Swartland legacy bush vines

Swartland: old vines and ancient legacy

23 September 2020

Author: Clifford Roberts; Photography: Johan Viljoen

The Swartland is a champion of South Africa’s old vineyards. Local winemakers were among the first to recognise the importance of preserving them. From a visitor’s perspective, that’s just one of the more unusual ways to get to know the history of the region.

Fascinating traces of the past include cannons on the Paardeberg, which are relics of a signal system operated by the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century. Also in the area, at Aurora, is a memorial to an experiment by Thomas Maclear that helped prove the earth was indeed round. Beacons located in the Swartland were aligned with one on Table Mountain to make the point.

More easily accessible though are several local museums and activities such as the tribute to the wheat industry, located in Moorreesburg; and, the historic architecture route through Piketberg. Many of the farms themselves make rich troves for history hunters. Tweekuil on the Hopefield Road claims the title as first farm to be demarcated in the region while Kloovenburg is a pioneer of local olive farming. Many farms still use old concrete wine tanks that were built generations ago.

Left: McClear Memorial Beacon at Aurora. Right: The Tweekuil Farm homestead, situated outside Malmesbury, with an old slave bell and signal canon in the foreground.
The oldest olive grove at Kloovenburg planted in 1986

And then of course, there are those old vines. While vineyards certified for their heritage value make up just a tiny portion of South Africa’s approximately 90 000ha under vine, Swartland has one of the largest concentrations. The majority comprises chenin blanc and cinsault.

Certification is undertaken by a non-profit organisation called the Old Vine Project (OVP) and applied to member vineyards of 35 years or older. Some have been around for over a century.

“Just imagine! These vines were around before cars,” viticulturist and Riebeek Valley resident Rosa Kruger pointed out at a recent function. She was among the first to initiate the search for SA’s old vines along with people like Swartland winemaker Eben Sadie.

His 2019 Sadie Family Skurfberg Chenin Blanc, made from old vines, has just been named one of only two awarded the rare 100/100 rating from influential UK Master of Wine Tim Atkin. Incidentally, the other was the Swartland 2018 Porseleinberg Syrah.

But Eben Sadie has by no means been a lone Swartland soul fending for the elderly, thick and gnarled vineyards often found in harsh and forgotten climes. Along with Sadie Family Wines, the first members of the OVP with interests in the Swartland included Mullineux, Antonij Rupert Wyne and Boekenhoutskloof.

Why the interest in old vines? The OVP and its members don’t suggest old vines necessarily make better wine, but rather, wines that are different, interesting and essential to South Africa’s wine canon. Standard practice over decades however has dictated that old vines be uprooted because vines produce less fruit as they age. The OVP hopes interest is ignited sufficiently to raise prices of wines from old vines, giving farmers an incentive to nurture them.

But aside from financial matters, old vines recall a rich heritage that feeds into the story of people, families and ultimately, South Africa.

OVP project manager André Morgenthal recounts his conversations with industry stalwarts who say many of the old vines now found in the Western regions of the province were carried northwards from the Cape as cuttings, by traders doing favours for grape growers. “Their survival over many years and concentration in these parts suggests the vines were more suitable to drier, warmer conditions,” he says.

Marius Kotzé and Jorrie du Plessis of Lammershoek in the Chardonnay vineyard on the farm, planted in 1981
Lammershoek, one of the oldest farms in the Paardeberg and the Swartland

Swartland farms with old vines include Babylons Peak; Lammershoek, which has the oldest chardonnay vineyard; and, Môrelig, home of Wightman & Sons. Old vines also feature at David & Nadia and AA Badenhorst Family Wines.

In fact, the latter quotes on its website, its winemaking inspiration: “The great old wines of South Africa and the discarded varietals, the bottles of which can be found in the forgotten corners of old cellars before modern methods and fame came along and changed the purity of the wines.”

There’s no better place to get in touch with that rare strand of history than on the farms and vineyards where those ancients still stand. It’s time to venture out to the Swartland.

David & Nadia Sadie with their wines

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