Where All Roads Lead | Old Road Wine Co. Harvest Report 2019

Opening in December 2018, the Old Road Wine Company is a blossoming wine brand. Yet while the tasting room and restaurant may be recent developments, the wines have been a long time in the making, with the project being the brainchild of a group of investors led by Tim Hutchinson.

With Chief Winemaker Ryan Puttick steering the winemaking way, the Old Road Wine Co. is comprised of 13 different wines across 5 exciting ranges. These ranges include The Single Vineyard Range, The Elite Range, The Quirky Ones, the French Corner Wines and The Originals,  each of which pays homage to the Franschhoek Valley’s heritage of prized old vines and fascinating, unique stories.

Exercising Patience And Practice

According to Ryan, the lead up to harvest 2019 was excellent. “We had mild day temperatures and the evenings were cool.” Harvest started in mid-January, with the initial pickings of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay showing lower pH values and high natural acidity – a positive indicator of good quality.

While the initial forecast was for a quick harvest, rain and lower temperature in late February resulted in the ripening process slowing down, thus prolonging the harvest. There was also some uneven ripening of berries, due to the stress of the drought. To circumnavigate the potential hard and sour berries that could result in vegetative flavours in the wine, the vineyard team ensured a green harvest took place, picking the green bunches off the vines. Another concern was that the Sauvignon Blanc skins might be thicker in order to combat the drought’s extreme heat. Luckily this was not the case.

“The biggest challenge this harvest was to manage the pH and acidity levels in the grapes. The pH had climbed quite a bit due to a heat wave in February, and the acids dropped. These two components are fundamental to winemaking. Luckily, a slower ripening meant the team had to exercise patience and monitor the grapes closely to ensure no rot crept in and to pick at optimum ripeness levels,” explains Ryan.

Due to the ongoing drought and uneven ripening, the crop was smaller, with allowances needing to be made in the cellar. Overall, the berries and bunches were smaller, lighter and less dense than usual. This trend can be attributed to unfavourable weather conditions during flowering and set in October and November, as well as above average winds experienced at the start of summer.

Luckily, not all the vineyards struggled, and this is mainly thanks to the fact that a lot of the fruit for the wines are picked from old, dryland bush vines, especially within the Single Vineyard range. An additional benefit was that due to the smaller berries, there was a higher concentration of fruit, and the analysis of the vines was excellent.

“An old vine is like an old person – they are set in their ways. So, you don’t have to do that much to the vineyard itself. It knows how much water it needs, so it’s easy to handle. At the end of the day, you must let it speak for itself. It’s a natural thing, and it will sort itself out. Whereas younger vines are like kids – you need to pull them in line all the time!” laughs Ryan.

Let The Terroir Talk

With the goal being to encourage wine drinkers to ‘savour the interesting’, Ryan and his winemaking team worked diligently to ensure that the wine and brand philosophy is synchronised, reflecting the terroir from where the grapes are sourced – particularly in the case of the prized Single Vineyard wines.

“The Old Road Wine Co. Single Vineyard range is premium, with the aim to be as natural as possible. The idea is that the terroir must speak for itself,” explains Ryan.

To do this, the Old Road Wine Co. vineyard team experiments with smaller quantities of unusual Rhône-style varieties such as Viognier and Grenache Blanc, while the cellar team practices a lot of natural fermentation on certain wines to get fuller ripeness. They also limit the amount of oak used, including using older barrels for maturing wines to achieve more subtle flavours. 2019 also marked the maiden use of amphoras, with two pots for the 35-year-old Chenin Blanc and 84-year-old Semillon respectively.

“We want clean products with minerality and flintiness, to have something unique in its own style,” adds Ryan.

The Matriarch Of The Vineyard

While Ryan and the team have had their work cut out for them, producing wines across a gamut of styles and price points, there was clearly one variety that stood out to work within the vineyard – the Sémillon.

The Grand-Mère Sémillon is made from an 84-year-old bush vine, resulting in a white wine that is elegant and refined, with mouth-watering acidity and lingering minerality on the finish.

“First planted in 1935, it’s not every day you get to work with an 84-year-old vine. We’ve had access to this vineyard for a while, but it used to get lost to blends. For the first time, the Old Road Wine Co. is giving it a special place within the range. We’ve fermented it in large amphoras and big 500l barrels to make a wine that, if you ask me, is absolutely superb,” ends Ryan.

The Future Is Bright

Harvest 2019 finished at the end of March. The overall yield was down, especially on the unirrigated vines – but this was to be expected, as the drought has a two to three-year toll on the vineyards.

While the range is still in its maiden voyage, positive feedback and reviews have seen the hard work of the team receive much deserved praise. The Juliette Sauvignon Blanc from the Quirky Range won Gold at the 2019 Mundus Vini Awards, while the Anemos Chenin Blanc 2016 and Grand-Mère Sémillon 2016 received a 93 and 90 point from Winemag’s Christian Eedes recently.

It turns out the future is bright when taking the (old) road less travelled.