Old Vines in the New World

Can we stop using the terms Old World and New World already? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to simply say Europe and elsewhere? (Though, admittedly, the Middle East and North Africa may take issue with that.) Many of the stylistic lines that separate the two designations have blurred, and even the use of the word old is suspect. Yes, of course Europe’s tradition of wine production is more established, but the same can’t necessarily be said of its vines. Thanks to phylloxera backpacking its way across Europe in the 1860s and ‘70s, the majority of the continent’s vineyards were grubbed up decades after colonialism had spread vinifera around the globe.

Old vine is as nebulous a term as Old World, and yet we see it everywhere. In France, it is vieilles vignes; Spanish labels proclaim viñas viejas; and in Germany and Austria, it goes by alte reben. These words conjure low bush-trained vines, twisted and thick, reaching like the arthritic hands of our grandparents out from the earth. They speak to ancient ways and simpler times, to tradition and history, wisdom and survival. Whether or not they actually produce better wines is a matter of some debate; their marketing appeal is not.

For the most part, these terms are unregulated—that is, it is up to the producer to determine whether or not their vines are viejas. Only recently have a few corners of the world attempted to codify their meaning. Ironically, this phenomenon has been mostly relegated to the so-called New World. Perhaps these regions are simply seizing an overlooked opportunity. Or maybe the stigma of being labeled "new" for so long has instilled in them a deep appreciation for such tangible manifestations of heritage.

South Africa’s Old Vine Project

The KWV’s long monopoly over the South African wine industry was restrictive, repressive, and bad for business. It was also remarkably well organized.

The cooperative’s decades of centralized record-keeping helped ease the transition to a European-type appellation system in 1973. But even after the KWV began to lose its grip on the wine industry, the information gathering did not stop. Today, that database is maintained by SAWIS, or South African Wine Industry Information & Systems, which also oversees the nation’s Wine of Origin scheme. The organization’s records stretch back to 1900 and show the rootstock, clone, vine spacing, trellising system, and year planted of nearly every vine in South Africa. This extraordinary database has been crucial to the success of the Old Vine Project (OVP), but access was only recently granted.

Old vine Sémillon in Franschhoek (Photo credit: Kelli White)

The OVP initiative began in 2002, when lawyer/journalist-turned-viticulturalist Rosa Kruger began compiling a list of old vine vineyards. "She spent most of her spare time searching for old, often forgotten and neglected blocks," the project’s current manager, André Morgenthal, explains. Her goal was to get this special fruit into the hands of people who would venerate it, and her earliest advocates in this endeavor were her employer Anthonij Rupert Wines and the winemaker Eben Sadie, who would go on to become one of the most important figures in contemporary South African wine.

Kruger’s list grew, but slowly. She knew that SAWIS had a registry of all of the vineyards in the country and spent years petitioning for a peek. Finally, in 2014, SAWIS handed over a list of all vineyards over the age of 35, on the condition that Kruger ask each owner’s permission before publicly listing their vineyard information. Later that same year, the Old Vine Project launched a website that many describe as a kind of a dating service (swipe right for Chenin?) bringing together growers and producers.

The sole purpose of the OVP is to keep old vines in the ground. And the easiest way to do that is to raise the value of the fruit. Quite often, the growers don’t fully grasp the desirability of their crop, as they’ve been selling to cooperatives for so long that they are out of touch with the market. Per Morgenthal, "After I track down a vineyard, I say to the grower, ‘Look, the co-op gets you 2,000 rand per ton. But I can find you a winemaker that will give you 10,000, 12,000, even 15,000 rand for a ton.’"

In the beginning, the project mostly attracted the new wave of young winemakers such as Chris and Suzaan Alheit of Alheit Vineyards (best known for their Cartology wine) and Chris and Andrea Mullineux (Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines), all of whom followed in Eben Sadie’s footsteps. The wines they produced excited consumers and the press, and helped elevate the international standing of South African wine. But they represented only a small part of the picture. "Around 85% of our old vines are tied up in the cooperative system," Morgenthal admits. "And I’ve been able to unlock some of that fruit for other producers. But now, this interesting thing is happening where the co-ops are acknowledging [that] the old vine blocks are special and are keeping them for themselves and making separate, often really great wines from them."

As excited as he is by this development, he does not know whether or not the cooperatives have increased the rates they pay for the old vine fruit. "I ask them to, I tell them to, but we can’t control that." Nonetheless, the vines are staying in the ground. "We have just over 90,000 hectares of vines in South Africa. In 2016, only 2,400 were over 35 years of age, the vast majority of which is Chenin Blanc, but in 2017 that grew to 3,500!" He pauses, "Now, I don’t want to take credit for that, but the growers are listening, the co-ops are listening. The message really is spreading."

Old vines in South Africa (Photo credit: Kelli White)

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Old Vine Project is the breadth of its approach. Not only is it considering bulk wine—a massive if controversial part of the South African wine industry—along with premium wine, but it is also balancing the preservation of the old vines of today with the creation of the old vines of tomorrow. To achieve this, the OVP is attacking from two distinct fronts.

The first initiative is focused on new vineyards, with the mantra "plant to grow old." Here, the OVP works with growers to take special care during site, rootstock, and scion selection, with an emphasis on using certified virus-free material. The problem, according to Eben Sadie, lies with short-term thinking and a live-fast-die-young approach to viticulture. "The modern way is that you plant a vineyard, get the maximum out of it, then uproot it in 20 years when production starts to fade. If this is your thinking, then why should you care about clones, about virus? Why do anything proper for 20 years?"

Sadie is also of the belief that old vineyards can teach growers how to best weather South Africa’s sometimes harsh climate and has modeled his new estate vineyard in their image. This strategy took on a fresh urgency during the country’s recent and severe multi-year drought. "Bush vines don’t need irrigation if you space them wide enough that they don’t compete. For me, this is a protection against future drought."

Morgenthal’s other focus is on vines in the 20-to-35-year bracket, a sort of lost age that he feels may be the most vulnerable group of all. "We spend a lot of time trying to establish to the consumer that vines 35 years and older are valuable. And yet most people rip out vines after 20 years." Happily, the OVP has cultivated a handful of producers that are willing to pay a premium for this fruit. "The goal is to keep these vines in the ground until they graduate and can become certified," he says. In conjunction with SAWIS, the Old Vine Project has created a Certified Heritage Vineyard seal for all wines coming from vineyards age 35 and older. While this may seem like a small reward for achieving such a statistically unlikely age, these seals serve to alert consumers to the special nature of the wine inside the bottle, and hopefully to the special nature of the vines that provided the fruit.

How Old Is Old?

When Rosa Kruger started keeping her list, she first needed to determine what qualified as old. "There was a consensus among the growers she spoke to that 35 to 40 years is where a vineyard reaches a point where the vines became more balanced," explains Morgenthal. "The juice is more balanced, too. You can see it in the analysis: pH, total acidity, sugar, concentration of flavors." He likens it to the maturity of a person. "In your 20s, you can have a great deal of productivity, especially if you drink lots of coffee, Red Bull, and don’t sleep. But in your 30s, you start preserving your energy, saving your money instead of spending it all. You find your balance." Considering he was speaking to a sleep-deprived 30-something with credit card debt, I took issue with his metaphor. But the point still landed.

Barossa’s Old Vine Charter and Chile’s VIGNO also consider a vine to be "old" at age 35, and they, too, are quick to compare vine and human development. California’s Historic Vineyard Society, on the other hand, only accepts member vineyards with originally planted vines that are at least 50 years in age. And Greek legislature mandates that in order for a wine label to proclaim "old vines," the vineyard must be a minimum of 40 years old and planted on its own roots.

The above represents the rare official guidelines. Unofficially, the dividing lines are more blurry. "Growers in Burgundy are, for the most part, anyway, reasonably respectful of the term [vieilles vignes], and I would say that at around 45 years of age, no one would blink if someone chose to employ the term on their label," Allen Meadows of Burghound explains. "With that said, I had one grower tell me that his old vines Chassagne was 25 years old, and that would be roundly condemned."

For , a wine writer living in Priorat, it is changes in farming that mark the shift from youth to age. "There have been growers in various regions defining ‘old’ as anywhere from 35+ to 50+. For me, I define it at 50+, as that’s a pretty important moment given that it was the transition from traditional agriculture to more modern, moving from bush to trellis." He continues, "Vines planted in the 1980s were during a stupid time when there was an embrace of French grapes and mega-agriculture, just as Spain joined the EU."

Get Old or Die Trying

How does a vine actually achieve old age? This is not as straightforward a question as it seems, considering all of the physical, environmental, social, and economic forces working against agricultural permanence.

First, avoiding certain pests and diseases is key. The root louse phylloxera is largely responsible for the lack of truly old vines around the world. But because it is unable to thrive in extremely sandy soils, some regions, such as eastern Washington or much of Chile, still have vines planted on their own roots. Another major debilitating factor is trunk disease. A handful of these plague viticulturalists, but they all operate via the same mechanism: a malevolent fungus enters the vine, typically during or after pruning, reduces productivity, and eventually causes death. Because a vine receives a fresh set of pruning wounds every season, it naturally follows that older vines are more vulnerable. That said, some varieties are more resistant than others.

According to Wine Australia’s best practice management guide for Eutypa dieback, Sauvignon Blanc is uniquely sensitive to Eutypa. Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon are next on the list, and though they are nearly tied, it is far more common to see very old Shiraz vines than Cabernet Sauvignon. Why is this? Viticulturalist Chris Rogers says it has to do with fruitfulness.

"[Cabernet Sauvignon] seems to lose a lot of yield capacity with age and, in many cases, becomes unviable even with reworking and cane pruning. If this trait of low yield is combined with retained vine capacity and vigor, then it may result in congested canopies (excess shading), variable ripening, and more disjointed wines. [Cabernet Sauvignon] bud fruitfulness, and hence bunches [per] vine, seems to drop away more with age compared to Shiraz. And fruit set especially, and hence bunch weight, seems to become increasingly variable and poor with greater vine age." In other words, Shiraz vines, even with Eutypa, can continue producing high-quality fruit well into their years. Cabernet Sauvignon, not so much.

But phylloxera, trunk disease, and diminishing fruitfulness are not the only obstacles to old age. Humans can be quite the pests themselves. Urban sprawl, shifting varietal preference (i.e., "Cabernetification"), and changes in land use are also factors. Because of this, historically, it has often been true that the best way to protect old vines is to forget about them. As Marco Ventrella, viticulturalist for KWV, commented at the recent Cape Wine Classic, "How do vines get old? Only two ways. Either they were good and profitable when they were young or they were neglected. And that could be capital neglect or farming neglect."

A quick scan of some of the communities with high concentrations of old vines seems to confirm this. Consider Napa Valley. The mansions and palatial wineries of Oakville and Rutherford tend to be surrounded by neatly manicured, relatively young Cabernet Sauvignon vines trained in VSP. Head north to Calistoga and the houses get smaller, the cars get less flashy, and California sprawl appears.

Why would the number of old vines have an inverse relationship to an area’s wealth? Likely because it is actually quite expensive to replant a vineyard. Not only are material and labor costs high and rising, but a true replant takes a vineyard out of production for a number of years. In this way, poverty is a preservative.

But fortunes can always change. In Santorini, vines with several hundred-year-old root systems that survived phylloxera and helped nourish an impoverished population are being threatened by luxury developments now that tourism has boosted land values. And in Contra Costa County, just outside of San Francisco, the eastward push of the BART mass transit system recently claimed the Salvador Vineyard, planted in 1896 and lovingly vinified by Turley Wine Cellars for the past several years.

California’s Historic Vineyard Society

The Historic Vineyard Society was founded in 2011 by a collective of winemakers who had grown increasingly alarmed at the rate of change in their viticultural landscape—specifically, the replacement of old vine Russian River Valley Zinfandel with young Pinot Noir in post-Sideways California.

"One day, Mike [Officer] drove by the Barbieri Vineyard that he was contracted with, and it was just gone. And it was the oldest and most diverse vineyard in that area," recalls MW Morgan Twain-Peterson, son of Ravenswood’s Joel Peterson and founder of Bedrock Wine Company. "We were just shocked. And we realized we didn’t even know how many old vine vineyards there were in California. We knew it was a diminishing resource, but we didn’t know how to measure it."

In response, he, Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery,  of Turley, and David Gates of Ridge Vineyards set up a nonprofit and a vineyard registry. One of the original goals was to get protective measures for the vineyards, or at the very least a tax break for the owners. But the partners quickly found that such an act would require an unfeasible level of lobbying. "Besides," Twain-Peterson explains, "tax breaks become so quickly politicized, and farmers are generally a demographic that runs pretty anti-state, so it’s a curious political proposition to pull together."

Instead, they created a special certification from the state of California. Their criteria is that eligible vineyards be currently producing and have at least one-third of their vines date back to the original planting, which must be at least 50 years old. "The problem is, we aren’t like South Africa—we don’t have a record of when every vine went into the ground. And while those of us that work with old vines can see the difference in pruning, spacing, and training styles between a 40- and a 100-year-old vineyard, it’s a tricky thing to verify."

Old vines at Bedrock Vineyard (Photo credit: Bedrock)

Twain-Peterson and his partners work with old vine vineyards across the state, from Amador to inland Mendocino, Paso Robles, Sonoma, and beyond. And while each region has its own special threats to contend with, the inability to mechanize, Cabernetification, and diminished yields seem to be the universal enemies. "Labor is getting more expensive all the time in California," Twain-Peterson bemoans, "and look at fruit costs." In 2018, the average price per ton for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was $7,926.55. Zinfandel was $4,014.25. "And in young vineyards, you are regularly getting 4.5 tons per acre. I’m lucky to get 1.5 to 2 tons in many of my vineyards. So the value difference is compounded."

That said, Twain-Peterson believes the math can pencil out, and he points to Oakville Farmhouse—one of his few Napa Valley sources—as an example. "Old vines tend to be less vigorous. This means less dense canopies, so less spraying for mildew and no crop thinning, plus no irrigation. And then if they are eight-by-eight or nine-by-nine or ten-by-ten, you can cross-cultivate. This means that a lot of the farming costs drop way down." Despite its posh location, Oakville Farmhouse is the least expensive Bedrock vineyard to farm. But, says Twain-Peterson, "You need to have guys who know how to handle old vines, and that’s a specialized labor thing."

Another factor working in his favor is the evolution of the market. "I saw a study that the number one growing variety for direct-to-consumer sales is Zinfandel," Twain-Peterson recounts. "And when there’s more margin to be made on the wine side, there’s more that can trickle down to the growers."

Nonetheless, absent any real government intervention, the best way the Historic Vineyard Society can keep old vines in the ground is by raising awareness. Toward this end, the founders all dedicate a portion of their websites and social media presence to the promotion of the vineyards and the families behind them. "Winemakers get too much credit, and growers get way too little credit," Twain-Peterson asserts. In order to flip that script and deepen the connection between his wines and their venerable origins, he regularly hosts vineyard tours for the press, consumers, and the trade. 

"The bottom line is [that] people need to pay more for these wines. And when people start talking about Evangelho or Monte Rosso the way they talk about To-Kalon, the market will adjust." While that may seem like a lofty goal, Twain-Peterson believes it’s attainable. "I was working the market in St. Louis recently and met a young guy who was super excited about Contra Costa," he recounts with a chuckle. "So, the word is getting out."

Barossa’s Old Vine Charter

No wonder a whole classification of old vines in Barossa is labeled "survivor"—these soldiers made it through battle both with phylloxera and the Vine Pull Scheme of the 1980s.

Overall, Barossa is neither particularly sandy nor isolated, yet it boasts a remarkable number of own-rooted vines. This is due to the special efforts of the government at the time of phylloxera’s original 19th-century assault. Through extreme diligence and organization, Barossa and other parts of Australia were able to establish quarantine zones that are still holding admirably today. However, as with Santorini and Contra Costa, the region’s vines went on to face even greater peril in the form of economic forces.

During the 1970s, Australian vintners responded to a spike in demand by planting swaths of new vineyards. When fashion turned temporarily against them in the 1980s, the industry was faced with a potentially devastating grape surplus. Such boom-and-bust cycles have played out across the world for as long as wine has been produced, but the Australian government, no doubt inspired by its successful reaction to phylloxera, decided that a swift and aggressive response was best.  

In 1986, the South Australian government introduced legislation that paid growers to remove vines and plant younger, more productive vineyards. And while certainly there were some ill-suited and shabby vineyards that needed culling, "The pull scheme was a pretty blunt instrument, and beautiful, low-yielding, old vine vineyards got caught up in that," concludes James March.

March is the CEO of the Barossa Grape & Wine Association. He is proud of the area’s bounty of old vines and believes that the Old Vine Charter, instituted in 2009, is essential to ensuring that the viticultural carnage of the 1980s is never repeated. "The Old Vine Charter got its start in 2007, when Robert Hill-Smith and Brian Walsh of Yalumba returned from a trip to Europe where they had discussed old vines and terms such as vieilles vignes." Yalumba unveiled its own charter that year, which was adopted by the region two years later.

Old vine Shiraz (Photo credit: Chris Tanghe)

Currently, the charter highlights four levels of vine age: Old Vine (35+), Survivor (70+), Centenarian (100+), and Ancestor (125+). The Ancestor vines are especially compelling to lovers of history, as they trace back to the very first plantations by European immigrants. They are also something of a genetic treasure, occasionally featuring clones that are no longer commonly used.

Old vineyards also act as a time capsule, containing clues as to the drinking preferences and winemaking habits of their day. "When you think back to the history of Barossa winemaking, it was really an era of fortified wine production," March explains, "so you had Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. They could be cropped higher and had a bigger pulp-to-skin ratio, so these were preferred to Cabernet." Similarly, South Africa’s abundance of old vine Chenin points to its long history of dessert wine and brandy production; California’s old vine Zinfandel and "mixed blacks" vineyards are a direct result of home-winemaking trends during Prohibition.

Point, Counterpoint

Not everyone thinks that old vines are worth a damn.

"Vieilles vignes is a fantasy, unimportant," Laurent Ponsot tells me. "People like it, but it’s marketing."

I was taken aback. Given that Domaine Ponsot is one of the most famous bottlers of vieilles vignes wine in France, I was expecting his position to be a bit more . . . favorable. Instead, I was told, "When you plant the vine, in the sixth or seventh year, you can extract the essence perfectly as a vine which is 60 or 70 years. There is not even a difference regarding yield. In fact, if I decided to put young vines in my vieilles vignes wine, no one could tell, and it wouldn’t be any different."

Domaine Ponsot is unique in that it was one of the very first Burgundy houses to bottle its entire production. Historically, it was far more common to sell casks to négociants or merchants who handled the bottling, the labeling, and therefore the marketing. Following World War II, an increasing number of producers turned to estate bottling, but the practice of selling casks persisted well into the early 1980s. Why were the Ponsots so far ahead of the curve? Because they owned restaurants, which gave them a direct conduit to the consumer.

Starting in the early 1930s, Laurent Ponsot’s grandfather began labeling their Clos de la Roche as cuvée vieilles vignes. "It was not based on anything specific," Ponsot assures me. "The vines were probably 50 to 60 years old." But what started out as a whim soon became tradition. "My father went on with this, but when I started to work on the estate in [the] early ‘80s, I found this uninteresting; I wanted to get rid of it." His clients, however, pushed back when he threatened to jettison the moniker. "So I kept it, but I gave myself some rules."

Ponsot determined that only wines from vines over 50 years old could be labeled vieilles vignes. And so his Chambertin, made from vines planted in 1961, earned vieilles vignes status with the 2012 vintage. "And when I had vines which were over 100, I started putting très vieilles vignes as a provocation." In this way, Clos Saint-Denis became très vieilles vignes in 2006 (vines planted 1905), and Clos des Monts Luisants became très vieilles vignes in 2012 (vines planted 1911).

"The real question," I pose, "is why doesn’t France bother to legislate this term?" This has always mystified me, especially considering that the AOP system controls nearly every other aspect of grapegrowing and winemaking. Aside from a single pre-phylloxera vineyard in AOP Saint-Mont that had been granted monument historique status, I failed to find any other official mention of old vines in France.

"No, the real question," Ponsot declares after a dramatic pause, "is, who cares?"

Allen Meadows suspects the reason the French do not officially define vieilles vignes is due to repiquage, the practice of replacing individual vines in place as they fail. "Given that one year a grower might replace 1% of his vines and the next year, after a severe frost, hail storm, or virus problems (including Esca), perhaps 3 or 4%, keeping track of the average ages across all of his vineyards becomes a seriously complicated data collection issue." This is the reason why California’s Historic Vineyard Society only demands one-third of its members’ original vines be in production. Over time, repiquage adds up.

Meadows admits that this is only a guess, and even the BIVB (Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne) gave me the email equivalent of a shrug when I inquired. Ponsot, for his part, is simply happy that the term remains undefined. "We already have too many rules. The INAO has become like a communist bureaucracy; you can barely do anything. So I’m glad it’s unregulated."

Over in California, Caymus patriarch Chuck Wagner shares many of Ponsot’s beliefs. "The term old vines is a marketing tool, and while it helps sell wine and provide good story, this has held back producers—and even regions—from fully aspiring." The main problem, he believes, lies with virus. "Until we get our arms around disease, we are lucky to get 20 years of quality wine production before having to redevelop."

Wagner is dogged in his pursuit of virus, sometimes even replanting after 15 years of vine age. "Healthy vines make the best wines," he assures me. He makes an exception for old vine Zinfandel, which he feels is not adversely affected by virus, but claims to have never had a great Cabernet produced from old vines. "Old vines usually make wines that I do not like, due to vine sickness at old age that interrupts the ripening process, resulting in overly tart, thin red wine."

He goes on to add, "If I read vieilles vignes on a label of French red, I have been conditioned to respond negatively. This calls to question who is really nuts here. Me?"

The Pudding & The Proof

He doesn’t know it, but Morgan Twain-Peterson agrees with Chuck Wagner—at least regarding the role of virus in old vine Zinfandel. 

"Old vine vineyards have virus. That’s a given," Twain-Peterson admits. He recently submitted 40 samples of budwood from various Historic Vineyard Society plots for genetic testing. Of the 40, "Maybe one was clean, but most had two to five different types of virus." Some viruses, like rupestris stem pitting, are present but don’t manifest, while others can have a significant effect on vine performance. The most common observation is that virus slows ripening and limits sugar accumulation, but some believe that flavor can be affected as well. "Red blotch supposedly enhances pyrazines," Twain-Peterson allows, "but California’s old vine vineyards don’t typically feature pyrazine varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon."

Monte Rosso vines with virus (Photo credit: Larry Piggins)

Even with that acknowledgment, he does not feel that the presence of virus is sufficient impetus for vineyard redevelopment. "I think when you are working with old vines, you have a different level of tolerance for virus. But I see people that are so obsessed with [eradicating] virus that they are replanting vineyards every 10 years!" He continues, "In a sense, I get it. But I think at that point, we need to talk about bigger picture sustainability."

Setting aside the issue of virus, Twain-Peterson strongly believes that old vines produce better wines. Wagner doesn’t, but at least they both agree that the resulting wine is different. "When we have old vine blocks growing next to young vine blocks, the quality difference is huge," Twain-Peterson explains. "Old vines produce wines of higher acid, deeper color, more core concentration. They don’t wig out as much in extreme heat. There’s more uniform development, and vigor is naturally kept in check."

Much of the reported difference between old and young vines—and their respective wines—is anecdotal, but a few scientific studies are worth pointing out. Most significant is the recently published work by Dylan Grigg at the University of Adelaide (discussed in this MW essay).

Grigg’s study is unique in that he was able to locate five different Shiraz vineyards that contained both old vines (90+) and young vines propagated from their cuttings. Though he admitted that many of the effects of vine age were difficult to isolate from seasonal and site factors, some conclusions could be drawn. 

Trunks

It is commonly suggested that old vines are better at storing and conserving resources than young vines. Grigg allows that the greater thickness of old vine trunks makes for better storage of carbohydrates (sugar), water, and nutrients such as nitrogen. Having extra nitrogen to draw from promotes early season growth, and the added sugar helps prevent "flower abortion,"—that is, its availability results in better fruit set. The stored water assists in counteracting drought and seasonal stress.

That covers storage. As far as "conservation" is concerned, there really isn’t any evidence that old vines are wiser than young ones, that they wittingly hold back fuel during the growing season. What now seems more likely is that years of pruning results in the accumulation of scar tissue, which renders an old vine’s vascular system less efficient. This is a relatively new idea but it is gaining momentum, and specialized pruning services are being developed to address this issue.

Roots

Interestingly, Grigg references studies showing that old vines don’t necessarily have deeper roots than young vines, which runs counter to prevailing wisdom, but that the depth of a vine’s roots has more to do with soil structure and access to water than anything else. The roots do get thicker with age, however, which increases surface area as well as storage potential.

He doesn’t directly address mycorrhizae impact, but other studies have implied that old vines enjoy either increased or more specialized fungal and bacterial populations in the root zone. These microorganisms help convert elements and nutrients into forms that are digestible by the vine and are therefore essential to vine health. But while it is possible that old vines have more favorable microbes around, others have postulated that the years of compaction, tillage, and/or spray buildup would adversely affect the microbial populations of old vine vineyards.

Fruit

Due to increased fruit set, Grigg reported higher crop loads in the older vines, which also opposes most, if not all, anecdotal evidence. Nonetheless, his observations regarding the chemical composition of those grapes were more or less as expected. In addition to having a lower pH and higher titratable acidity, the fruit displayed lower levels of anthocyanin (i.e., diminished color and tannin) and the resulting wine often had lower alcohol. Aromatically, the wines skewed more toward red fruit than the black/blue fruit evident in the young vine wines.

It’s worth dwelling on acidity for a moment. The fact that old vines produce wines with higher acidity seems to be one of the few points upon which almost everyone agrees. But why might this be? One theory is that, over a long period of time, a vine will deplete the amount of potassium in its soil. As potassium ions (K+) enter the grape, they displace hydrogen ions (H+), which serves to lower acidity and raise pH. It naturally follows that an absence of potassium would lead to higher acidity. Another thought is that young vines are simply able to take in more potassium than old vines, due to the fact that they tend to be more heavily irrigated and minerals need to be dissolved in water to be absorbed by vines. Potassium is also the reason why heavier crop loads produce higher acid wines—more fruit means less potassium per berry.

Caveat

It’s important to note that the study admits to favoring old vine vineyards that are performing well. Also, Grigg himself suggests that in order for a vineyard to last until old age, it may be high performing to begin with (lack of disease, quality of fruit discouraging removal, balanced water status). Furthermore, as vines over 90 years of age would have been planted well before the advent of modern irrigation systems, the sites in question clearly possess favorable soil conditions and access to water. Any of these factors might be seen to stack the odds in the favor of the old vines; at the very least, they complicate the data.

VIGNO & The Old Vines of Southern Chile

True believers assert that great age turns good vines into gold. But what about the more mundane vines of the world?

The ancient and peripatetic Listán Prieto goes by many names. In California, it is Mission, in Argentina Criolla Chica, and in Chile, País. Due largely to its reputation as a workhorse grape of dubious quality, it has been mostly eradicated from mainland Spain and California. In South America, where vast plantings remain, it is typically used in the production of bulk wine. That said, a handful of producers in the Canary Islands and Southern Chile are attempting to elevate the status of this notoriously rustic wine. The secret to their success? Extensive vine age.

On Tenerife, large, floppy bushes of Listán Prieto hug the ground or trace the contour of the hillsides in low, long braids. Because the islands have never known phylloxera, many of these vines are thought to be 200 to 300 years old. In the Itata region of Chile, some over-100-year-old País vines have reverted to their wild ways, crawling up the trunks of trees and tangling their tendrils in the branches overhead. Once the fruit has ripened, harvesters must climb tall ladders to retrieve the clusters.

J. Bouchon's wild País vines in Maule (Photo credit: Geoff Kruth)

These historic training methods are part of what excites Julio Bouchon. Under his brand, J. Bouchon, he produces three different and equally thrilling wines from País: one from the wild vines, one from old bush vines, and a white País from bunches that, due to genetic mutation, never turn red. "People talk about the French coming to the Santiago area in the 1850s and setting up wineries as the beginning of Chilean winemaking. But the real history was 300 years earlier, when the Spanish brought País to Itata and other regions in the south."

In 1939, when a major earthquake wiped out much of the wine industry, the Chilean government saw an opportunity. The Ministry of Agriculture decided that the low acid, low alcohol, and low color of the País wines was undesirable and encouraged the planting of a grape that can almost be thought of as its foil: the high-acid, deeply colored, generally intense Carignan.

Because of this mandate, Carignan was planted extensively throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. But though it set a large crop, the variety proved extremely sensitive to powdery mildew, so it was eventually passed over in favor of easier to cultivate and/or more fashionable wine grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Over time, the Carignan vines were left to languish, their fruit blended into anonymity. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a handful of vintners began to realize that the now-old vines of Carignan were actually really special. They felt so strongly about it that they started a fan club.

Felipe Garcia, the winemaker and owner of P.S. Garcia, established VIGNO in 2010. VIGNO, which is short for Vignadores de Carignan, is a collective of wineries (there are currently 16) that work with old vine Carignan from the sprawling Maule region. To be eligible, a wine must be made with a minimum of 85% old bush vine (35+ years), dry-farmed Carignan. The balance must be other old vine Maule varieties, and the wine must be aged a minimum of two years—be it in cask, tank, or bottle—before it is released to market.

The dry-farming aspect is key. "The dry-farming concentrates the flavor," Garcia explains. "These old vines give wines with a low pH and high tartaric [acid]. If you tried [to make a varietal Carignan] with irrigated vines, you would be losing concentration, and the balance of the wine would be quite different."

But beyond just the quality of the wines, VIGNO is significant in that it seems to be a part of a larger movement in the wine industry away from international varieties and toward regional authenticity. Julio Bouchon, who comes from a multi-generational Chilean winemaking family with French roots, is uniquely qualified to comment.

"Before, in my life, it was like, Bordeaux, Bordeaux, Bordeaux," he recounts. "I had to make Bordeaux blends, so I drank only Bordeaux, and I hired Bordeaux consultants, and I threw tastings comparing my wines to Bordeaux and Napa and Tuscany." Though Bordeaux varieties are still a large part of his family’s business, he began to look beyond that model for something more true to his Maule roots. "[Bordeaux-style wines] can still be nice wines, but are they local? Are they interesting? Are they authentic?" he asks. "Now we are proud of bringing a super simple wine like a País that might be rustic. Now that is interesting to me."

Bouchon feels a kinship with other parts of the world that are working to rediscover lost parts of their heritage through the lens of old vines. "The Grenache movement in Madrid and the Carignan in Spain and the Sémillon in Hunter Valley—these are more connected to what I am doing. It’s not just the old vines; it’s the traditional ways of winemaking. Not these copy-and-paste wines." Toward this end, he has even collaborated with the South African David Nieuwoudt of Cederberg Private Cellar. Together, they created the brand Longaví, which is focused on old vine Cinsault, a variety of historic import to both winemakers’ homelands.

And then there is the social aspect. "It is something from the heart, what is happening in the south with the País and the other varieties—Cinsault, Sémillon, Carignan. I feel responsible in terms of bringing back the culture of the viticulture." He continues, "It’s not just the old vines—it’s the life of the farmers. The big wineries, they pay nothing for these grapes, so they start to disappear." Bouchon explains that only a decade prior, Carignan sold for 20 cents a kilo, and today, it sells regularly for $1.20. "We are working with them to learn how to prune [the old vines] and to bring back the horses to work in the farms," he tells me. "And these farmers are getting happy again, and it is beautiful."

It is also romantic, which is perfectly fine. While some may lambast the concept of "old vines" as nothing more than marketing rhetoric, it is difficult, even for the most cynical, to discount hundreds of years of tradition because the jury is out on the empiric value of old age. After all, as Marco Ventrella from KWV put it, "Romance is actually important to the glass. This is wine, after all, not Coca-Cola."

Special thanks to GuildSomm Technical Writer  for her assistance in researching this article.

Bibliography 

"An Interview with Mike Officer: Old Vines, Zinfandel and California's Viticultural Heritage." GuildSomm, April 27, 2011. https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/guest_blog/posts/an-interview-with-mike-officer-old-vines-zinfandel-and-california-s-viticultural-heritage.

Anson, Jane. "Ancient French vines given heritage status." Decanter, June 22, 2012. https://www.decanter.com/wine-news/ancient-french-vines-given-heritage-status-28598.

Barossa Wine. "Old Vine Charter." Accessed April 23, 2019. https://www.barossawine.com/vineyards/old-vine-charter.

Gramaje, David, José Ramón Úrbez-Torres, and Mark Sosnowski. "Managing Grapevine Trunk Diseases With Respect to Etiology and Epidemiology: Current Strategies and Future Prospects." Plant Disease 102, no. 1 (2018). 12-39.

Grigg, Dylan. "An investigation into the effect of grapevine age on vine performance, grape and wine composition, sensory evaluation, and epigenetic characterisation." Doctoral diss., University of Adelaide, 2017.

Historic Vineyard Society. Accessed April 23, 2019. https://historicvineyardsociety.org.

Jefford, Andrew. "Jefford on Monday: Tracking terroir." Decanter, January 29, 2018. https://www.decanter.com/wine-news/opinion/jefford-on-monday/soil-terroir-tracking-383372.

Jones McKee, Linda. "Vinifying Grapes From Difficult Climates: How to deal with fruit that has green flavors and acid/pH issues." Wines Vines Analytics, November 2014. https://winesvinesanalytics.com/features/article/141291/Vinifying-Grapes-From-Difficult-Climates.

Pollan, Michael. "The Intelligent Plant." The New Yorker, December 15, 2013. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/23/the-intelligent-plant.

South African Wine Industry Information & Systems NPC. Accessed April 23, 2019. http://www.sawis.co.za.

Sheng Li, Mu Peng, Zhi Liu, and Syed Sadaqat Shah. "The Role of Soil Microbes in Promoting Plant Growth." Molecular Microbiology Research 7, no. 4 (2017). 30-37.

Siddle, Richard. "How SA’s Old Vine Project is saving lost vines for the future." Certified Heritage Vineyards, November 10, 2018. http://oldvineproject.co.za/how-sas-old-vine-project-is-saving-lost-vines-for-the-future-the-buyer.

VIGNO. Accessed April 23, 2019. http://www.vigno.org.

Wine Australia. "Best practice management guide: Eutypa dieback." February 2018. https://www.wineaustralia.com/getmedia/850410cd-bcea-4b5c-b593-f4d42ae33fdd/RD_BPMG_EutypaDieback_Feb2018_Final.

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  • I move for a motion to replace Initial Conclusion section of the tasting grid from "Old World New World" to "Europe vs. Elsewhere". I've been really getting into older vineyards in California, having recently had Birichino's "Bechtold" Cinsault, which I couldn't believe was as delicious as it was for the price. Great article

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