Do Old Vines Really Produce Better Wines?
Old grape vines, gnarled and weathered with the seasons, evoke images of the vigneron’s careful stewardship through a lifetime. The vines’ thick trunks twisted and sturdy, are rooted against the seasonal changes of market demand, loyally offering up their fruit year after year to make old vine wines.
What is an old vine?
Spend any amount of time in the wine aisle, and you’ll come across the term ‘old vine’, perhaps an Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi or Sonoma. Curiously, the term ‘old vine’ isn’t regulated in the US and the phrase can be easily exploited for marketing. However, some vineyards - whether 50 years old or even wizened centenarian vines - have deep roots in our grape growing past and are still capable of bearing fruit for powerful wines today.
All grape vines have a natural lifecycle.
New grape vines spend their first three to five years establishing root systems and permanent wood structures. Over the next seven years, the vines continue to mature and develop. It isn’t until years 10 to 30 that most vines produce optimum levels of quality fruit.
Around year 30, fruit production declines. Farming the vineyard can cost more than price the fruit will command at market. Without a profitable return on investment, commercial producers will typically rip up and replant established vineyards to ensure a steady cashflow.
This is why old vines are so unique.
Whoever owned the land, through conscious choice or fortunate happenstance, didn’t replace the vines. And today, the value of the vine’s fruit goes beyond the wine in your glass, to encompass a history of farming the land through time.
But what kind of wines do they make?
There’s an ongoing debate over whether old vines grow higher quality fruit than younger vines. Personally, I’d like to believe we all get better with age. In the case of old vines, though, several factors support this hypothesis.
Vines store carbohydrates in their trunks and permanent wood. They tap into this energy source in the early spring to push out new leaves and shoots before they’re fully capable of photosynthesis. Old vines have a larger physical trunk space to store greater quantities of carbohydrates and nutrients to help with vegetative and fruit growth early in the growing season.
Another perk of old vines is that the viticulturists of yesterday had the privilege of selecting premium vineyard sites. From slope, sun exposure, and soil composition, these vines were given every advantage in the field to make great wines.
Are Wines from Old Vines Better?
This question ultimately comes down to taste preference and how the wine was made. There is, however, a strong case to be made for wines made from older grapevines.
Excellent growing sites and limited fruit production, coupled with greater carbohydrate reserves, can theoretically lead to more concentrated flavor and aroma compounds in the berries, and, by extension, make for premium wines.
That doesn't mean younger vines don't produce wonderful wines. But the only way to know for certain if old vine wines are worthy of their acclaim is to seek out a bottle and try for yourself!
Gold Medal Wine Club features a number of Old Vine wines. Take a look at the online wine store for individual bottles.
Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly, Certified Specialist of Wine, is a wine writer and educator. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers dedicated to crafting great wines.