“In those days following Prohibition, grapes were worth less than prunes and walnuts--plus they were a lot more work!”
Historic Vineyard Society—Aldo’s Vineyard (Biale)
Older vineyards and their wines are poorly understood by most consumers and indeed by many wine professionals as well. For that matter what does the term “Old Vines” on a label actually mean—that the vines are 20 years old, 120 years old? California’s Turley family, for example, classifies vines anywhere from 41 to 129 years as “Old Vines.” Oregon’s Sineann Winery produces “Old Vine Zinfandel” from a century-old vineyard. In California’s Contra Costa County Cline Cellars offers a handful of wines under its Ancient Vines label, including Carignane sourced from four separate vineyards located near the San Joaquin River (the newest vineyard dates back to 1940, the oldest to the early 1900s). Ravenswood produces many single-vineyard wines labeled “Old Vine” from a number of historic vineyards, including Dickerson Vineyard (planted in the 1920s) and Old Hill Ranch (planted in the 1880s), Belloni (planted in the 1900s) and Teldeschi (planted in the 1890s).
No one would be surprised to hear that there are old vines aplenty in the “Old World,” among them some astounding examples from pre-phylloxera vineyards such as the Stara Trta vines at Maribor, Slovenia, reputed to be more than 400 years old. Tenuta Delle Terre Nere, from Etna Rosso, Sicily, offers “Prephylloxera,” a wine whose grapes include some sourced from vines over 130 years old and standing on their own rootstock. You may be familiar with Bollinger’s two walled pre-phylloxera vineyards whose grapes play a role in the estate’s Vieilles Vignes Francaises Champagne, but do you know about the Sarragachies Vineyard in the Pyrénées? It’s said to be the oldest vineyard in France, home to several ungrafted vines dating from 1871 and to include 21 different varieties, seven of them previously unknown. But before we leave the Old World let’s muse together over this nugget of information (with thanks to Wikipedia): “The oldest vine with a fully authenticated minimum age, and thought to be the largest in the world, is known as The Great Vine at Hampton in England…It was moved to its current site in 1768. Contrary to what we normally expect from old vines this one produced its largest crop ever in autumn of 2001, of 383 kilograms (845 lbs).”
The presence of ancient vineyards may seem even more surprising in a place like South Africa, where vines that may be classified as “old” by any standard have long been championed despite having had to face the obstacles of colonialism as well as cultural and geographic isolation. The country’s coastal region still has a few old blocks of Chenin Blanc and Cinsault dating back to 1751 (South Africa’s Old Vine Project--OVP--can now put a Certified Heritage Vineyards Seal on bottles of wine from vineyards 35 years old or more, along with the date the vines were planted).
While increasing numbers of people argue in favor of older vineyards one of the thornier issues here is that so far there is no manual regulating how old a vineyard must be in order to achieve the official designation “old vines.” Different estates, different PR agencies and different organizations have their own ideas about this. Thanks to California’s non-profit Historic Vineyard Society we can at least get a pretty good view of how many vineyards in the Golden State can legitimately claim old vines—and sometimes really old vines. So far 122 vineyards have been verified and registered with the HVS board and new vineyards are constantly being discovered and added to the registry (in 2018 alone 12 new vineyards joined the list).
There are still plenty of skeptics when it comes to assessing the value of old vines but the momentum is changing as more enologists and vineyard professionals come out on the side of age. In general, they say, older vines tend to deliver smaller crops but ones that yield wines with more complexity, intensity and structure. While there isn’t much hard science behind the effect of age on vines an increasing number of premium wineries are electing to keep older vines, opting for lower volume in return for greater depth of flavor and increased ageability. Old vines definitely have an advantage in hot weather as their roots can reach deep beneath the surface of the soil to tap into reservoirs of water in the subsoil which allows them to produce concentrated grape juice during droughts. (Irrigation can prevent vines from digging deeper in search of water thereby possibly diluting the juice’s complex flavors.) Having adapted to their environment over long periods of time, older vines tend to be more resistant to drought, and as their roots dig deeper into the soil they have access to the microbial organisms which many people believe can both strengthen the vine and influence the development of the fruit.
While some bemoan the fact that as vines age they generally produce less fruit, others tend to view the intense, flavorful, concentrated and balanced fruit from old vines as a blessing. Few wines from older vineyards are more admired than Australia’s Hill of Grace, whose Shiraz originates from pre-phylloxera material (the oldest vines were planted in the 1860s.) Mulching, composting and “recycling” grape marc are part of the estate’s soil enrichment program, while planting native plants and working with the moon’s cycles are also said to be part of Hill of Grace’s success.
Because older vines may be more prone to disease and damage, keeping old vines in commercial production does not always make economic sense. There is a point when vine management becomes too costly commensurate to yields, overall quality and income.
“Older vineyards tend to be less influenced by vintage variation and are more consistent,” says Danny Gordon, who makes the wines at Washington State’s Tamarack Cellars. “But they are also more expensive to care for and thus end up higher priced than what the average consumer might want to pay for.”
Decanter magazine agrees. “Keeping old vines in commercial production does not always make economic sense. There is a point when vine management becomes too costly commensurate to yields, overall quality and income. The rate of decline is dependent on many factors including grape variety, rootstock, and susceptibility to disease, vineyard practices and environmental factors. In Bordeaux, mature vines are often replaced after about 35 years.”
Sineann Winery‘s Peter Rosback has his own firmly held opinion about all of this. Describing Sineann’s 2019 Old Vine Zinfandel he says bluntly, “If you think old vines don’t matter you’re wrong--and this wine should help convince you.”