A taste of history

When did the Old Vine story really begin? It was a question even Rosa Kruger and Andre Morgenthal had difficulty answering and they have both been involved with the Old Vine Project from its early days. Rosa started hunting down old vineyards while working at L’Ormarins for Johann Rupert. In 2007 she also established I Am Old, a website where she listed those vineyards over 35 years old; to begin with she had to track down those details from the farmers themselves and with the help of Vinpro, as SAWIS wouldn’t release them.

The boxed set of Ouwingerds wines with Kentridge labels

Trying to recall these beginnings was the prelude to a tasting I hosted of the maiden Sadie Family Wines 2009 Ouwingerds range. Eben had kindly given me the wines many years ago; it seemed appropriate to open them as the momentum of the Old Vine Project continues to grow and as the wines reach ten years old. Eben started by giving us some historical background on the range and each vineyard.

It was relevant to the wines themselves that both Skurfberg (chenin) and Kokerboom (semillon) vineyards were in good shape when Eben first took in the fruit; not so for Mrs Kirsten (chenin) which was run down. It was this wine which limited the number of Ouwingerds range cases as just 300 bottles were made each year from 2006 to 2010.

Regenerating the vineyards has required interplanting; in clean blocks like Skurfberg and Kokerboom, using their own material. In virused vineyards, such as Mrs Kirsten and Treinspoor (tinta barocca), interplantings are from clean material. These younger vines do contribute to the final wine but the grapes are harvested at a different time.

Over the years, vinification has undergone major changes. The 2009s were basket-pressed and all spontaneously-fermented in small, roughly 22 year-old oak barrels purchased from Thelema; the wine was left to clarify in cask from which they were bottled, unfined and unfiltered with just a small sulphur addition.

Small casks gave way to big, old foudres and, in 2013 600 litre clay amphora were introduced; all, according to Eben, give a much better, purer expression of each vineyard.

Eben with Sadie winemaker, Paul Jordaan

The importance of the set of 2009 Ouwingerds range is perhaps not sufficiently appreciated by all of us who buy at least some of the wines every year. Before 2009, the Sadies tried to sell the wines individually; it didn’t work. The wines were considered too expensive, Mrs Kirsten (as she was until the Afrikaans Mev took over in 2009 to complement the other wines’ Afrikaans names) the most pricey.

It took the set – just 300 cases at R3000 each – with the William Kentridge labels to galvanise interest in old vines. Of course, other wines had been made from old vines: Francois Malherbe of Eikenhof, Marc Kent at Boekenhoutskloof (from Eikenhof fruit) and Basil Landau at Landau du Val had bottled semillon from old vines for many years, but the fuss really started and spread with the Ouwingerds range.

 

Unlike many of today’s limited production wines, pricing of the Ouwingerds range has remained remarkably ungreedy. The rationale, as Eben explains is to encourage people to drink the wines and to save more vineyards. ‘If the wines sold for R800 each, fewer wines would sell, so fewer vineyards would be saved. Charging around R300 ensures a more positive outcome.’

There’s rationale too in Eben’s choice of varieties. ‘You can’t tell the history of South African wine without chenin and greengrape (semillon), cinsaut and field blends. Tinta barocca is more Swartland specific.’

So to the wines.
Pofadder first. There’s a serenity in its subtle flavour and supple mouthcoating flesh. With time, it grew in purity of expression and seriousness but always in a contained rather than flamboyant manner. Although it has secondary characteristics, it belies its age and 14.5% alcohol. According to Eben, alcohols higher than 12% or 13% are necessary in the Swartland.

Skurfberg weighs in at 14.8% alc but is also perfectly balanced. Bright lemony gold in colour, there’s a mature, wet wool, mushroomy/truffly complexity throughout, its richness nicely offset by a dry, pithy finish. A favourite among many.

‘T Voetpad (field blend of red and white semillon, palomino and chenin) 14% alc. The cork had dried out and crumbled but the wine was fine, if the most advanced in appearance (old gold) and with an oxidative note in its savouriness. Eben reckons this would be the one alive in 60 years time! If ‘T Voetpad was controversial, perhaps the most acclaimed wine of the tasting was …

Kokerboom is just sublime. Perfect balance, at 14.5% alc, provides the impression of lightness (fresh acid) with weight (dense silky texture). A true lemon honey fragrance and toasty lees-like conclusion made me think this is the best mature semillon I’ve enjoyed.

Mev Kirsten 09, 08, 07 & 06 (l to r)

Mev Kirsten 13.5% alc. This, like the 2006, 2007 and 2008 Eben also brought along, is as dry a wine as I can remember having. Steely and sparse, it seemed to have less flavour than the others with 07 having flesh on its bones and good chenin wet wool, spicy character. Except for 09, the colours all have a degree of reddish gold. I’d probably drink up 09, with 07 the one most likely to age further.

Eselshoek 12.5% alc Hanepoot from the ‘T Voetpad vineyard. Made only in 2009, 10 and 11, this tawny-hued sweet wine has good acid to offset the sugar so it’ll live on, but when asked why he stopped making the wine, Eben responded; ‘I leave sweet wines to the Mullineux’s, one can’t compete with those.’

This was an exceptional and interesting tasting. I think someone mentioned a case of this one-off Ouwingerds range recently sold for R28 000. Thank goodness the individual wines are today within the reach of more winelovers to the benefit of old vineyards, the farmers and farm workers.

Rosa Kruger, Andre Morgenthal & Tim James

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