It’s not everyday that you find a fertile vine that is nearly 250 years old and boasts its own Facebook page or blessings from Britain’s beloved monarch. This worthy old lady stands in the heart of Cape Town, a stone’s throw from the Company Gardens – the oldest public garden in South Africa. And, moreover, her relationship status on Facebook currently says ‘single’.
It had the desired effect because she caught the eye of a winemaker from Darling. Hennie Huskisson of Cloof Wine Estate has been pruning and caring for the vine for the past three years. His diary entries on social media, where he refers to the vine as “she” and “her”, shows that this vine has well and truly crept into his heart.
But wait, I put the cart before the horse. Let’s start at the beginning: The Company Gardens was founded in 1652 by Dutch settlers to provide fodder to the castle and ships but was finally donated 160 years ago as a garden accessible to the public. Today, it is a proud part of Cape Town’s tourist attractions with a herbal and rose garden including various statues that commemorate historical events.
On 02 February 1659 – 360 years ago – Jan van Riebeeck noted in his diary that wine from Cape grapes was made for the first time. He imported Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Fransdruif vineyards from France and Spain since 1655 and planted them in the Company Garden.
Fast forward to 2007 when Johan and Victoria Nel took over the lease of Heritage Square in Bree Street and with it, the guardianship of a neglected vine growing in the courtyard that created a canopy. It is considered the oldest fruit-bearing vine in the Southern Hemisphere, and after testing it in France, it was determined that the vine, which was planted around 1771, is Gross Chenin Blanc and not Grouchen Blanc (Riesling) as initially thought.
The Nels and Hennie’s paths crossed in 2016 after their winemaker resigned. “It is a miracle that the vine survived, especially since Heritage Square was almost demolished during the sixties and neglected for more than a decade,” Hennie said. “The vine only receives rainwater and has survived despite very dry summers.”
The wine made from the vine’s grapes is bottled under the hotel’s label, 1771, and is for sale exclusively on auction. In 2017, Hennie harvested only nine kilograms of grapes and made a MCC – a total of two 750 ml bottles and 10 bottles of 187 ml each. “The hotel sold their 750 ml bottle on auction for R16 000,” said Hennie. “My 750 ml bottle went up on auction at a fundraiser for the well-known wine journalist, Dave Hughes. Last year, the harvest delivered 35 kg and 20 bottles of 750 ml each, which are now ready for their labels.”
Hennie again made MCC of the wine, after he found that the still wine’s taste was very neutral. “I thought it would make a good base wine for MCC,” he said. “The wine is made on a small scale and oxidation is usually a problem. With the second fermentation in the bottle, the wine is more protected.”
Coincidentally, the Company Gardens’ first gardener was Hendrik Boom. He was later succeeded by Hendrik Barnard. Now it’s Hendrik (Hennie) Albertyn Huskisson. Every time he visits the Cape, he stops off to check in on the old vine or ‘The Old Lady’ as he calls her. “As a rule, I also check in early January to take the first sugar samples and then, as the grapes ripen, I visit more regularly. Mid-to-late August, she is pruned.”
He also decided to create a Facebook page for her but adds that writing and spelling is not his strong point. His wife, Loretta and daughter, Tern help on that front.
Fortunately, the grapes remain untouched by greedy squirrels or people, but birds consume a few grapes here and there. “Luckily, the arbor is very high, so people can’t get it,” said Hennie. “If the crop is small, I put a sift around every bunch, so that the birds can’t get to them.”
For Hennie, who is accustomed to producing bulk at Cloof Wine Estate (bottling nearly 700 000 bottles of wine annually), The Old Lady’s small yield is all but child’s play. “Everything is done on a ladder because of the high arbor. The vine looks and grows like a table grape. The trellis system has no structure and the ‘dead arm’ is kept retaining the old look.”
Hennie harvests by himself and his wife helps stomp the grapes. “She has the most beautiful feet and perfect for the job,” he says smiling.
There’s also a distant blue-blood connection for this ‘Old Lady’. “My great-grandfather served in the British Parliament in 1770,” said Hennie. “I was brave and wrote a letter to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth last year to nominate ‘The Old Lady’ for knighthood, along with a bottle of wine that she could donate to a charity organisation of her choice.
“She wrote back and gave her blessing to the vine. I decided to send a similar letter every year to the leaders of other countries. This year it is Queen Maxima of the Netherlands’s turn.”
One wonders how the vine managed to survive so long. “I think she has a deeply-established root system,” says Hennie. “The old vine does have a disease known as ‘toothache’. The main stem slit in two and is held together with rubber bands. A steel cage was also placed around the vine, so that tourists won’t hang on the vine for photos.”
But Hennie says the recent drought took its toll. “This year doesn’t look good. I’m hoping for five kilograms of grapes. I think the vine has learned to adjust itself to drought over the past 200 years. Normally, I would have lowered the crop, but it seems she did it herself.”