One of the most discussed subjects in the South African wine world this year has been around old vines, the recently established Old Vine Project providing major impetus. While there are a handful of vineyards over 100 years old, membership qualification is just 35, i.e. vines planted in 1983 can join the club next year. (Amazing to think that was when I became professionally involved with wine!).
There’s a buzz too around the wines made from these old vines; a tasting in London earlier this year generated an enormous amount of positive publicity for South African wine. Although the best old vine wines reveal an easy grace in their concentration, it doesn’t mean to say all old vines produce great wine; the OVP team themselves suggest much of the 2000-plus hectares over 35 probably can’t.
From old vines and the wines made from them to old wines; vintages generally from the 1950s to 1980s continue to cause ripples of excitement and, when properly stored, can command decent prices on the secondary market. Well-vetted older wines are now available not only on select tastings but to the general public via Wine Cellar; maybe there are other retailers too. Again, they’re mainly from the 1980s onwards, fewer dating back to 1960s and 1970s.
The natural progression leads to old wineries, though the term old is relative. There are many well-known wine farms which have been in existence and producing wine longer than Jordan and Waterford – Delheim, Groot Constantia and Simonsig come to mind – but these two, celebrating their 25th vintage and 20th founding anniversary, represent the early starters in what was to soon become a boom, with roughly 50 to 60 newcomers entering the market every year. Each has packed so much into their 25 and 20 respective years, they do seem to have been around much longer.
Jordan was purchased by Ted and Sheelagh Jordan in 1982, selling grapes to other wineries until son, Gary with his wife, Kathy returned from a study/work stay in California, to produce the maiden vintage under the Jordan label in 1993.
Accompanied by old photos of the farm, themselves and some of their long-time employees (thankfully, they decided against any of media and friends who’ve attended the annual harvest days!), the Jordans led the 25 year celebration with an informative and insightful presentation of what has been packed into those years.
Confidence in their ability to succeed and remaining true to the Jordan style have seen the winery, wines and sales increase. This doesn’t mean they’ve not moved with the times; for instance, all the wines now have names, not just plucked out of the air, but relating to some event on the farm – Long Fuse Cabernet – or person associated with South African wine – Inspector Péringuey Chenin Blanc. New challenges have also been embraced with enthusiasm and success, among them: High Timber, co-owned with charismatic Bloemfontein lass, Neleen Strauss; Nine Yards Travel, celebrating the whole of Africa and, most recently the purchase of Mousehall in Sussex, where the Jordans will produce English fizz and gin. Social upliftment is as important as new challenges; the dop system (payment in wine) was stopped as soon as they moved on the farm. All those workers moved out; many of the current staff have been on Jordan for most of if not all the 25 years.
Waterford, the 120 hectare hillside farm on the Helderberg, was founded by the Ord family with partner and Cellarmaster, Kevin Arnold, leading off with 1998 vintage. Six years to make the winery profitable was the requirement which initiated the Kevin Arnold Shiraz, then from bought in grapes, now part of the Waterford portfolio; this is joined by entry level Pecan Stream range, the Library Collection, a range of once-off experimental wines and headed by the sextet of Waterford Estate wines grown and made on the farm; cabernet sauvignon and the red blend, The Jem, the flagships. The cabernet has always been my favourite of the varietal wines, classic in its savouriness and understatement. All are now under the confident guidance of winemaker, Mark le Roux, who joined Waterford as Assistant Winemaker in 2009.
The Jem is an interesting project, its goal an important one for South African wine. This red blend was designed to reflect the nature of the Helderberg; beyond the usual cabernets sauvignon and franc, petit verdot and merlot, shiraz, barbera, grenache, malbec, mourvèdre, sangiovese and tempranillo were planted. It took seven years of experiments to arrive at the maiden, 2004, released with a price tag of around R600. The price has now risen to R1100 but importantly, so has quantity while maintaining quality; there are 16 000 bottles of the Platter 5* 2012. Further increases will take it to 25 000 bottles with as many as 75 000 bottles possible. This steady growth on all counts from a producer with a track record is what will drive a broader and better image for South Africa.
Waterford has also been instrumental in driving the importance of wine tourism, the Cellar Door Experience in particular. For their excellence in this offering, they’ve received several awards.
In terms of the number of new producers on the South African scene over the past 20 to 25 years, Jordan and Waterford might seem like the old hands. In fact, they are still pretty young, but through their well-thought through planning and aim for quality in all they do, both have achieved an amazing amount in those relatively short years.
Vines are the same, requiring quality vine material, careful planning and attention to enable 35 year olds seem but at the start of their journey.
We’ve come a long way but there’s still a helluva long way to go.