and her siblings to farm as children to keep themselves out of mischief, and she spent many hours of playtime cultivating her small allotment on the family plot. So when she grew up she knew she wanted to work outside, with dirt under fingernails and soil beneath her feet. But it was only when she met Rosa, with her passion for old vines, that she decided that viticulture was to be her specialty. She now manages all the vineyards for Antonij Rupert Wines, a significant post for a young woman.
Deborah was our guide on the famed Rupert farm, L’Ormarins, a sophisticated wine-making space in the region of Groot Drakenstein, near Franschoek. It was founded originally by a French Huguenot, Jean Roi. He was one of a group of French Protestants who fled to the Cape to escape religious prosecution in the end of the 17th century. They founded the small town of Franschhoek (French Corner) and the story goes that they brought the culture of wine-making with them from Europe.
Deborah mentioned that there were barrels bearing the original Huguenot names and standards in a Cape Dutch styled building nearby, surrounded by lush garden and lawns. Inside was shadowy and cool, but one next to each other sat oak barrels each bearing the standard of a different Huguenot family. I stood and gazed at the names and the carved wooden heraldry, echoes of echoes of time past, a story told through wood and vine and wines that have been drunk through centuries, surnames like Roux, Jourdan, Mouton and Du-Pre, which are still carried in varying forms by South Africans today.
Deborah also took us to aa 54-year-old Chenin Blanc vineyard, up against the mountain side. It was special because it was entirely transplanted from the Swartland by Rosa, because Mr Rupert wanted an old vineyard on his farm. The block produces a white wine called Ou Bosstok which is not commercially available. It is effectively Mr Rupert’s house-wine.
So, when I spied Ou Bosstok at the wine tasting, I made sure to try some. It was the one I remember with the most clarity – light, sparkling, steady, superb. But it was only one of many delicious wines I sampled. I don’t have a particularly educated palate. Nonetheless tasting the wines at this event seemed a just reward for the hours of work in creating the feature on the vines they came from.
The manager of the Stellenbosch-based Old Vine Project, Andre Morgenthal, is changing the way viticulturists and wine-makers think. He’s volunteered to use his extensive knowledge of the wine industry to preserve the heritage of the older vineyards, and with that their stories, the last link back to the people who made wine here in South Africa generations and even centuries ago.
Vines are a static subject in many ways, they stand still and endure, seasons, sunlight, droughts and floods. So the feature I produced for CNN’s Inside Africa had to be carried by people, specifically story-tellers. One of the joys of creating this insert was the wonderful people we met on our way. The links are below. Enjoy the journey.