Pretty much since the end of South Africa’s political isolation the industry’s sages and savants have been trying to find a way of elevating the stature of Cape wine abroad. Inspired by the role played by Penfold’s Grange in raising the profile of the Australian wine industry, many thought that what we needed was an iconic wine whose reputation and price point would achieve something similar for South Africa.
The problem is that you cannot reverse engineer one New World icon from another. Grange was created in 1950 and only began to make an impact in the Australian domestic market by 1960. Three decades later the limited export volumes still traded at a discount to the local market price. Penfold’s persevered, surrendering easy domestic revenue because they wanted to create a multinational brand. In the mid-1990s you could buy Grange in London for around £25 a bottle. In those days the average price of South African wine in British supermarkets was a little over £3.00. Today, despite UK VAT and excise increases Cape wine sells in Britain for less than £5.00. Grange however trades at over £350.
Clearly there’s not much point in the industry hoping that a local Grange-equivalent will jump out of the woodwork and do the brand building for us. A few producers with real international muscle have tried. At a series of tastings hosted at 67 Pall Mall (the wine mecca of London) two years ago the 2005 Vergelegen V out-performed almost all of the First Growths and icon Californian wines of the same vintage.
Exercises like this help to nudge up quality perceptions amongst international experts, but they’re a slow and erratic way to build brand SA. Max Schubert didn’t design Grange as a strategy for Wine Australia fifty years into the future. Grange was there at a time when Australian wine needed an icon – and wine industries must work with what they have available.
We need to look to what we have to set us apart from other New World wine producers. The answer was hidden in plain sight until a few years ago. In 2002 Rosa Kruger began, painstakingly and methodically, to document the Cape’s oldest vineyard blocks. By 2016 Johann Rupert saw enough merit in what had been achieved to fund what has come to be called the Old Vine Project (OVP).
We now know a great deal about our ancient vineyards. There are over 3500 hectares of certified old vines (over 35 years old) and ten vineyards where the vines are now centenarians. Vine age alone does not necessarily confer special qualities on the wines. Ancient root systems may imbue the fruit with added complexity, but if the cultivar was incorrectly sited decades ago, the passage of time is not going to improve the vinous result. A very old kitchen table held together with nails and bolts may well be an antique, but it’s not a collectable.
The OVP could be profile-grabbing opportunity South Africa has been seeking. Old vines have rarity, which cannot be faked; the vineyards are now certified, and wines made entirely from grapes harvested from these sites acquire their own seal of guarantee. It is usually the more adventurous producers, many with an established reputation – like Eben Sadie, Chris Alheit and David & Nadia – who are identified with old vineyard wines.
In short, the OVP is fast becoming the Cape’s unique selling proposition. Other countries have old vines, and many of those vineyards contribute to their most famous wines. It’s unlikely that they will suddenly create a joint marketing initiative based on vine age. This is a gap which the Cape is geared to take. The sites are there. There are dozens of credible producers invested in making great wines with old vine fruit. The movement has expertise, it is almost self-funding and it’s on the brink of acquiring critical mass. Most importantly, it has authenticity – the hardest thing to fake in the world of fine wine.