South Africa Update: Old Vines Leading the Way Out of Crisis and Into the Premium Markets

By John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by Wines of South Africa.

The growing movement to find, preserve and celebrate old vines in South Africa is among the key factors in restoring and shoring up the country’s embattled wine industry. The wines made from these old vineyards, in some cases planted well over a century ago, are helping to drag average bottle prices up to sustainable levels, enable fair and equitable pay for growers and workers, increase winegrowing knowledge and expertise, and build sustainable communities. And, as a collateral benefit, they often yield excellent wines. It’s a win all around.

(Jump to the buyer’s guide)

>> Related: To read Michael Godel’s deep dive into the wine regions of South Africa, click here.

South Africa Map
South Africa Map

The global pandemic shook the foundations of many industries, including the wine industry, but South Africa was one of the hardest hit. “There is no doubt that we operate in one of the most volatile periods of the past few decades,” said Rico Basson, managing director of Vinpro, a non-profit company that represents close to 2,600 South African wine producers, in a recent interview published in Meininger’s.

Particularly devastating were the various periods of government-imposed alcohol bans over the last two years. For a total of 200 days, domestic alcohol sales were forbidden, and for six weeks exports were also halted. Coupled with massive shipping disruptions and operational challenges at Cape Town harbour, high inflation, and a dramatic 60 percent drop in tourism, it’s easy to understand why the situation for many is dire, and why stock levels are at their highest level in South Africa’s history.

The temptation would naturally be to dump excess wine at deep discounts, a move that would do irremediable damage to the country’s image. But South Africa has taken the high road, and is instead focusing on, and gaining success in, the super-premium category.

Wines of South Africa
Wines of South Africa

“We are seeing more and more producers with premium and super-premium portfolios working with us to drive distribution and to effectively market and position their brands,” says Maryna Calow, head of communications at Wines of South Africa (WOSA). “The consistent quality of SA premium brands has really come to the fore in the past few years.”

This is not to say that value is dwindling. On the contrary, pound for pound, South African wines frequently over-deliver at every point along the price ladder. Super premium South Africa is not Bordeaux or Napa or Tuscany, competing on quality but at a fraction of the price, as we at WineAlign have known for years.

Old Vines in the Spotlight

A big part of this up-scaling of quality and price is being driven by the growing spotlight on old vines in South Africa, a rich treasure of vineyards, which, in extreme cases, are over 120 years old and producing exceptional and distinctive wines.

Old Vines

The advantages of mature, fully established vines over young vines are myriad, including greater consistency and resilience in the face of radical weather events, such as the repeated heat waves that have parched South Africa this year. “Older vines are able to keep their acidity, and their pH balance much better,” says Rosa Kruger, viticulturalist and founder of the private association called the Old Vine Project. “Denser root structure allows for more reserves to be built up,” she says, thereby buffering vines against extremes. And while yields are often lower, the resulting wines are very often denser and more concentrated and deliver more complex flavours.

This is not just anecdotal evidence. Professor Johan Burger at the University of Stellenbosch, for example, has found marked differences in the juice from young vines and old vines, results that are supported by the work of Australian Dr. Dylan Grigg in his doctoral thesis An investigation into the effect of grapevine age on vine performance, grape and wine composition, sensory evaluation and epigenetic characterization, submitted to the University of Adelaide. Listen to the Wine Thieves podcast interview with Grigg, Old Vine Myths and Facts, for more details.

Much of the awareness and celebration of these old vineyards can be attributed to the Old Vine Project (OVP), whose core mission is to catalogue, preserve and protect old vines, and to connect talented winemakers with the growers of old vineyards.

The Old Vines Project
For more details on the OVP, read my past detailed article “Growing Old in South Africa,” and listen to the Wine Thieves podcast The Old Vines Project, including an interview with Rosa Kruger, OVP project manager André Morgenthal and Andrew Harris of DGB

Certified Heritage Vineyards

The OVP recently introduced a Certified Heritage Vineyard seal for winery members to use on their bottles, making it easy for consumers to identify

genuine old vine wines. The seal includes the date of the original planting of the vineyard and a number that can be traced to guarantee authenticity.

The threshold for “old” is 35 years, an age largely agreed upon around the world as the point at which a vine has reached full maturity, and the rooting zone has reached maximum expansion and tapped into all available nutrients and moisture.

For context, as of 2021, South Africa has just over 93,000 hectares of vineyard planted, of which just over 4,000 hectares of vineyards are 35 years and older (according to the South African Industry Information and Systems online database at So, it’s not a huge percentage, but still an important number.

And the distribution of old vineyards is widespread, covering most of the Western Cape, though Stellenbosch and the Swartland have the majority of 35+ year-old plantings with 958 and 778 hectares respectively. There are ten vineyards documented at 100 years and older.

Chenin blanc is the most widely planted grape in South Africa and unsurprisingly it accounts for the greatest percentage of old vines. Following chenin, the most represented varieties in the old vine catalogue are sauvignon blanc, colombard, muscat d’Alexandrie, pinotage, cinsault, palomino and semillon. Visit for all of the current facts and figures.

It’s Not Just About What’s Old

The Old Vine Project, importantly, is not only about what’s old now. The OVP’s mission is to develop the culture of caring for younger vines too, so that they can be “planted to grow old.” And to that end, the OVP has undertaken research and organized training sessions for grape growers throughout the country. And along the way, important collateral benefits of this mission have emerged, namely better wages and fair working practices for growers. “We also believe that the renewed focus on the quality that old vines in South Africa can give will help to raise the price of grapes in our country,” says Kruger. “And, hopefully an increased price for grapes will contribute to better pay and living conditions for our farm workers.”

Better resilience to climate change, better wages for growers, better sustainability for the industry, better balanced, distinctive wines… there are plenty of reasons to buy and drink old vine wines from South Africa. Look for the Heritage Vineyard seal.

Buyer’s Guide: South Africa White & Sparkling

Mullineux Old Vines White 2020

Mullineux Old Vines White 2020, Swartland
$39.95 Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc. (consignment)
John Szabo – Such a lovely nose here on this old vines white from Andrea and Chris Mullineux, in 2020 a blend of 2/3 chenin blanc, with decreasing proportions of clairette blanche, grenache blanc, semillon, viognier, and verdelho. According to Andrea Mullineux, 2020 was the first vintage in which the vines recovered from the previous three years’ drought, re-discovering balance. And this wine is indeed spectacular, with beautiful balance of ripeness and freshness, a mix of delicacy and intensity that’s hard to match. I love the pure white fleshed orchard fruit flavours, especially the fresh-ripe pear, elegant and refined. Exceptional length. I think perhaps the best vintage yet for this wine.

Mullineux Kloof Street Chenin Blanc 2021

Mullineux Kloof Street Chenin Blanc 2021, Swartland
$19.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc. (LCBO #21111)
John Szabo – Clean and precise nose here, with ripe but fresh white-fleshed fruit flavours, ripe citrus and pear. The palate shows remarkable balance and depth, and especially length. Really a remarkable wine for the money, drinking now, but cellerable easily into the mid-’20s without concern.

Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2021

Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2021, Stellenbosch
$17.95, Noble Estates (LCBO # 231282)
John Szabo – Another marvelous vintage for Forrester’s classic old vine chenin, always a screaming value and in 2021 particularly attractive. There’s excellent flavour intensity in the category, and terrific fruit purity, mostly yellow-fleshed orchard fruit, yellow grapefruit, custard apple and more with no detectable wood influence. Length and depth are excellent. Drink or hold this into the mid or even late-’20s.

Paul Cluver Village Elgin Chardonnay 2020

Paul Cluver Village Elgin Chardonnay 2020, Elgin
$25.00, Buyers + Cellars Wine Purveyors (consignment)
John Szabo – Cluver’s 2020 ‘Village’ chardonnay ticks several boxes, namely: balance, freshness, integrated wood and more than respectable depth and length in the price category. There’s genuine cool climate character and flavour development on offer, even a lick of wet stone to excite the punters. Works on many levels; Drink or hold short term.

Graham Beck Méthode Cap Classique Brut Sparkling Rosé Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, Traditional Method, Western Cape
$22.95 Vinexx (LCBO #175588)
John Szabo – Brut in name but quite rich and fruity on the palate, Beck’s latest rosé delivers fine fragrance in the tart red berry spectrum, pomegranate, white cherry, cranberry, alongside a dose of limey-lemon citrus. Acids are firm to be sure, and length and depth are excellent in the price category. Hard to top this in terms of complexity/pleasure for dollars. Enjoy now.

Boschendal The Pavillion Chenin Blanc 2021

Boschendal The Pavillion Chenin Blanc 2021, Western Cape
$13.35, Lifford Wine & Spirits (Select Wine Merchants) (LCBO #281311)
John Szabo – Another tasty, well-balanced, flavourful vintage for this perennial favorite value white. Impeccable freshness, oak-free, lees-backward, easy-drinking, a perfect summer sipping wine. Chill and crack.

Buyer’s Guide: South Africa Red

Warwick Professor Black Pitch Black 2017

Warwick Professor Black Pitch Black 2017, Stellenbosch
$19.95, NAVBEV INC (LCBO #24250)
John Szabo – Ripe, minty, dark-fruit flavoured Bordeaux-style blend (plus cinsault) here from Warwick in Stellenbosch, in fancy packaging, heavy bottle and wax cap for premium presentation. The wine inside deserves dressing up to be sure: substance on the palate is impressive, as is length. Smart wine, even smarter value, best 2024-2032.

Jordan Jardin The Long Fuse Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Stellenbosch
$30.00, Abcon Wine Merchants (consignment)
John Szabo – Jardin’s 2019 cabernet sauvignon fits the varietal and regional mould with its black fruit and black peppery spice, roasted, resinous herbs and blossoming earthy-gravelly profile, delivering high complexity. A stylish, sturdy, authentic and well-made bottle all in all. Best now-2029.

Glenelly The Glass Collection Syrah 2018, Stellenbosch
$15.95, Family Wine Merchants (LCBO #493841)
John Szabo – Here’s a refined and sharp value syrah from Glenelly, smoky, gravelly and dark-fruited in the varietal idiom, but also juicy and easy drinking. Don’t expect a wine of massive depth and complexity, but at this price, I prize drinkability above all, and this wine has it in spades. Serve with a light chill to maximize enjoyment.

Fairview Goats Do Roam Red 2021

Fairview Goats Do Roam Red 2021, Western Cape
$14.00, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits (LCBO #718940)
John Szabo – Fairview’s ever-reliable Goats do Roam red blend equals past successes and drinkability here in 2021, with its swarthy dark fruit and spice, soft texture and smooth finish. For $14, one can’t ask for much more. Chill lightly.