Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in, or so the Greek proverb goes, conjuring up further inspirational poster sentiments. You know the kind. “Nature is cheaper than therapy” emblazoned on a snow-capped mountain vista or a forest canopy (probably making use of some serious Instagram filter action) with “The closest you’ll get to immortality” in all caps. It’s enough to make the most city-hardened of us set forth to pastoral pastures, a checkered knapsack and stick slung over our shoulder, whistling the tune of Canned Heat’s “Going up the Country” — or at the very least, trawl Google for remote weekend getaways.
However, vines are not given the same luxury of inspirational immortality quotes. Forget planting for the next generation — you’re lucky if your vines stick around for half of this one. That’s because it’s become the norm in the wine industry to renew vines once they hit their early 20s, either because of virus, changing wine trends or, most frequently, a steep decline in yields and with it, a declining bank balance.
That was until a few years ago, when the Old Vine Project began a viticultural movement that spawned a preservation revolution, making South Africa the first country in the world to formally classify old vines as vines 35 years of age and older. The movement gained popularity quickly, becoming the topic en vogue of the New World in wine circles, with the likes of Jancis Robinson, Tim Atkin and Neal Martin giving their nod of approval. The Old Vine Project started with 8 members in 2017. Today they have more than 80.
There’s just one catch. Being old is simply not enough. As many winos will tell you with a hint of gloomy prophecy, not all old vines are good. As Kevin Arnold, cellarmaster at Waterford, said in a webinar on the future of old vines hosted by the Graduate School of Business along with the Old Vine Project and Elsenburg, “[The Old Vine Project] is based on two very important aspects: authenticity and integrity. It’s from the soil, it’s a vineyard and it has a story to be told. But whoever is in charge of those vineyards needs to make sure that the grapes coming from that vineyard are of exceptional quality.”
It’s a point that was further emphasised by international wine judge and writer Michael Fridjhon: “Just like a schooling system, if you don’t have kids in Grade 1, you’re not going to have them in high school. It’s a prerequisite. If the old vines are at the stage of tertiary education, you need to have primary and secondary education in order to get them there. Which means the management of those vineyards has to begin long before potentially old vine territory.”
There is a deeper message here than planting virus free material and good farming practices. “I go to too many of these old vineyards and I see all of it is being sprayed by roundup,” says Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines. “There’s no real care. The farmer’s not really getting paid much more for the grapes. So, there’s a disconnect.” The average price for grapes in Stellenbosch (the most expensive grape district in South Africa) is less than R12 000 per tonne, which equates to roughly R20 a litre, making grapes less valuable than the packaging that holds them — a ratio that makes little sense to even the least economically inclined. When taken into account that old vines produce only an average of 4 tonnes per hectare, compared to the 18 tonnes per hectare of their younger counterparts, there aren’t many litres to go around to ensure bright financial prospects for farmers and the disconnect becomes ever starker.
It’s a disconnect Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards has spoken out about frequently: “From a business proposition, who’s making the money? Now I’m going to tell you it’s not the farmer in most cases. And that’s the problem. If we want to talk about sustainability of old vineyards, we will have absolutely no hope of achieving that if we don’t start taking a lot of the [financial] risk off the farmer and getting the wineries, who are making the actual profit, take on the risk… People need to understand that they’re part of a whole, part of an industry.”
And perhaps this is the point of the Old Vine Project that gets overlooked the most. It’s more than just the preservation of old vines — it’s about looking after young vines and the people that tend them to ensure they aren’t overexploited before they reach old age. The investment needs to be made back into the vineyard rather than sales, with a focus on strengthening the genetic material of vines, such as pruning for development rather than yield, interplanting and soil rejuvenation. “We very soon realised the importance of farming young vines for the long term future of the vineyard and ‘planting to grow old’,” says André Morgenthal, project manager at the Old Vine Project. Ultimately, it’s a call to shift the entire culture of primary production, where farmers and producers are looked after, and to ensure the economic sustainability of their vines. As Eben Sadie simply put: “If you don’t have young vines, you won’t have old vines. And if you don’t have old vines, you’re not going to have a legacy or a culture that can be passed down from one generation to the next.”
So, what would it take for vines to reach Greek proverb status and be planted to truly grow old as an act of generational thinking? We know the economists find old vines valuable. The critics certainly say they taste the benefits. But what about you?