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Drinking Out Loud

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

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

Matt Kramer
Posted: June 15, 2010

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 Vínculo. 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 Vínculo 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?

Ed Lehrman
Sausalito, CA USA —  June 15, 2010 1:18pm ET
Matt,

Thanks for the clear presentation of a topic that seems to come around the horn every so often. I generally agree with you that the biggest difference of old-vine wines is in the mid-palate, though not in aroma and not necessarily in flavors. For example, in Argentina where I work, it is possible to make pretty darn good Malbec from very young vines, say as old as 10 years in the case of Pizzella Family Vineyard which supplies La Posta's vineyard-designated Malbec. This is possible in Argentina because the climatic conditions allow fastidious growers to manage their vineyards with high precision (it's nice when you can really control soil moisture in a place like Mendoza). In places like France where they have to deal with the randomness of Fall rains, I think vineyard age becomes increasingly important.

As great as the flavors are in a wine like La Posta Pizzella Malbec, it does not have the mid-palate depth and intensity of a wine like Luca Malbec or Mendel Finca Remota, both of whose grapes come from 60+ year old vines (and in Luca's case even older). Is it worth the extra money for old vines? That depends on the level of drinking experience you want. Pizzella for $18 is a heck of a casual dinner drink, and Luca for $35 makes sense when your napkins aren't made of paper that evening.

Ed Lehrman
Vine Connections
www.vineconnections.com
Anthony L Bogar
Barossa Valley, South Australia —  June 16, 2010 12:17am ET
Matt,
Thanks for this, especially the twofold impact you describe at the end. For what it's worth, here is part of how Yalumba's Brian Walsh explains old vines in the Yalumba Old Vine Charter:
"... 'seriously' Old Vines appear to have an advantage in their consistent ability to make wines of great structure, concentration and power - with minimal intervention. At least that’s our experience in the Barossa. The balance of the vine (vegetative growth in relation to fruit load), its naturally reduced cropping level and its ancient root system seem to hold the key. ..."
http://www.yalumba.com/content.asp?p=351
Tony Bogar
Yalumba
Scott Oneil
Denver, CO —  June 16, 2010 10:37am ET
I believe that old(ish) vines are part of many of my favorite wines, but other than CA Zin and CdP, most of the wines I love don't advertise themselves as coming from 'old vines.' Even granting the importance of the age of the vines, however, I personally put much more stock in 1) the producer and 2) the site/terrior. For example, as Manfred Krankl has moved from using grapes from Alban and White Hawk vineyards (among others) to sourcing his own, young vineyards, I choose to buy SQN, not the producers now making wines from Alban and Whitehawk: producer over age-of-vines. Similarly, if I saw two Zins from producers unknown to me, and one said 'Mendocino Old Vines' while the other simply said 'Russian River Valley' or 'Dry Creek,' again I'd choose the RRV or Dry Creek: site over age-of-vines.

Some of my favorite producers (e.g., Helen Turley's Marcassin, Manfred Krankl's Sine Qua Non, Christophe Baron's Cayuse) seem to have overcome the youth of their vineyards to produce wines of extraordinary character. That being said, do I expect them to make even better wines as their vineyards age? You bet I do. But when it comes to deciding factors on purchases, the age of the vines certainly isn't my first (or second) consideration. Then again, I rarely buy a wine that I haven't read about or gotten a recommendation. When I do, would I consider 'Old Vines,' to be a type of insurance policy? Ya, I think that's fair to say.
David Hance
San Luis Obispo, Calilfornia, U.S.A. —  June 16, 2010 12:09pm ET
While it's true that "old vines" don't guarantee top quality wine, they do at least guarantee a certain specialness. Currently, there are far fewer old vine acres in most wine regions than young or middle age vines. Limited supply alone gives old vine wines some cachet due to restricted supply. Most interestingly, I think, really old vineyards (those that have been abandoned or "minimally tended" for a number of years) may have truly adapted to their site through somatic mutation, thereby yielding a unique expression of terroir. http://www.steampunkwines.com
Donati Family Vineyard
Paicines, CA USA —  June 16, 2010 12:45pm ET
We have some head trained Pinot Blanc that was planted by Almaden in 1970. We have found that our Pinot Blanc yields wine with true PB characteristics. We're not sure if this goes with all old vines but it has been consistent for us each vintage. This may be a good topic for discussion.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  June 16, 2010 1:51pm ET
Ridge winemaker Paul Draper once told me that he felt that "old vine" vineyards make great wine because they are the right grape planted in the right spot. They became old vines because they always produced great wines. Because they always produced great wines, nobody tore them out or replanted them. In this view, it is not so much a question of some intrinsic quality of their age, but that their age is a function of their quality.

An interesting perspective, I think.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  June 16, 2010 2:01pm ET
From my understanding, "old vines" -- which physiologically translates to 50 to 70+ years of age depending on soil and climate, create "better" grapes due to deep root (stable moisture supply) and reduced circulatory capacity (like what happens to all of us as we age) which limits the amount of water and nutrients availble to the vine. The shifts the vine to (limited) fruit production over canopy and thus create a more concentrated (e.g. smaller) grape. this generally occurs independent of the local weather conditions unless extreme (which expalins the stability of the fruit). The downside is lower yields (due to the limited circulatory system) which can often be < 1 ton per acre and are rarely over 3. Does this ultimately produce a better wine? hard to say as it depends on so many factors but in the face of equal winemaking skill, grape and terrior -- I agree with you Matt, I would pick the old vine most of the time
Thomas Girgensohn
Sydney, Australia —  June 16, 2010 7:25pm ET
The last comment adds important aspects as to what happens with old vines. Biologically, the vines are now focussed on reproduction, rather than growth i.e. more fruit, less canopy. Because of their reduced circulatory capacity, berries are small, and the skin to juice ratio is higher leading to the tasting benefits described.

When does a vine start doing this i.e. behaving like an old vine? It depends on the terroir. In a harsh environment this happens much earlier (can you see the parallels?). In eroded and dry parts of the Barossa, this can happen after 15 to 20 years, but generally >40 years has been my experience.
Jeff Mausbach
Mendoza, Argentina —  June 17, 2010 2:35pm ET
Matt,

Great article on old vines. We make our Manos Negras Malbec from 50 year old vines in the Altamira district of Mendoza.

We have found the extensive root system, which you mentioned, and the starch reserves in the thick trunks, allow old vines to withstand climatic stress factors without reducing fruit quality. Think of these two reserves as secondary energy sources the vine can tap into during moments of heat or water stress.

Young vines, on the other hand, do not have these resources and so in times of stress will consume accumulated sugars and malic acid, greatly detracting from overall fruit quality.

We think this ability to deal with stress is what makes old vines so special.

Jeff Mausbach
Manos Negras
Peter Toot
La Consulta, Mendoza, Argentina —  June 18, 2010 10:02am ET
It is an interesting debate. I would suggest people look at Richard Smart's view that it is not the age of the vines that are responsible for the quality of the fruit but instead their less vigorous canopies, which can be replicated in younger, more vigorous vines through pruning and canopy management. What about the great 1961 vintage from Bordeaux, produced mostly from young vines after the hard 1956 frost? I love my old vines but think the issue is probably very complex.

Peter Toot
Los Vencejos Wines
Anabelle Sielecki
Mendoza, Argentina —  June 21, 2010 11:13pm ET
Posted for Roberto de la Mota

Dear Mat,

After reading your interesting article about old vines quality vineyards, I'd like to add some some comments:

The old vines contribute to the quality because this type of vineyards can produce grapes with good balance, very high concentration, a lot of tannins but very ripe and soft. In general the old vines produce less yield and better balance between canopy and quantity of grapes (less yield because they have less fruit production in buds and better canopy exposition). These vines have huge roots exploring more soils and taking more water and minerals, which is really important in dry regions like Argentina. Is important to know that all the old vineyards in Argentina and certainly our Malbec vineyards in Mendel, are vineyards planted with high density (more than 5000 vines per Ha, in this case to have same yield by superficies each vine has smaller production) and not grafted, that is without rootstocks, which is an important thing! (Remember that this variety was important in France before the phylloxera or before to be grafted). In these conditions the vines live more time with less vigor and better balance, especially in Malbec. When we speak about balance we are talking about high concentration of polyphenols in general (more than 1200-1400 mg/Kg of anthocyans and more than 5 g / liter of tannins in wines) very good acidity (around 6,5 g/liter of tartaric acid). In these conditions we can product wines with very good natural concentration without bleeding.

Best regards

Roberto de la Mota, Winemaker & Partner
MENDEL WINES Mendoza - Argentina
www.mendel.com.ar

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