What old vines can teach us about the future of wine

May 19, 2021

“Whenever I stand in an old vineyard, I get quite emotional – I feel so small, because these vineyards have been around for so long – some for 120 or 130 years. I look at them and ask: why did they survive?”

These poignant words by Rosa Kruger, founder of the Old Vine Project (OVP) perfectly capture the immense reverence, respect and awe she holds for South Africa’s 3 693 hectares of gnarled and knotted old vines. These vineyards – ranging from 35 to more than 130 years old - have withstood the test of time, weathered countless storms and still seem to stand resilient in the face of humanity’s current greatest challenge: climate change.

Despite this, a general misconception around these mighty elders seems to prevail: they are fragile and require human intervention and protection. While preservation is, of course, part of OVP’s mandate, another big part of their work is uncovering some of the secrets to vineyard longevity through scientific research.

In our latest Vinimark Podcast episode, host Jono Le Feuvre sits down with Kruger to find out why old vines are far less delicate than we think, and may actually be able to teach us as much about the future of winemaking as the past.

As Rosa puts it: “My work on old vineyards is almost a foundation for my viticultural work for the future.”

Masters of resilience

Returning to the poignant question we started with: what is it that allows some vineyards to grow so very old, while others die off within a decade or two?

There is a myriad of contributing factors, but Rosa believes that their longevity may be rooted in minimal human intervention and allowing nature to take its course.

“If you manipulate a vineyard too much, you seem to confuse the vine and it doesn’t know what it’s meant to do,” she says. “If you leave a vine alone to do its own thing, it will do its own thing to perfection. Absolute perfection.”

Living as close as possible to nature herself, Kruger is a proponent for the inherent wisdom of the land, its accumulation of memories, seasons and changing climates. When it comes to old vineyards, she says: “[They] seem to know exactly what to do to survive for another 20 or 50 years.”

In terms of structure and physiology, Kruger says that old vines seem to develop an abundance of roots (not necessarily deeper roots, as many people believe), hardly ever overcrop and typically have a limited canopy.

“So, in a heat wave, it just sits there. It faces the stresses of our extreme climate and doesn’t fall flat like some young vines,” she explains. “It’s just years and years of memory that’s caught up in those beautiful stems.”

The importance of pruning

It’s also interesting to note that most of South Africa’s oldest vineyards are bush vines. Rosa believes that this is a good illustration of how training and pruning techniques certainly have an impact on the age-ability of a vineyard.

“With bush vines you always only cut into one- or two-year-old wood, you never cut into the old wood,” she explains. “With trellis vineyards, the tendency is to cut into older wood.”

The problem with this is that older wood isn’t as well equipped to protect itself against diseases like Eutypa as younger wood is, with its more generous sap flow that pushes spores out.

For Rosa, correct pruning is essential to the health and longevity of a vineyard and she’s passionate about providing training for those who work in the vineyards.

“The training of the people that work the land is absolutely crucial,” she says. “When we stand in

front of a vine, I tell the guys to look at the wood. Where’s the good wood? Prune to good wood.”

“If it’s a weak shoot, we cut it to one eye. If it’s strong wood, we cut it to two eyes or even two branches,” she continues.

Using this technique, Rosa and her team have managed to invigorate some vineyards to such an extent that tonnage per hectare has increased from half to four.

“I firmly believe that bush vines have a longer lifespan than trellis vineyards because of the way you prune them,” she says.

Are old vine wines better?

Since old vines are better at withstanding extreme weather conditions than many of their younger counterparts, it begs the question: Do they also produce better wine?

One study conducted by Dr Johan Burger from Stellenbosch University on the difference between the juice of young vine Pinotage and old vine Pinotage, found that older vineyards make wine with more structure and better pH acidity balance.

Helene Nieuwoudt, also from Stellenbosch University, found a definite difference between the structure and mouthfeel of old vine Chenin Blanc and its new vine counterparts, and that old vine Chenin also added aromas to the existing aroma wheel of variety.

Part of the reason for this could be what is called ‘dying vine syndrome’, where the vine gets over its best and starts producing fewer berries, but berries that are much more concentrated to attract birds, which would, in turn, spread their seeds in a last attempt at procreation.

While the jury is still out on whether old vines truly do produce better wines, a study by Jonathan Steyn from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) revealed that the general opinion seems to be that they are worth more than young vine wines.

In conclusion, Rosa says: “I’ve never said that old vines make better wines, but I’ve always said that they make wines that are different. Young vines make wines that are much more flamboyant, sexy actually, expressive - they’re convincing, all over the show. They have no end. While old vines are much more subdued, much more understated, much more classy, in my mind.”

To ensure that interested consumers can easily identify wines made from old vines, the OVP has introduced the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal that guarantees authentic wines made from vineyards of 35 years or older. This serves to carry the message of heritage and quality to all wine lovers, be they novice or experienced, and garner respect for these vines which may well have outlived us.

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