For all its long lead times, the vineyard side of the wine industry is as prone to the vagaries of fashion as the catwalks of Paris and New York. In the mid-1970s, South Africa’s producers depended almost entirely on cinsaut for their red wines and chenin for their whites. Shiraz, merlot and pinot noir plantings represented less than 1 percent of the national vineyard; sauvignon blanc and chardonnay together accounted for less than 0,1%. Since then, the change has been extraordinary: today cinsaut is a sought-after rarity while there’s so much shiraz about it’s become a tough sell.
Initially this reversal was driven by international markets. It was easier to sell varieties whose names and styles were familiar to wine drinkers in far-flung places. The globalisation of the world’s wine market produced its own common vernacular of cultivars.
Now there is a swing against the “sameness” of it all. Ancient or heritage varieties have suddenly become a la mode as consumers have wearied of multiple renditions of oaked chardonnay or pyrazine-driven sauvignon blancs, produced to much the same formula in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Slovenia and Moldova. Malbec has seen something of a renaissance because it is an authentically antique cultivar from southwestern France. Cinsaut is staging a comeback in South Africa. Our Chenin is already back in vogue having all but vanished from premium wine labels by the late 1980s.
Switzerland, better known for its banking laws, chocolate and yodelling, has 200 native grape varieties it wishes to present to the international market. Given the disposable income of its domestic consumers, and the proximity of the growing areas to the greatest concentration of Michelin 3 star restaurants in the world, you can be sure that a few at least will find traction. Against all odds, Georgian wine, produced in large clay jars called Kvevri – a method which harks back to ancient times – and yields a more oxidative style of wine, has taken the geek world by storm.
In the wine-producing regions of South America, criolla (a generic name for planting material which dates back to the earliest days of the Spanish conquest) is back from a place so far below the radar it was almost subterranean. In its pure form the red pais is now to be found in bottle rather than jug wine. There are vineyards of considerable age, and winemakers willing to work them in the hope that they can coax more flavour and intensity from the grapes than the industrial wineries which have exploited them over the years.
In South Africa, our oldest heritage vineyards are Cinsaut (there’s one that’s now almost 120 years old) chenin blanc and semillon. The Old Vine project, championed by Rosa Kruger and Eben Sadie and funded by Johann Rupert, has catalogued where they are: wines made from certified old vine sites can be labelled accordingly. Of the three cultivars, semillon has the most fragile and persistent history. In the 19th century at least 70% of all vineyards in SA were planted to what was known as “groendruif” By the 20th century the older, lower yielding vineyards were grubbed up for more prolific varieties. The few survivors (and even fewer newer plantings) now comprise less than 1% of the national resource.
The same is pretty much true of grenache. Once the most prolific red grape in the world, its decline used to be even more exaggerated in South Africa. By 2010, at the time of the first international Grenache Symposium hosted in the south of France, only a few Cape plantings remained, mainly in the Piekenierskloof. Today it is very much back in fashion, with over 60 bottlings currently available (more than 10 times the number from a decade ago). There are countless fine examples, generally from the older sites. David & Nadia offer several cuvées. Vriesenhof’s very pale, but deliciously subtle Piekenierskloof 2016 is worth tracking down. So is The Foundry, Leeuwenkuil, Spice Route, DeMorgenzon, Thelema, Tierhoek, Neil Ellis, Spice Route, Welgegund and Zevenwacht.