While South Africa may have a strong reputation for its old vines, that isn’t stopping farmers from planning for the future, as Peter Ranscombe discovers.
WHEN you see the phrase “old vines” on a label, it can mean dramatically different things in different places.
On a remote hillside in Australia or Spain or the Languedoc in the South of France, it can mean vines are pushing 100 years old.
In more commercial vineyards across Europe or the New World, a vine can be “old” after it’s passed its production peak in its 20s.
As vines get older, they produce fewer grapes; those lower yields make them unpopular with farmers who need to sell large quantities of fruit to make a living.
Eventually, they become uneconomic and get ripped out the ground.
Yet lower yields can also lead to more concentrated flavours – the plant is putting all its energy into producing fewer grapes but with greater intensity.
South Africa leads the world when it comes to cataloguing and caring for its old vines.
The country’s turbulent social and economic history means many older vines have survived and are now prized by farmers and winemakers.
Old vines usual grow as bushes, rather than being strung up along a system of posts and wires.
That means they also need to be harvested by hand, as machines that can work around bush vines are few and far between.
Hand harvesting adds extra costs to grape growing and wine production because it takes more people to pick the fruit, but in South Africa – where there’s pressure from the government to create jobs if you own land – that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
‘The lollipop vineyard’
And, just because the country has such a strong reputation for old vines, it doesn’t mean its grape growers and winemakers don’t have one eye on the future.
Danie and Hugo Carinus planted a block of chenin blanc white grapes in their vineyard at Polkadraai in Stellenbosch in 2015 as bush vines.
They inserted poles into the centre of the plants, which will be removed as the vines mature.
“My friends call it the ‘lollipop vineyard’,” laughed Danie during yesterday’s Zoom tasting hosted by Scottish wine importer Woodwinters.
It’s easy to see why; the vines look more like topiary than working plants, but the fruit they’re producing is already being made into wine.
In fact, the bottle sampled during yesterday’s tasting was the 2018 Carinus Family Vineyards Polkadraai Chenin Blanc (£23, Woodwinters).
Conventional wisdom dictates that the grapes harvested from young vines are only ready to be used for winemaking from their fifth year.
But Danie explained that planting the right variety on the right rootstock in the right location was already allowing the quality of the fruit to shine.
He added that, in effect, they had planted what would become the high-quality “old vines” for future generations.
Working with the best
While continuing to grow grapes for some of the most vaunted names in South African wine – from Crystallum and Thorne & Daughters through to Mulderbosch and Raats – Danie and Hugo have also launched their own Carinus Family Vineyards label.
Most of those wines are made by another rising star, Lukas van Loggerenberg, but it’s the famed Chris Alheit who’s behind the Polkadraai chenin blanc.
It’s pronounced nose is full of red apple peel, dried apricot and a bit of a feral note, like wet dog.
On the palate, the high acidity crackles across the tongue in a lemon sherbet fashion, with plenty of green apple freshness and a savoury lemon rind backbone.
There’s a delicious touch of lemon curd roundness on the finish too.
The savouriness of the wine is attributed to its fermentation in concrete egg-shaped vessels and the minerality of the soil.
It would be incredibly food-friendly with that acidity, and it’ll be fascinating to see how it develops.
Yet again, it also proves that South Africa is producing world-class wine at bargain prices; if this wine came from California or parts of Australia then I’d expect to see a three-figure price tag.
Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.