With the local wine industry suffering severe financial and job losses as a result of the government’s ban on alcohol sales, producers have had to think out of the box to keep staff and maintain an income, even if somewhat depleted. At Creation, co-owner and marketing manager Carolyn Martin has seized the ban on international travel as an opportunity to focus on the local market and on streamlining their operations.
Lay-offs have been inevitable and the restaurant at the tasting room, for example, has lost seven of its chefs. The significant drop in guest numbers, however, gave the three remaining chefs the time to develop an entirely new menu of local fare from quality seasonal produce, which they were ready to serve when local tourism started reopening. Another innovation for the chefs was the serving of delicious ‘street food’ at the Hermanus Country Market.
“With the farm busier than expected over the recent Women’s day long weekend, we have been able to recall some of our staff,” says Carolyn. “This means an extra chef in the kitchen, and some of the tasting room staff are back serving breakfast to cyclists and other passing guests, as well as lunch and afternoon tea.”
Not that the tasting room staff had just been sitting around with time on their hands, though. Instead they were encouraged to attend a pruning course, run by The Old Vine Project (OVP). Carolyn was enthusiastic about the course as it meant the farm could now draw from its own staff when pruning gets into full swing this month. In addition the knowledge could be used when giving presentations to guests.
At the course the OVP’s Project Manager, André Morgenthal explained the importance of good pruning when working with old vines. He said it could give an older block a second chance at life. Different to pruning young vines, he described it as a more gentle approach, and likened it to talking with your grandparents. “The vine has spent years surviving extremes of climate that have given it a built-in ‘wisdom’ which demands respect,” he said. It was essential to have skilled pruners, he added, as poor pruning was detrimental to the long-term health of the vine.
The OVP started running pruning courses for members in 2017. Numbers are kept to 12 to 14 students per course, and participants must include the farm manager and the top pruner. This is because OVP believes in training the trainers, who can pass the knowledge on to their pruners using the terminology they understand.
Creation is a member of the OVP, as are Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Gabriëlskloof, Beaumont and Alheit Vineyards. The object of this project is to find and preserve old vineyards (35 years and older). These older vineyards produce grapes that bring another dimension and character to a wine. Sculpted by the elements, old vines tell a story of the land, its culture and history. Globally these wines are becoming sought after by wine connoisseurs.
The OVP is funded by South African business mogul, Johann Rupert, who has a keen interest in heritage and old vines. They began the search for old vineyards in 2002. It was greatly helped by the fact that the South African Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS) Association had records of every vine planted, which has helped producers looking to satisfy the criteria required for a SAWIS Certified Heritage Vineyards Seal. South Africa is the only country with a dedicated certification by which you can trace an old vine wine to its origin.
The preservation of old vines comes with considerable benefits both for the aficionado and the producer. Morgenthal said that when you buy an old vine wine it goes beyond buying a commodity, as it has a strong humanitarian aspect to it. It becomes emotional, because with that purchase you are not only supporting a legacy, but also helping to better the lives of those involved in the production of wine. He believes old vine wine will become a niche market pushing point of sale prices higher. This will benefit the farmers, and those dependent on them.
The search for old vineyards is carried out across regions and cultivars. Currently only 5% of South African vineyards fall into the old vine category. They are mostly Chenin Blanc because it was one of the first varieties to arrive in the country and later the KWV encouraged farmers to grow it for distillation into brandy. OVP believes the future is in the 24- to 34-year-old vineyards and farmers are being encouraged not to pull out the older vines but rather to keep them for the heritage wines which are gaining in popularity. It is hoped this will give a long-term boost to the wine industry.
The production of wine from old vines is close to the heart of Creation’s Swiss winemaker and co-owner, Jean-Claude Martin, who comes from a tradition of producing wine from old vines. He has committed all the farm’s vineyards to the project, considering it to be, along with upskilling his staff to prune effectively, an investment in the tradition and future of the local wine industry.
More information on The Old Vine Project can be found at oldvineproject.co.za/