Value comes with age
When Anna Kirsten passed away at the age of 90 in April 2015 she left an irreplaceable legacy: the country’s oldest chenin blanc vineyard, which she had lovingly tended on her wine estate in Stellenbosch’s Jonkershoek Valley.
Her name lives on in a white wine, Mev Kirsten, created by master winemaker Eben Sadie and made from her chenin blanc vines, which were planted before her birth, between 1905 and 1920. “She was a great inspiration to me,” says Sadie, who is as passionate about old vineyards as he is about the wines for which he has won international acclaim: the red Columella and the white Palladius.
Sadie’s own roots are in the Western Cape’s Swartland where, as the first winemaker at Charles Back’s Spice Route Winery between 1998 and 2001, he played a key role in putting the region onto the international wine map.
Sadie likens grapevines to humans. “A young vine is like a young man who lives only to enjoy himself. But when the difficult times come he has no reserves to fall back on,” he says, alluding to the Swartland’s low rainfall, extreme temperatures and absence of irrigation.
Old vines are different, he stresses. “They are like an old man who has matured, behaves wisely and has more reserves to draw on when things are tough.”
Old vines also offer reliable consistency of quality not found in young vines. “A serious winemaker wants consistency. Old vines have it,” says Sadie. “That is not to say you can’t make a great wine from young vines, but it is far more difficult.”
Sadie made his first commercial move into the Swartland’s world of old vineyards in 2009 when he launched his Old Vine Series. There are now eight wines in the series, all with names representative of their farms of origin.
Among them are Soldaat, a name derived from Cape Colony soldiers who once guarded the Piekenierskloof pass.
Producing wine from old vines is a labour of love. It starts with the harvesting of grapes from 10 widely dispersed farms and their transport to a dedicated winery in the Paardeberg mountains.
One of the big commercial drawbacks of old vines is their low yields compared with young vines. This has also made old vines a rarity in a world where the bottom line is king.
“It means wine made from old vines is expensive,” says Sadie.
“We have to make it financially viable for farmers.”
The lowest-yielding old vineyard is the one from which Mev Kirsten originates. It yields a mere 7 hl/ha, a fraction of the average yield of 73 hl/ha achieved on SA wine farms.
But what the old Jonkershoek Valley vineyard yields is of exceptional quality. In 2015 it was rated one of the 50 best wine releases in the world by international wine fundi Robert Parker’s publication the Wine Advocate, which awarded it an almost perfect 96/100 score.
Mev Kirsten sells at R850 a bottle, but you probably won’t find one. “Demand for all our old vine wines greatly exceeds supply,” says Sadie.
Eben Sadie Serious winemakers want consistency