A biodiversity hotspot with more plant species than a tropical rainforest, the Cape Floral Region surrounding Cape Town in South Africa is home to a hypnotic array of biological history, including some of the New World’s oldest grapevines. Prized for their resilience, unctuous texture, and the flavor-packed wines they produce, these gnarled vines supply the scientific and financial motivation for continued global cultivation.
Scanning the horizon in central Stellenbosch, luxury shops and high-end restaurants provide a buzz of modernity. Yet just outside the bustling town, the footprints of tradition are far more prevalent across the region’s jagged hillsides. In fact, the South African region’s older vines have generated such a frenzy that in 2016 the Old Vine Project was launched to officially identify, define, and protect the country’s historical vineyards.
According to founder and viticulturist Rosa Kruger, “Aged vines bring an intensity, a perceived freshness, a texture, and a sense of place. They show less fresh fruit and varietal character, and more terroir and soil.”
The Old Vine Project categorizes vineyards from 35 to more than 100 years old, documenting their initial planting dates, varieties, and the unique climatic conditions where the vines thrive. In California and Australia, similar organizations are cropping up to educate and study the merits of heritage grapevines.
“I tell consumers that when they are drinking old-vine wines they are drinking something special,” says Australian winemaker John Duval of John Duval Wines, and the longtime director of winemaking for Penfolds, one of the country’s most famous wineries. “It’s a glass of history, and this is certainly the case of many Barossa wines, which draw on vineyards planted as far back as 1843.”
Getting to the Root of Old Vines
The underground complexity of ancient, dry-farmed vineyards is heralded as their biggest strength. Before drip irrigation became commonplace, vines were forced to develop complex root systems, capable of accessing water and nutrients deep beneath the soil surface. Successful vines grew massive root systems reaching up to 33 feet (10 m) in depth, allowing them to survive droughts and floods with relative ease compared to more youthful vineyards.
“Older vines can withstand climatic pressures better than very young vines,” explains Kruger, who researches ancient vineyards around the world. “They grow according to the reserves they built up during the previous seasons, as well as the present season.”
Today, conventionally farmed vineyards have shallow root systems that lie within the top two meters of soil, where they receive water and nutrients from perfectly placed sprinklers. The results help farmers counter vintage variation and produce a steady crop. However, as climate change brings more intense heatwaves, and droughts restrict watering capacity, young vines dependent on irrigation are more likely to die than those with far-reaching underground networks.
“If we can learn more about the aging process of vines, and how and why they survive climatic stresses,” explains Kruger, “we could plant young vines with a culture to grow them to old age and be more sustainable.”
Cultivating old vines takes a significant degree of care, and the flavor concentration of these vines comes at a price: reduced yields. Smaller crop loads mean less profit for most growers, resulting in the destruction of otherwise fantastic vineyard parcels.
“There are many ways to get an old vine to increase its yield, but it takes two to three years,” says Kruger, pointing out that careful pruning and use of fertilizer can improve the production of even the oldest vines.
While opponents argue the advantages of old vineyards are anecdotal, experts including Kruger and Duval are turning to science to prove the opposite. Recent research by South African scientist Johan Burger discovered traceable chemical differences in old-vine fruit, and The Australian Wine Research Institute is currently examining the differences between old and young vines.
“When you pick old and young vines separately and vinify them the same way, you can absolutely taste the difference,” says Turley Wine Cellars’ winemaker Nick Finarelli, who leads the Amador county winery for the Californian Zinfandel specialist. Founding members of the Historical Vineyard Society, Turley bottles over 40 old-vine wines from across the state.
“Old vines have a good way of self-regulating,” explains Finarelli. “They tend to handle the highs and lows of a season better, and that comes through in more balanced wines.”
Likewise, Duval’s Entity Shiraz was born from the Barossa region’s best old-vine grapes, which impart a deep concentration of color and flavor to the wine. “I like the extra flavor, concentration, and structure associated with well-managed old-vine vineyards,” Duval says.
In South Africa, Reyneke’s Natural Chenin Blanc—from vines planted in the 1960s and ’70s—is incredibly expressive with honey, chamomile, and rosemary aromatics that would give any Loire bottle a serious challenge. Likewise, Naudé Wines provides a red counterpoint to European varietals in its flavorful, floral Old Vine Cinsault.
While New World wine regions are spearheading the research and protection of these sites, winemakers in Europe have long equated age with quality. In the Rhône Valley of France, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is renowned for its old vines, with estates like Vieux Télégraphe consistently producing exceptional, cellar-worthy blends from its ancient La Crau parcel. Likewise, DO Ferreiro in Spain’s Rías Baixas region is known for outstanding whites from vineyards up to 200 years old.
At once a window to the past and a roadmap to the future, it is impossible to ignore the relationship between old vineyards and wines of exceptional complexity: age in this case is definitely more than a number.