DO OLD VINES MATTER?


I once found myself staring at a grenache vineyard in the southern Rhône Valley, along with a young California winemaker and a famous French winemaker. The latter was showing us the old vineyard that had produced the extraordinary wine we had just drunk. The Californian explained with great enthusiasm that he had recently planted grenache in California and couldn’t wait to taste the wine that would come from it. The Frenchman smiled and said, “I’m sure it will be great,” adding, “in 80 years.”

The idea that old vines matter is virtually sacrosanct in Europe, as well as in Australia, which not only possess the largest share of old vines in the New World, but also has some of the oldest vines in the world, period.

Why do old vines matter?

First because of their roots. Buried deep within the earth, the roots of old vines exist in a stable environment. And thus the vine itself is less subject to the vagaries of drought, heat, or excessive rain. Indeed, old vines may prove to have an increasing advantage given the erratic and sometimes violent swings in weather that have typified climate change.

Second because of flavor. Old vines appear to regulate themselves. They are less vigorous than young vines. But the few small clusters of grapes they do yield are commonly imbued with beautiful flavors. Winemakers observe that old vines make wines of inherent balance. No surprise that growers often refer to old vines as “wise.”

Third, although it’s obvious to point out, old vines exist in old vineyards. And old vineyards are rich kaleidoscopic repositories of genetic material. Old vineyards are often “field blends” of various varieties (until the advent of DNA typing in the 1990s, the exact varietal composition of many old vineyards could only be guessed at).

But beyond varieties, old vineyards have had long stretches of time during which the vines in them mutate. These mutations–what we might think of as different genetic strains–are called clones. Old vineyards usually have a fantastic variety of clones, the identities of which are not always known. It’s this magical clonal diversity that can contribute to a great wine’s unique flavor identity. (A painter with more colors on her palette can make a more colorful painting.  A conductor with more instruments to direct can make a more intricate symphony).

Lastly, it’s worth asking: how old is old? I’ve surveyed winemakers around the world on this issue and the general agreement is that a vine starts to be old around the age of 35 or 40 when the vine is on the “downside” of its life and is no longer in the growth processes of becoming mature. It’s irresistible (and a little sad) to point out that vines start to become old when we do. Alas.

 

Some of the Oldest Vines in the World

Documenting the oldest vines in the world comes with numerous challenges. For example, there is no method for measuring a vine’s age as is possible with, say a tree. In addition, before the 1960s, detailed viticultural records were often not kept and even when they were, such records were often lost when vineyard ownership changed hands. Finally, in many vineyards, vines were replanted one by one at different times. What percentage of the existing vines date from the year the vineyard was originally planted? It’s hard to know for sure.

All of this said, here a few treasured old vineyards around the world.

  • 1853 Barossa Valley, Australia, the Old Garden Vineyard. Mourvèdre. Owned by the Hewitson family.

 

  • 1867 Hunter Valley, Australia, the Stevens Vineyard, “Old Patch.” Chardonnay, semillon, and shiraz. Owned by Tyrrell’s.

 

  • 1869 Shenandoah Valley, California,  the Original Grandpère Vineyard. Zinfandel. Owned by Terri Harvey.

 

  • 1870 Toro, Spain, the Termanthia Vineyard. Tempranillo. Owned by Bodegas Numanthia.

 

  • 1888 Barossa Valley, Australia, the Kalimna Vineyard “Block 42.” Cabernet Sauvignon. Owned by Penfold’s.

 

  • 1888. Sonoma Valley, California, the Bedrock Vineyard. Field blend of negrette, mondeuse, zinfandel, petite sirah, carignan, colombard, chenin blanc, semillon, and malvasia bianca. Owned by Bedrock Wine Co.
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