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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I see a lot of “old vine” Zinfandel, but I never see “old vine” Cabernet or “old vine” Chardonnay. Why is that?
—James, Modesto, Calif.
The term “old vine” isn’t regulated on labels, so it can mean just about anything. I see some folks referring to vines at the 50-year mark as old (which is making my bones creak just thinking about it), but more often the term is used for vines that are 75 to 100 years old. You’re right that Zinfandel tends to get the “old vine” tag, but I’ve also seen it as a way to promote Syrah and Grenache, among other types of wines.
By the time a mature grapevine gets to be about 20 to 40 years old, it produces smaller crops, and for most types of grapes, it’s thought that their quality goes down—the grapes make less concentrated and intense wines. There’s not much reason for growers to cultivate lesser-quality, lower-yielding grapes, so the vines are often replanted at that point.
Zinfandel can be one of the exceptions—thought it’s worth pointing out that not all old vine Zinfandel is good Zinfandel; it really depends on the spot and the history of the vine. But when they’re at their best, old vines certainly do slow down in their production and require more attention, but are totally worth it. They can produce consistent, concentrated grapes from year to year, that ripen easily, their deep roots helping them out in both wet and dry years.
There’s also an admittedly romantic notion to the idea of old wine writers—sorry, I mean old vines—getting more charming with age, which is another reason you might see that term on wine labels.
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