Old Vines – When wines tell stories
More and more often, wines are labelled with terms such as Old Vines, Vieilles Vignes or Alte Reben. But what exactly distinguishes a wine that bears such a designation? The synonym "Old Vines" is not protected and not precisely defined in the wine law. So far, the wine land South Africa is the only country in the world that has a certified label for the term "Old Vine". For a wine to bear the designation "Old Vine", the vines must be at least 20 to 35 years old. The motto in the wine world is developing more and more in the direction of: class instead of mass. This means that smaller yields are accepted in return for higher quality.
But this was not always the case: when the phylloxera plague swept across Europe in the 19th century, the plant pest wreaked dramatic havoc. Especially in France, huge areas of vineyards were destroyed. After the epidemic was largely overcome, a trend began to plant new vines with the highest possible yields to compensate for the losses. Old vines became increasingly rare. Nevertheless, some of the oldest known vines still exist today. The Stara Trta in Slovenia is a grapevine that is about 400 years old. The two villages of Margreid and Prissian in South Tyrol also look back on plants from the 17th century. The most famous German site, the Rhodter Rosengarten, is one of the oldest vineyards in the Pfalz – Rhodt unter Rietburg - and has been growing Gewürztraminer vines for almost 400 years.
Are old vines a characteristic of particularly high wine quality?
Normally, a vine reaches its peak of performance with the greatest yields at the age of ten, where complex wines can already be produced. This performance lasts until about the 20th year of a vine's life, before the yield and growth of the plant steadily decline. After fifty years, the vine then becomes uneconomical in most cases. As a rule, the winegrowers root out the respective plot and renew it every thirty years.
The special thing about old vines is that their roots reach extremely deep and form a branched network. The roots, some of which reach up to twenty metres into the ground, ensure an optimal water supply for the plants, so that they can be adequately supplied even in times of extreme heat and drought. Via the roots, the vines also transport important soil resources, such as soil nutrients and minerals, which only have to be distributed to a few grapes. At the same time, the high age of the plants means that the grapes turn out in smaller quantities and are tinier. The ratio between fruit flesh and fruit juice shifts in each case in favour of the skin, which contains particularly many tannins and flavourings. The few leaves that remain on the vine ensure that the sun can shine much more intensively on the plant, which leads to more sugar in the individual grapes and intensifies their character. Red wines and white wines from old vines stand for very high quality with complex aromas, for expressive colours and a higher alcohol content. Due to the scarcity of grapes, the wines are also usually sold at corresponding prices and are also suitable for long storage periods in the wine cellar.
Certified Wines from Old Vines – The Old Vines Project from South Africa
The winelands of South Africa grows its grapes on a total wine-growing area of around 92 thousand hectares of land. Of this, a total of 3,693 hectares are planted with vines that are 35 years old or older. The passion for old South African grapevines is reflected in the world's only so-called "Old Vine Project", in which a regulatory authority awards the "Certified Heritage Vineyards" label to wines whose vines have reached a certain plant age and have been authentically cultivated. Only then, a wine may adorn itself with the term "Old Vines". In South Africa, there are ten vineyards that are over 100 years old and cover an absolute variety of soils, such as: Paardeberg granite, Kasteelberg slate, Skurfberg red sand or sea sand at Dwarskersbos. Chenin Blanc has a particularly large share of Old Vine blocks, followed by Sauvignon Blanc, Colombar, Muscat D'Alexandrie and Pinotage. The oldest South African wine block is in the Wellington wine region, where Cinsault (also Cinsaut) was planted around 1900.
Wines from old vines reflect the history of viticulture in the Western Cape and tell of hot sunny days, cold winter showers or harsh storms and winds on the South African coasts. Old Vines are produced exclusively and in limited quantities and are gaining more and more popularity worldwide. With the founding of the Old Vine Project (OVP) in 2016, Rosa Kruger even managed to convince John Platter to include a separate category for certified Old Vines in his wine guide. In addition, the Old Vine Project pursues the goal of preserving old vines and promoting sustainable winegrowing practices. Communication with the winegrowers is of enormous importance in this regard, as it helps to raise awareness of the historic plant culture and to discover and document new, previously hidden Old Vine blocks.
Old Vines, Vieilles Vignes or Alte Reben – they all reflect the life and culture of the people and are a monument to the winemaker's love for his land.
Imvini Wethu - A very special wine from the Old Vine Project
Behind the name Imvini Wethu hides a unique cooperation of various initiators, sponsors and retailers who wanted to support the severely affected South African wine industry during the Covid-19 pandemic. The proceeds from the sale of the Imvini Wethu Cinsault Pinotage were donated to the Old Vine Projects as well as to the Protégé programme of the Cape Winemakers Guild. The wine – vinified by young winemakers - is made from old vines. The Cinsault vines come from an 88-year-old vineyard on the eastern slopes in Franschhoek. The Pinotage vines come from the Swartland and are 40 years old. The Imvini Wethu Cinsault Pinotage is a symbol of the connection to the Cape and expresses its terroir in a unique way.