Cape Wine 2012: A passion for old vines seminar & tasting

There’s no other word for it.  Viticulturist Rosa Kruger (pictured) is revered by South Africa’s new generation of winemakers.  Why?  Because of her passion for old vines, the subject of Cape Wine 2012’s most talked about seminar/tasting (click here to see some fabulous pictures of these aged vineyards/growers).

Chaired by Kruger, she explained that her quest to preserve (now propagate cuttings from) old vines started 10 years ago.  Though the powers that be have a list of old vines, it was treated as confidential, so Kruger had to scour the country to seek out the Cape’s centenarians.

To date, she has found some 300 vineyards over one hundred years old, some of which pre-date the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902. As the tasting so resoundingly revealed, this treasure trove has proved a rich resource for a new breed of winemakers without the capital (perhaps the desire even) to establish their own estates.   Most of these vineyards have been continuously farmed, others have been resurrected.

Before the tasting (my notes on the wines below), Kruger and the panel – two other viticulturists (Koos van der Merwe and Jeff Joubert), winemaker (Eben Sadie) and academic (Professor Alain Deloire)  – discussed whether (and why) they make better wine and pondered why these old vines have survived.

Myth or reality, do old vines make better wine?

Wryly observing “we’re drilling holes in Mars but don’t know if old vines make better wine or does a cork really breathe,” Eben Sadie admitted it’s “a bit airy fairy,” while Professor Deloire confirmed there’s not much scientific evidence.  The question remains open.

Still, even Sadie admitted that it’s possible (albeit difficult) to manage a young vine’s natural vigour during its first 20 years to attain the kind of equilibrium associated with old vines – “you can make very good wine from a young vineyard,” he said.  What’s more, he observed while shy bearing old vines “rule out greed,” lower yields are not always better, less still sustainable.

So why did Sadie nonetheless urge an industry which he says “the world sees as makers of great value £3.99 wines” to embrace “a new kind of logic which recognises the inherent value to old vines” and distinguish wines made from old vines – a unique selling point, around which he has crafted his Old Vines Series?

Perhaps because, while Sadie is a keen student of science, first and foremost, he’s a sensualist and empiricist, so was content to let the panel’s selection of wines do the talking.  A wise move because they were extremely articulate. And maybe because, as Deloire put it, old vines are “full of memory,” these luminous wines engaged us not with fruit but with the shape of their personality – subtleties of texture and layer upon layer of flavour, as their stories gently unfolded in the glass.  As characterful as each twist and turn of the gnarled trunks which gave birth to these great wines, can it just be coincidence, Deloire pondered, that Burgundy’s and Bordeaux’s icon wines hail from old vines?

At any rate, “after years and years adapted to climate, soil and people [how people prune],” Deloire observes that, though they came from Europe to South Africa, “today the Cape’s old vines are at home.”  And, as we all know, at home is where we are most ourselves – where we own our individuality.

Why have these old vines survived?

For Kruger, economics explains why many old vines were uprooted – they simply weren’t financially viable.  As to those which survived, a number of theories were advanced:

Sentiment – perhaps simply because the vineyards have been owned by the same  family for generations and farmers were either too lazy to pull them out or, the vines proved their worth, year in year out, producing consistently good wines.

A legacy of apartheid sanction – sanctions kept the country back from renewal – new plants, new strains and, said Sadie, “almost preserved South Africa in paradoxical way.”

Adaptation – over time, vines described by Kruger as purely South African mutations (and which are typically bush vines/gobelet) have become adapted to the soil and climate and so better adapted to disease and climate stresses than young vines (most are deep rooted and unirrigated). For example, Kruger said old farmers talk about stein not Chenin, which has a different shape of berry – one is a mutation of the other.  Similarly, Muscat has mutated, with smaller berries, which have more acid and concentration.  Grenache grapes from Piekenierskloof are the size of Cape gooseberries.

Biodiversity – many west coast vineyards are not cultivated as part of a monoculture, which is more typical in Stellenbosch.  Surrounded by vegetation other than vines, there are more natural predators, less disease pressure and, especially, a lower spread of leaf roll, which Kruger described as “the biggest threat in the industry.”

A new guard – for Sadie, “20 years on from the new South Africa is a great time to embrace history” when, he said, “we have a better voice now, more insight, careful handling in cellar and a new guard who have stood up and made interesting old vine bottlings.”  And who understand the importance of preservation – “that a young man can tell you a lot of things, but an old man has lived it.”  Old vines are the real deal!

Protecting old vines & building a sustainable future

Because they are so well adapted to soil and climate, Kruger argued that old vines will play a significant part in the country’s future, especially taking into account climate change.

Though cultivars are still imported from Europe, the plan is to do more massale selection to improve the life expectancy of vine stock, which is typically around 20 years.  Kruger contended, “if we can add even 10 years to a vine’s life expectancy [by planting well adapted old vine material], we maybe improve our wines and make farms more sustainable.” 

For Sadie, selection massale is also important going forward because “it’s all very well working with old vineyards, but we should also plant because there might be people around in 50 years who want to make wine from old vines.”

While he said you need to show old vines “love, care, patience and understanding…so you need passion,” for new plantings, Joubert urged farmers not to abuse vines, by overcropping which, he pointed out, reduces lifespan as well as quality – “if young vines over-produce in their first years, they won’t get old.”  Or as van der Merwe put it “you wouldn’t give a baby a 3kg weight to carry around….”

The tasting

Sourced from vines aged between 31 and 102 years old which, for Kruger, can “show terroir more than the hand of winemaker if the winemaker is wise” (as these surely did), the thrilling line up was selected by the panel following a blind tasting.

Vriesenhof Grenache 2010 (Piekenierskloof)

As I discovered during the course of Cape Wine, Piekenierskloof has emerged as the Cape’s Grenache hot spot. This wine comes from a c. 50 year old vineyard at 700m on decomposed table mountain sandstone (which is very well drained). Stellenbosch-based producer Vriesenhof has been making a Grenache for 3-4 years, in fact I’d tasted the spicier, earthier 2009 from magnum earlier in the week, also excellent. It’s made in a very traditional way, with 1-2 pumpovers daily and aged in old Burgundy casks (40 in total).  Deep, bright ruby in hue, it’s a Grenache with sinew and no heft, showing floral hints to its delicate red cherry and berry fruits.  With an earthy undertow, for Sadie “Pinot Noir is the Grenache of the north, rather than other way around!”

Sadie Family Pofadder Kasteelberg 2011 (Swartland)

After the Cape was ravaged by phylloxera, high yielding and hardy Cinsualt was swiftly and widely planted with just one aim – to help restore production levels soonest.  Which explains why Sadie referred to the grape as “like having a brother in jail.  You love him but you can’t really talk about him.”  Still, as he points out, the great Cape wines of the 1940s-late 60s were mostly composed of this variety and have proved ageworthy.  These days, the jail bird is singing and, in Swartland, has been embraced by several producers; in Stellenbosch, Howard Booysen makes a very good one.  This wine, from slate soils, is 50% whole bunch fermented and spent a month on skins before being pressed straight into 30 year old casks.  It’s very pale ruby, with purple glints.  A mineral-sluiced, textured palate shows ‘tracing paper’ red fruits and dried spice nuances – fruit is not the main story here – it’s as if seen through a gauze.  Rather, minerality is very much to the fore.  Lovely purity, intensity and delicacy, with a finish as haunting as its fruit.

Springfield Method Ancienne Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Robertson)

From the youngest vines of the tasting (planted in 1979) and this is the most fruit forward of the reds. It hails from a small, steep 2.8ha parcel of rocky alluvial soils on the estate, in which the vines struggle, producing tiny berries, packed with flavour.  The winemaking is very traditional – the berries aren’t crushed, the ferment is natural, the wine neither fined nor filtered. It is then aged in new French-oak barrels. It sports a deep, earthy, cassis nose and palate, with cigar box/cedar lift to its lively fruit.  Super fine tannins and the intensity of fruit make for a long, sustaining finish.  Very good if not as exciting/thrillingly different as the other wines.

Sadie Family Soldaat Grenache 2011 (Piekenseerskloof)

This wine comes from Erasmus and Bielie van Zyl’s vineyard at 708m on table mountain sandstone.  It is 100% whole bunch fermented, foot stomped and aged in 30 year old casks.  Pale ruby, this is as textured and layered as they come, with floral (Turkish delight) and fynbos lift, especially on the echoey finish, as well as spice strewn red cherry and raspberry fruit.  Sweet jube hints too, though the finish is distinctly dry and assertively mineral, with tapering, flavour mopping suede-like tannins.  An exciting wine and in more revealing form than last November’s tasting (click here for my notes).

Eben Sadie T’Voetpad Piketberg 2011 (Swartland)

This idiosyncratic field blend of Semillon Blanc, Semillon Gris, Palomino, Chenin Blanc, Muscat d’Alexandrie from a vineyard under which a river runs is whole bunch pressed and aged in 500l concrete casks after a long ferment (8-9 months!)  I must say it makes a convincing, compelling even, case for taking your time, having seemingly raided the store cupboard bare of flavours as it slowly fermented.  It shows a subtle sweet salt caramel edge to nose and palate and, in the mouth, somehow brings to mind sun strewn glinting quartz/sandstone (from the moors behind my parent’s house), with its sandy texture and dancing, crystalline bright pink grapefruit, intermingled with pretty pear, perfumed quince, dried honey and nougat.  There’s a palate staining quality to the long, long finish melded, as it is, by minerals. Fabulous. Click here to read Tim James’ indepth The World of Fine Wine feature about red Semillon and the T’Voetpad vineyard.

Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2009 (Franschhoek)

The Semillon is sourced from a 1902 vineyard and is blended with an enlivening dash of Sauvignon Blanc (8%) from the following vintage (2010).  Deftly done because this is a superbly balanced wine, with great palate presence/mouthfeel to its round, waxy fruit, though there’s a translucency to its honey-laced lemon/lemon verbena flavours, which are well carried by a long, fluid citrus streaked finish.

Cape of Good Hope Laing Semillon 2010 (Western Cape)

This label is the result of a partnership between Anthonij Rupert Wines and Henl Laing, who owns the vineyard.  This wine is made from Semillon Blanc and Semillon Gris sourced from Laing’s 60-70 year old vineyard, which is located near Clanwilliam up the west coast near Lamberts Bay.  It’s a star bright (or should that be Starburst/Opal Fruits, made to make your mouth water bright?), juicy citrus fest, awash with grapefruit and mandarin, spicier lemon verbena and orange peel notes, a dash of christmas five spice too.  Powerful and just a touch warm on the finish, but very good.

Alheit Vineyards Cartology 2011 (WO Western Cape)

Talk about hitting the ground running, this is a blistering debut from husband and wife team Chris and Suzaan Alheit (pictured)!  The well travelled pair’s aim is to work with excellent old vineyards and, by keeping it simple in the cellar, make inimitable Cape wines.   This highly individual blend of 92% Chenin Blanc, 8% Semillon comes from dry farmed bush vineyards aged between 29-76 years old (30% Perdeberg, 30% Skurfberg (Citrusdal Mountain), 20% Kasteelberg, 12% Bottelary Hills (all Chenin Blanc) 8% Franschhoek (very old Semillon).   After only rough settling, it’s naturally fermented with no enzyme or acid additions and aged in 4-11 year old 225l barrels (super small batch); sulphur is only added following the completion of fermentation, when the wine has become stable of its own accord.  From nose to tail, it’s a powerful, muscle-flexing wine, its lemon peel and quince fruit well corseted, it’s penetrating finish coarsed with minerals, both tensile and talcy.  In a word, visceral!   Wonderful natural acidity here.

Botanica Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2010 (Western Cape)

The grapes for this wine come from a vineyard on table mountain sandstone high in the mountains of Clanwilliam, 25 miles from the sea at 1600ft elevation. Dry farmed, these 50 +/- year old vines produce a mere 2.5 tons per hectare. Only 50% of the wine saw wood and it was barrel fermented/matured in 400 litre french oak barrels.  An intense wine, with knock out perfumed quince and spicy orange peel fleshing out a steely core/citric backbone with lively pink and breakfast grapefruit acidity, mineral quinine notes too, which I often associate with Loire Chenin.  Very good.

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