André Morgenthal and myself met up with the bloke from Bishops in the Bottelary Hills early this morning. Our mission for the day was to discuss the economics of old vines and to visit some of these vineyards. It was a stunning day to be out in the office, with the sunrise blessing the stunning hills in Bottelary.
It was the first time that I met Chris, the owner, creator and winemaker of Radio Lazarus, Cartology, Magnetic North Mountain Makstok and Arrow Heart Semillon. I had to find out why he works with so many old vineyards, what is his philosophies and how everything comes together to make this sustainable. We went to the top of the hill to go prune an old Chenin blanc block. The views are amazing from up there, despite the light fog that surrounded Cape Town and Stellenbosch. The vineyards are old, not ancient, but old, and they need help. That is why Chris is there. To help them thrive. But at what cost?
Someone once told me that you can’t bank sentiment. My response was that you can’t plant old vines. You can’t plant heritage. Winemakers like Chris is not only making stunning wines from these old vines, but they are fighting for our heritage, our diversity.
Chris explains that it all comes down to grape prices. Old vines make unique and site specific wines. These vineyards need to stay sustainable not only viticulturally, but economically as well.
Grape prices of around R5000 – R7000 per tonne for some of these old vines, some bearing as little as one tonne per hectare, surely is not sustainable? Not for the farmer and not for the brand. Maybe we should move towards paying per hectare? I don’t know, I’m just stating the facts.
There are literally thousands of these vines, dying (no pun intended) to be saved by winemakers or companies. Some of these old vines are on extreme sites, either at high altitude or extreme climatic regions. They are rooted in ancient soils with their roots going deep into the earth, tapped into the lifeline of nature.
Fortunately there are winemakers that understand these economic circumstances and the industry is grateful for that, but we need more. Some of these old vine wines fetch premium prices internationally, but not nearly that of what it is worth. More winemakers should strive to work with these vines, save these vines and created exceptional wines. It can be done. It is being done every day. Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst, Chris Alheit, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Ian Naudé, Reenen Borman, Bruwer Raats, Tremayne Smith, Duncan Savage – just to name a few of the guys actively protecting our heritage.
I’m drifting off topic a bit, but I feel it is important to state the quality that most of these old vineyards produce. The are vast opportunities for companies and wineries to be part of this movement, to protect these vineyards, to help the farmers prosper.
We ended our visit in Franschhoek, in a Semillon block close to 80 years old. Here things look different. Here things are done sustainably, here the prices are rising, and here it should rise more. You might argue that it is easy for me to keep saying more more more and I don’t buy grapes. The reality is that I see between 20 to 80 hectares of old vineyards uprooted yearly, only to be replaced by Buchu, Citrus or Fruit trees.
So my tone might seem a bit pessimistic, but it is far from it. I see opportunity, room for growth, possibility to make exceptional wines, upliftment of farm workers through better pricing schemes, the list goes on. We are in first gear now, thank God we are out of neutral, but it is time to shift a gear. It is time to pick up the pace. It is time to prosper.