If you look on iamold.com you will see a map of old vines in the Western Cape. This map is not small, and what it shows should not be seen as a minor detail; it describes an antiquated viticultural landscape in a country that seems in its infancy on the international boutiques scene.
Like the California gold rush, Old Vines are being scooped up by winemakers all over the country (and by farm workers, pulling them out). If you’ll excuse and allow the continuation of the parallel, the liquid gold of Chenin blanc – and various other white varieties – is being sifted into the hands of those willing to get to it and produce it, be that journey by helicopter or yak ride. Seriously, some of these vineyards require a full blown Spanish conquest to get to!
That being said, the results are generally always worth it. If the vineyards have been standing there for 50 years with somewhat minimal attention, odds are, the vine is more than happy to continue doing just that. After some rejuvenation: a delicate “reprogramming” procedure involving very precise pruning, suckering and other practices the vine is set to produce again, at a quality level nearly unattainable in younger vines, usually with the downside of quite pathetic yields. A bit like when you go to a fancy restaurant and get a steak the size of a R5 coin.
These vines do make incredible, incredible wines; the rule of thumb is that older vines do tend to make better wine. Whether this is due to a physiological balance or witchcraft, I don’t know, but I’m happy to accept the fact. However, the big problem with old vines is that they are old. To qualify as “old”, they must be at least 35 years old. I couldn’t have an old vine pinotage on my doorstep even if I wanted one. Not even Kim Jong Un could have that, he might be able to get a nuclear missile, but an Old Vine is only made one way: waiting. Independent producers are grabbing any old vines they can and wineries are putting their vine’s age on the front of the bottle. As such, these vines are set for unavailability and potentially auction level prices when people come with their money. There is already a big problem with co-ops rolling in the big paychecks and buying out sites from under producers’ feet.
The solution is two-fold: keep planting vines designed for the long term growth, not the usual co-op milk-them-’til-they’re-dry-and-pull-them-out approach that usually sees a vine last no longer than 25 years, largely based on the vine’s decreased yields with time. Secondly, train our young vines to be old. Basic viticulture – crop load, water stress, vigour and good sap flow. Make sure your vine is planted in the right place, with the right clonal components. Basic, but very intricate. The heart of viticulture. Don’t push the vine to produce too much; don’t irrigate it and fertilise as if it were a tree. If managed correctly, the results can mimic that of old vines.
Old vines have prestige, no doubt, and manage themselves to some degree. The problem is, no one has got time to wait around 35 years for a vine to balance itself out. Be a strict parent to your vine and gently whip it into shape. Like a drill instructor dressed as a bunny, posing as a masseuse.