Why Old Vines Really Matter

The reasons may not be what you might imagine
Why Old Vines Really Matter
Matt Kramer says old vineyards are more than just old. (Jon Moe)
Jun 5, 2018

Wine lovers everywhere, regardless of nationality or preferred grape varieties, are fascinated by old vines. On the surface, the reasons are easy to understand. One is a fascination with longevity.

Wine-loving has a powerful streak of antiquarianism running through. Nothing makes wine lovers dream more than sagas about impossibly old (and thus rare) wines that still sing an ancient song like Homeric bards.

Old vines, rooted to their spot, are wine’s survivalists. Unlike us, they seem to stand firm against the siege of time itself, to say nothing of disease, wars and sheer neglect. Of course, that’s not really true. The root louse phylloxera wiped out nearly every grapevine in Europe in the last third of the 19th century. Still, the sight of a gnarled, seemingly indestructible old grapevine makes us dream of impregnability and even immortality.

I’ve written previously about the perceived—and I believe, real—virtues of old vines, so I won’t bother to retrace those steps. But having recently spent a fair amount of time in Spain looking at, and talking with growers about, old vines has pushed this topic to the forefront of my wine thoughts.

As is well-known, Spain is a vast repository of old vines, as it very likely retains more old (50 to 100 years old) vines than any other European nation. One of the recurring statistics about Spanish wines is that even though Spain has more vineyard acreage than any other nation, its actual wine production is lower than that of either Italy or France. The reasons cited are drier climate, poorer soils and a lot of older, less-productive vines.

But for our purposes, the matter at hand is less about production quantity and more about what old vines can mean for quality wines.

In Australia's Barossa Valley, the Old Vine Charter designates vineyards by age: Old, Survivor, Centenarian and Ancestor (125 years or older).

Let’s leave aside all the usual—and worthwhile—considerations about the desirability of old vines, such as deep roots that can better contend with either drought or excessive rain; smaller berry size; possible lower yield leading to heightened flavor intensity and other oft-cited attributes of old vines.

Instead, what this latest three-month trip to Spain, as well as a similar amount of time spent in Portugal a few years back, has made me realize is what’s less frequently noted about old vines. For example:

Old Vineyards Are Rarely, if Ever, One Variety. Everywhere, in Spain, Australia, Portugal, France, Italy and California, vineyards of grapevines approaching the century-old mark are very rarely composed of only just one grape variety, never mind what the labels say.

Famously, California’s old Zinfandel plantings are, in California winespeak, “field blends.” They are interplanted mixtures of Zinfandel with, typically, Alicante Bouschet, Carignan and Durif, among other varieties.

Pretty much everywhere, really old vineyards are never the monocultures that characterize and define modern wine. Were these field blends carefully calculated? Hardly. The old farmers planted what they had at hand and quite likely didn’t know for certain exactly what they were putting into the ground. (Old Hill Ranch in Glen Ellen in Sonoma County creates a highly regarded Zinfandel. Planted in the mid-1800s, while preponderantly Zinfandel, it actually contains 26 different grape varieties, according to owner Will Bucklin.)

Likely the old-timers didn’t care much, either. The mentality of “varietalism” is, after all, very new. Wine labels citing a grape variety as the name of the wine dates only to the 1950s when wine importer, writer and consultant Frank Schoonmaker urged California wine producers to discard their fraudulent use of regional terms such as Burgundy, Chablis or Chianti and instead use grape variety names such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay.

California producers did so only reluctantly, however. Varietals replaced generically named wines on a widespread basis starting only in the 1970s. And that happened largely because varietals commanded higher prices than generically named ones. They conveyed prestige. (No more phony “Burgundy.”) The race to the cash register stomped the old names into the dust.

Even Single-Variety Old Vineyards Really Aren’t. One of the biggest misapprehensions of modern wine appreciation is Pinot Noir. Because of this grape variety’s extreme clonal diversity—hundreds of strains of Pinot Noir exist—there is no such thing as “Pinot Noir.”

Like one of those contemporary paintings that at first glance looks to be monochromatically simply all black, upon closer inspection we discover many subtle shades that give it far greater depth than just one can of black paint can offer.

This is something that Burgundians have known for centuries. Old vineyards in Burgundy typically contain 40 or more strains of Pinot Noir in a single small plot, creating a “Pinot Noir” that is, well, not quite the monolithic “Pinot Noir” we imagine.

This is one reason, among many, why the greatest red Burgundies still taste different from many New World Pinot Noirs. It’s not just soils or climate or the deep roots of old vines. It’s that Burgundy’s best Pinot Noirs are mosaics of dozens of interplanted strains, while New World Pinot Noirs too often are composed of a mere handful of strains and too often the same handful of commercially available (and market-encouraged) “Dijon” clones identified with numbers such as 113, 115, 667 or 777, each planted in separate blocks and picked at so-called optimum ripeness.

If you think of strains like pixels on a screen, the more pixels, the more nuance and shadings. Granted, in both cases, you do reach a point of diminishing returns. But the comparison is apt all the same, I believe.

Old Vines Are Genetic Repositories. Regardless of grape variety, the genetic composition of a century-old vine is almost guaranteed to be different than a modern cultivar. Vines mutate over time, adapting to survive stresses of weather, disease, insects and the like. The value of old vines is more than low yields or deep roots. They really are different. And their flavor value, if you will, can be tasted—if not unerringly so, then with enough frequency as to be persuasive.

This is why it’s not enough to graft a new cultivar onto an old rootstock, as is sometimes done. Deep roots are surely desirable. But those old roots do not, in themselves, deliver genetic distinction, any more than transplanting a new organ into an old body makes the entire person uniformly young again.

Everyone I talked with while I was in Spain cited what seems to be the new Spanish fine-wine mantra: “Our past is our future.” They are recovering what they very nearly lost by returning to and nurturing their oldest vines—and all that those old vines can teach us about our vocabulary of wine and our notions of wine goodness.

There’s a lesson in there for us all, don’t you think?


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