Old vines give better fruit and more concentrated, complex wine. But they also crop at much lower levels, meaning that for growers, however good the quality, they can be economically unviable.
So how to square that circle? Perhaps the Cape’s Old Vines Project (OVP) could be the answer.
Designed to officially mark as special wines made from vineyards that are over 35 years old, it’s a South African initiative aimed at helping the country to hang onto more of its great old vineyards.
Currently, the Cape’s wine industry is under pressure. The price for apples and citrus fruit is so much higher than for grapes that farmers are pulling out vines to put in other crops. Vineyards planted 20 years ago at the height of the grape expansion are being returned to their original use – just at the time when they’re giving their most interesting fruit.
The wine industry might wail and gnash its teeth but it’s hard to argue with the economics of a farmer earning five times as much from the same piece of land.
But from now on, wines made from vineyards into their fourth decade are able to use a Certified Heritage Vineyards seal on the bottle. It’s a step beyond merely writing ‘old vine’ on the label; a fully accredited way of really drawing attention to the provenance (and history) of an older vineyard.
The hope is that it will increase the value of these OVP wines amongst consumers and restaurants. This, in turn, will encourage wineries to sell them as separate entities, rather than blending them into large anonymous vats with younger vineyards.
And if wines are sold at a premium, runs the thinking, then the fruit will also be bought at a premium which should then make it viable for farmers to leave the vines in the ground for longer.
Such encouragement to the growers to keep hold of their older vineyard stock is particularly important in the Cape, where Leaf Roll virus has a big impact on the productivity of vines. Once vineyards hit 20 years, growers are often starting to consider a rolling programme of replanting to ensure that yields don’t drop too far. Or even changing crop altogether.
Now, the industry has a weapon to try and stop this downward spiral of uneconomic viability. The OVP team are working with growers to improve viticultural practices that both increase yields and longevity of old vines.
‘We’ve noticed an increased appetite to produce wines from older wines, which in turn drives demand for old vine fruit, usually at higher prices,’ says the project’s manager, Andre Morgenthal.