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If It Says "Old Vines," Will You Buy?

June 15, 2010

by Matt Kramer

The benefits of old vines are debatable, particularly to those who don't have them.

Recently, a reader (Ms. Donna White) asked, "How old do vines need to be to produce a good wine? Conventional wisdom dictates that older vines produce the best fruit. Is this a truth?"

Of all the many ambiguities of wine, "old vines" seems to be one of the more troublesome. Every grower I've met, everywhere in the world, who has old vines insists that older vines are better. Yet I've met a fair number of growers who suggest that "old-vine admiration" is, if not bunk, then certainly overstated and overrated. Not coincidentally, these same scoffers are not in possession of old vines.

So, who you gonna believe? Do old vines really make a difference? And from a wine lover's point of view, is it enough to tip the balance of whether you should buy a particular bottle or not? Sometimes wines so labeled are more expensive (as in Burgundy, for example), but sometimes not (as in Spain, Argentina, and even California with Zinfandel, for example).

First, what exactly is an "old vine"? No one knows. A lot depends on where you're sitting. If you happen to be a producer in, say, Argentina or Spain, both of which are chockablock with vines that are 60 to 100 years old, the notion of "old" only starts at the half-century mark. In Oregon or New Zealand, comparative newcomers to the game, you'd be feeling mighty fine about your vineyard to be able to boast of 25-year-old vines when those in many neighboring sites are half that age or less.

My own benchmark for the title is something close to the half-century mark. There's no need to be overly precise or prescriptive about it. In the same way that I prefer bankers and doctors to have some gray in their hair, I like to see vines that have seen 40 or 50 vintages. My guess is that whatever qualities exist beyond the half-century mark probably approach the diminishing returns category. But I wouldn't care to swear to that.

No one can say definitively whether the presumed effects of old vines increase beyond a certain age. Does a 100-year-old vine deliver four times as much "specialness" as a mere sapling of 25? Or do the perceived effects of old vines kick in at a certain age—let's say 30 years old—and then plateau out at, say, 50?

And to make matters more complicated yet, are old vines defined strictly by their roots? Saucelito Canyon Vineyard in Arroyo Grande on the south Central Coast creates one of California's greatest Zinfandels. Its owners grafted new Zinfandel cuttings onto the original, still-alive Zinfandel roots from 1880 that they literally uncovered when they cleared away the undergrowth.

Are those "old vines"? I think so. Yet someone could say that a new cutting no longer represents the original genetic legacy implicit in the concept of an "old vine"—a grapevine version of "new wine in old bottles." That is, old vines are a kind of plant material repository that goes beyond old root systems.

The great Barolo producer Aldo Conterno told me that he won't use Nebbiolo fruit from vines younger than 25 years old for any of his wines labeled Barolo. Mr. Conterno also believes that 40-year-old vines are ideal, delivering a winning trifecta of deep roots, characterful fruit and reasonable yields.

I recently tasted with Alejandro Fernandez of Pesquera in Spain's Ribera del Duero and was particularly struck by a newcomer to his portfolio called El VĂ­nculo. This wine surprised me if only because it comes from the La Mancha region, which is about 200 miles south of Mr. Fernandez's native Ribera del Duero. By Spanish standards that's a world away.

Mr. Fernandez said that he decided to make wine from La Mancha—a vast flat area with about as much reputation for fine wine as California's Central Valley—because he came upon a vineyard of head-trained Tempranillo vines ranging in age from 60 to 100 years old. "It was too good to pass up," he said. And indeed, El VĂ­nculo is the best wine from La Mancha that I've tasted.

Old-vine love is ardent among wine producers around the world. But it wasn't always so. When Robert O'Callaghan, founder of Rockford Wines in Australia's Barossa Valley, started his winery in 1984, he paid triple the going rate for old-vine Shiraz to encourage his suppliers to retain their old vines.

Why did he need to do this? Because in the 1980s the South Australia state government offered financial inducements to Barossa growers to "modernize" their vineyards by uprooting their old vines.

Now, the Barossa crowd is singing—yodeling, really—an entirely different tune. The Barossa Grape & Wine Association, a trade group of 750 grapegrowers and 173 wine producers, has created what it calls an Old Vine Charter, an inventory of Barossa's remaining old vines, which are respectively classed as Old Vine (35 years or old), Survivor Vine (75 years or older) or Centurion Vine (100 years or older).

Old vines present challenges to the winegrower. They require a lot of nurturing. Yields often are uneconomically low. The old-vine vineyard is a love that dare not speak its name to one's banker.

But economics aside, winegrowers seem to cherish old vines. Ask an owner about his or her old-vine vineyard and, like stroking a favorite, reliable old horse, they'll talk about the regularity of old-vine production.

Where young vines can careen from vintage to vintage—with extremes of production and unpredictable ratios of sugar levels and phenolic compounds depending on the weather—old vines are steady. Their grapes are rarely unbalanced. And they're rarely unripe, either. You almost never hear about unripe grapes with old vines, even in places that can suffer from decidedly cool growing seasons, such as Burgundy.

And old vines provide options unavailable with young vines. You can harvest your grapes earlier in certain (warmer) climates, because old-vine grapes often achieve riper tannins sooner.

The deep roots of old vines are their greatest asset. In a rainy harvest, a young vine's shallow root system sucks up surface water, bloating the grapes and diluting the juice. Yet old vines are often surprisingly unaffected, as their deeper roots are untouched by a passing rainstorm. And in drought conditions those same deep roots can tap into water reserves in the subsoil unreachable by younger vines.

So are old vines a deal-maker? Is it a meaningful designation that can—or should—tip the buying decision? I can only offer you one man's opinion, based upon an awful lot of talking with producers on this very topic, and backed up, I might add, with my own checkbook.

Yes, old vines can make a difference. Everyone knows that nothing is more important than what the Italians evocatively call la materia prima, the foundation ingredient. If you've got a good site and good winemaking—which are hardly incidental—then old vines can make a discernible impact.

This impact is twofold. For us tasters, the sensory impact of old-vine wines typically is found on the midpalate. Think of a candy with a hard core and you've got it. Mostly this is a result of the low yields that old vines usually offer. (Old vines can be trained to pump out, though.)

Also, as the wine ages and the bright fruitiness of youth diminishes, you get a sense of a more layered complexity in old vines. This element of maturity in the wine is often essential to deciphering the impact of old vines, which is why tasters of very young wines are either puzzled by or skeptical about old vines' purported attributes. These differences are often not apparent until a wine is at least a decade old.

Does all this matter to you as a wine buyer? It does to me. All other things being equal (which they rarely are, I know), I'll buy an old-vine wine every time. It's a kind of insurance policy, wouldn't you say?