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Old Vines, Aussie Style

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 16, 2009 12:12pm ET

Phil Laffer posed an intriguing question as the cleanup hitter for a lineup of Australian winemakers presenting some compelling wines to a gathering in San Francisco this week.

We had tasted through 15 Rieslings, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons, varieties it’s fair to say most Americans don’t associate with Australia. Then we tasted a set of four older wines, followed by four single-vineyard sites, each led by a winemaker associated with those categories. Laffer’s assignment was to talk about four wines from old vines.

In Australia, that means something. Phylloxera never hit South Australia, where most of the better vineyards lie, so plants that went into the ground in the 19th century are still around, producing grapes for some great wines. To an Aussie, it’s not worth getting excited about anything planted after, oh, say, 1920.

Laffer, who has made wine for 49 vintages in Australia, is something of the winemaker equivalent of an old vine. He’s seen a lot of vintages, but remains vital. His wines at Jacob’s Creek are consistently good, occasionally memorable.

great because they’re old vines,” he asked, “or are there old vines because the vineyards are great?”

We tend to ascribe the quality of wines from old vines to their age. They put down deep roots, grow thick trunks, and seem impervious to vintage variation. Younger vineyards may struggle with wet or dry years, but the old codgers keep putting out ripe grapes year after year.

All that is great, but Laffer argues that the vineyards would no longer exist if they weren’t special to begin with. “The reason these vines have been allowed to get this old is that they always produced great wines,” he said. “We’ve done some tests where we replanted a couple of rows of weaker vines in old vineyards, and within 10 years they’re producing grapes that are just as good as the older vines next to them.”

His set of old-vine wines started with Tyrrell’s Sémillon Hunter Valley HVD 2004, from a vineyard planted a century ago. Until recently, the grapes went into Tyrrell’s Vat 1, the flagship white, but recognizing the softer balance and vivid expression of fruit in the wine, Bruce Tyrrell decided to bottle it separately. The ’04 already shows plenty of the spice and wax that comes with bottle age (usually not until 10 years or so), but the lemony balance has some complexity from stone fruit flavors. Non blind, 90 points.

Then came Yalumba Grenache Barossa Valley Tri-Centenary Vines 2005, from vines planted in 1889. A lively, sharply focused red, this showed jazzy vibrancy, with cascades of bright red fruits, and impressive length. Non blind, 92 points.

The vines for d’Arenberg Cabernet Sauvignon McLaren Vale Coppermine Road 2005 went into the ground in 1902. I found it tight and tannic, with a layer of bright red cherry and red currant flavor trying to push through the grit, developing a savory note on the firm finish. Non blind, I would put it around 85 points because I’m not confident it will soften enough with time. But there’s plenty there to enjoy if you can get through the tannins.

Finally, Laffer showed his Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Barossa Valley Centenary Hill 2004. Made from vines with an average age of 90 years (“I’ve walked that vineyard enough to recognize that some of those vines were replanted along the way,” he noted), this is a Shiraz that turns expectations on their heads. Those who think Barossa Shiraz needs to be thick and gooey might be surprised at the elegance, suppleness and sharp focus of this one. It delivers gorgeous fresh fruit character without big weight. Non blind, 92 points.

Old vines are some of Australia’s great treasures. Many of the best Shiraz and Grenache vines come from century-old plants. But I also rate wines from younger vineyards on a par with or better than some of the old-vine bottlings, so I see where Laffer is coming from. In other words, old vines are great, but we shouldn’t make vine age a requirement. As always, it’s the quality of the vineyard that matters most.

There were plenty of other wines to appreciate in an impressive morning of tasting. I will share my comments on them in a later blog.

Claude Kaber
Luxemburg —  January 16, 2009 2:25pm ET
That brings back memories of the best Australian Shiraz i've ever tasted: The 1885 Shiraz, from Peter Lehmann, vines planted in 1885
Laura L Marquez
Scottsdale, AZ —  January 16, 2009 3:08pm ET
What a fascinating new way to look at "old vines." I've been conditioned to think of them as producing lower yields with higher concentrations of flavor and bouquet compounds. But it sure makes sense.Now...why didn't I think of that before? :-)
Scott Oneil
UT —  January 17, 2009 7:16am ET
Harvey,Very interesting point, and a great blog topic! At what age do the vines cease (or slow to nearly a halt) to dig deeper into the soil... or do they ever? Intuitively, I can't imagine the roots simply going deeper and deeper forever. I would imagine that there's a point at which they come into stasis. Do we know when/if that happens?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 17, 2009 12:31pm ET
In Burgundy, Louis Latour has caves under vineyards in Corton. You can see roots from the vines above intruding through the porous limestone ceiling and walls. The surface of the vineyard is as much as 50 feet above the ceiling of the cellar, so those roots are at least that long. I'm not a plant scientist, but as I understand it roots will keep going until they encounter a surface they can't get through. In some vineyards that's as little as a foot or two. In others, the soil is deep and the roots keep extending. When they can't go down any farther, they grow outward.
George Quinn
San Jose, Ca —  January 17, 2009 2:46pm ET
Harvey, I would like to travel to the Barossa valley and enjoy some great Shiraz. Do you have a few recommended wineries to visit? George Quinn
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 17, 2009 4:03pm ET
George, you will find many wineries with tasting rooms, which they call "cellar doors" in Oz. A good many of them also offer food. My advice is to make a list of your favorite wines and start googling them to see if they have a cellar door and when it's open. Some of the nicest in my experience, are at Two Hands, Barossa Valley Estates, Elderton, Kaesler, Peter Lehmann, Schild, Torbreck, Yalumba and the tour at Penfolds. There are dozens more.

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