In wine, age matters – in both vineyard and bottle!
While youth is the obsession in worlds like entertainment, fashion and social media, in the world of wine it’s a different story – the older, the better.
Some wines are made for youthful enjoyment and instant gratification, but age and maturity are where wine becomes more deeply interesting.
The age of the wine in the bottle is the most commonly considered factor when we talk about age and wine: there’s the pleasure for wine collectors of buying and cellaring young wines, aiming to enjoy them some years later at their peak potential; and for those without the patience, many wineries have a back catalogue of older vintages.
To fully experience greatness or for the sheer pleasure of ownership of an icon, one can also purchase 50-year-old Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Romanée-Conti in specialist online wine shops, while treasures like a century-old Bordeaux first growth or a rare 1821 Grand Constance dessert wine from South Africa command headline-grabbing prices on auction.
However, there’s another aspect to the conversation about wine and age – the age of the winemaking region itself, as well as the age of its vines and vineyards, and how it capitalises on this legacy in its winemaking and telling the story of the region.
Wines from older vineyards are prized and sought-after the world over, for the purity of flavour concentrated in the small berries from gnarled, low-yielding old vines that have dug their roots deep and weathered the decades. These wines express a distinct sense of place and deep character, telling the story of the earth they were grown in, many cycles of changing seasons, and the generations of people who tended them.
With more than 3,600 hectares of vineyards aged 35 years and older, including 10 vineyards more than a century old and still producing, South Africa was the first country in the world to set up a certification system for wines made from these heritage vineyards, indicated by a Certified Heritage Vineyard seal on the bottle.
South Africa’s Old Vine Project (OVP) is an exceptional effort to recognise and preserve older vineyards, found mostly in unique, remote locations, and to establish a premium value for the grape producers and for the wines made from these venerable older vines.
Wines from these old vineyards display intensity with delicacy, texture, and concentrated flavours. They tend to be made in small batches by some of South Africa’s leading winemakers. In the five years since the formal establishment of the OVP with backing from wine-loving business mogul Johan Rupert, with the Certified Heritage Vineyard seal introduced only in 2018, they already command high prices, are sought after by collectors, and regularly score highly in international ratings and awards.
For some of South Africa’s best old vineyard wines, look out for the Cape of Good Hope range from Anthonij Rupert Wines, highly terroir-specific wines from some of South Africa’s very oldest vineyards, small pockets in unique locations.
Some of the small pockets of old vines have been in the same family for generations, others are accessed by young, innovative winemakers who don’t own their own farms but seek out interesting vineyards for sourcing their grapes – on both counts, look out for Alheit, Badenhorst, Bosman, Ahrens, The Fledge & Co, Beaumont, Bellevue, Kaapzicht, Kruger, Lammershoek, Mischa, Mullineux & Leeu, Naude, Scions of Sinai, Thorne & Daughters – See these and more at http://oldvineproject.co.za/
When it comes to age of the winemaking region itself, these intriguing old vineyards form part of the story of South Africa as a wine region – more than three centuries of winemaking, building up a track record interwoven with the social and political history of the Cape, from colonialism and slavery through to the advent of democracy.
Exploring this history along with tasting wine is part of the charm of a South African wine tour.
Constantia, now a high-value suburb of Cape Town where mansions jostle with vineyards on the forested slopes of Table Mountain, lays claim to being the oldest winemaking region in the world outside of Europe. It’s rather like the “old world of the new world” in wine terms – and winemaking history in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek is not far behind
Wine was first made at the Cape in 1659 and the country’s first wine farm, Groot Constantia, established in 1685, is still making fine wine today – including Grand Constance, the modern-day version of the sweet Constantia wines that were sought-after by the crowned heads of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In fact, it was vine cuttings from the Cape of Good Hope shipped to the penal colony of New South Wales in 1788 that seeded the Australian wine industry.
Records of three centuries ago are sketchy but it is known that from the late 1700s, the likes of Frederick the Great of Prussia, the last kings of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, and English royalty were regular customers of Groot Constantia.
Constantia wine was shipped to Napoleon in exile on the island of St Helena from 1815 until his death in 1821 and it features in literature too. Constantia wine is recommended in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) for its “healing powers on a disappointed heart”, it was served in Charles Dickens’s last novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), along with a home-made biscuit, for spiritual support, and the French poet Baudelaire (1857) professed that he preferred the “elixir” of his lover’s mouth “even more than Constantia, than opium…”.
More recently, literature featuring Cape wine history came from the pen of American historical novelist James A. Michener who used Meerlust in Stellenbosch – now owned and farmed for winemaking by eight generations of the Myburgh family since 1756 – as the inspiration for his 1980 novel “The Covenant” on the history of South Africa.
Age – whether it is the age and history of the region, the age and conserving of heritage vineyards, or the age-ability of wine in the bottle – South African wine meets the brief on all counts.