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Basics: What, Precisely, Does ‘Old Vine’ Mean in Wine?

Basics: What, Precisely, Does ‘Old Vine’ Mean in Wine?

Ever spotted the term “old vine”—or its French equivalent, “vieilles vignes”—on wine labels and wondered what it meant? In the simplest terms, old-vine wine is wine made from fruit grown on vines that are, well, old. But how old must a vine be to be considered old? And why is that a good thing?

Winemakers and viticulturists are quick to praise the benefits of vines that have been rooted in the soil for a significant period of time. Many claim the fruit that hangs from older vines has the potential to create wines with deeper flavors and more nuance than can be found in grapes of younger, more productive vines.

“There’s nothing like an old wine from an old vineyard,” says Phil Coturri, a winemaker and pioneer of organic and biodynamic farming in California. “Age is the greatest complexity.”

Yet what constitutes an “old vine” is incredibly murky and differs from winemaker to winemaker and region to region. Fortunately, over the past decade or so, leading experts have begun creating their own classifications to help wine buyers understand what they’re drinking.

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How Old Are “Old Vines”?

There is no legal definition for what is an “old vine.” In France, one producer may consider 20-year-old vines as vieilles vignes, while another may use the term for vines that are older than 70. South Africa’s Old Vine Project certifies vineyards that are 35 years and older.

Australia’s Barossa region is the only zone in the world with some semblance of an official definition, but it’s a voluntary designation and therefore has limited influence. Here, the Old Vine Charter classifies “old vine” as those that are at least 35 years old. The charter goes on to define “Survivor” vines as those that have made it past 70 years, “Centenarian” vines as those over 100 years old and “Ancestor” vines as those over 125 years old.

“Most people make the wine from these vineyards as single-vineyard wines,” says Annabel Mugford, special projects consultant for Barossa Australia. “If they are blended, whatever is the youngest vine in the blend dictates what category it goes into.”

Though there are no regulations regarding labeling in the Barossa, the organization does monitor to ensure that winemakers aren’t claiming that a bottle is made from Ancestor Vines or one of the other classifications, when it’s actually not.

On the other side of the planet, California’s Historic Vineyard Society maintains a Registry of Heritage Vineyards. To earn a spot on the list, a currently-producing Golden State vineyard must boast an original planting date at least 50 years ago, with a minimum of one-third of the producing vines traced back to that initial cultivation.

The half-century mark was chosen as California’s cut-off was partly inspired by the fifty-year rule in American historic preservation, which stipulates that historically-significant properties younger than fifty years are usually deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic places. The decision was also influenced by changes in wine growing that were happening 50 years prior to the foundation of the nonprofit organization in 2011.

“The 1960s is when the way vines were planted started to change with trellising and, later, drip irrigation,” says winemaker Tegan Passalacqua, one of the founders of the Historic Vineyard Society. “Before that all vines [in California] were head-trained and dry-farmed.”

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How Do “Old Vines” Differ from Young Vines?

No matter where old vines are found, what sets them apart from their younger brethren are their deep roots, which can draw nutrients and groundwater far beneath the earth’s surface. This helps them to adapt to annual weather variations and other natural events without human intervention and, its proponents believe, express the surrounding terroir on a deeper level.

“Part of the celebration of old vines throughout the world is that they were planted before drip irrigation,” says Passalacqua. “The vines were really able to see the seasons as they came.”

Young vines, on the other hand, tend to be vigorous and highly productive up until around 15 to 20 years. Depending upon how they’re pruned and maintained, yields then often start to decline. Most wineries rip them out and replant to ensure they’re getting as much fruit as possible.

Though it’s far from the norm, Dr. Dylan Grigg, a viticulture consultant who studies old vines, has found that the opposite can be true for properly-maintained old vines. “We found in the Barossa that older vines had more fruit in some cases,” he says. These vines, which were producing quality fruit past the 20 or even 30 year mark, had likely been carefully looked after, were well selected and had been planted in a fitting location. All of this helped the vines’ ability to weather stress and changes in their surroundings.

Another reason old vines can be more resilient than younger ones? They have the potential to store more carbohydrates, which can potentially buffer environmental shifts like heatwaves, frosty springs and droughts.

“Old vines iron out the ups and downs of the season,” says Griggs. “They stick to it, in terms of yield and growth.”

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Do Old-Vines Wines Taste Better?

Most wine professionals agree that old-vine wines are more complex with better color and higher acidity.

There’s a lot of speculation as to why this is the case. Many believe it’s related to the smaller size of berries produced on old vines, which are thought to contain a higher ratio of tannins. However, Grigg has actually found that some older vines actually boast larger berries than younger vines, which complicates this narrative.

The old vines that produce larger berries do so “perhaps because they’re less stressed,” he suggests, a result of the time they’ve had to adapt to climate and growing conditions.

According to Grigg’s studies, tannin levels are generally about the same in old and young vines when they are of the same varietal and grown in the same place. However, sensory panels have shown that wines made from the fruit of older vines tend to have more red fruit notes, while younger vines lead to wines with more blue fruit notes. Still, these differences are hard to break down scientifically.

“There’s something in there that our palates can pick up on,” says Grigg. “It’s like there are more pixels in older vines than younger vines.”

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