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How Old is Old Enough?
Old Vines is one the few terms that you find on a wine label that is not regulated by law anywhere in the world. Spain has their Reserva and Grand Reserva, France their Grand Cru and first growth and Italy their Reserva and Superiore, all defined by law. Even the United Sates, the wild west of wine labeling, regulates Single Vineyards and Estate Grown wines. And Old Vines are important, ask any wine maker or grower and they all seem to agree that older vines make better wine. Unless of course, they don't have any older vines. So you need to be careful with that question in places like Oregon and New Zealand where the first grapes were only planted twenty-five to thirty years ago.
In France it's Vielles Vignes, in Spain Vina Viejas, Germany Alte Reben and in Italy Vecchie Viti and it works like this. A grapevine takes five to six years of growth before it is ready for annual harvesting. It will increase its vigor (vegetative growth) and continue to grow for the next twenty to twenty-five years. At about the age of thirty the vine's vigor will begin to decline and plateau at about the age of fifty. The oldest grapevine in the world is thought to be in South Tyrol, Italy. It is 350 years old and still produces fruit.
Old vines require a lot of nurturing and have very low yields but produce some of the best grapes because the low yield forces the plant to produce more concentrated fruit. The old vines have also developed deep roots that allow them to tap into deep water sources during drought, and resist the dilution and bloated grapes from harvest rains that plague younger vines. So what age is best? Matt Kramer, Wine Spectator's premier columnist, says 40 to 50 years and quotes the great Italian Barolo produce Aldo Conterno as saying "he won't use Nebbiolo fruit from vines younger than 25 years in his Barolo but believes that forty year old vines are ideal."
We see the words Old Vines here in the United States mostly on Zinfandel. That's because in the mid-to-late 19th Century Zinfandel was the most widely planted grape in California. In 2012 there were still over 50,000 acres planted to Zinfandel, and plenty of it is still on its original, gnarly old root stock. Hence, great Old Vine Zinfandel can still be had at reasonable prices, just be careful because the words "Old Vine" probably don't mean the same thing to Bota Box that they do to Dry Creek Winery or Seghesio.
And, while I think $35 is a good value for a California Old Vine Zinfandel, the best Old Vine values in the world are coming from Spain, especially in regions like the arid Calatayud, west of Barcelona. There are thousands of acres of Garnacha (Grenache) planted there, almost all of it more than fifty years old producing wines like the Evodia Old Vine Garnacha 2014 that we sell for $8.99!
July 6, 2016