Napa Valley is alive and well.

Napa Valley is alive and well.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

What's So Special About Old Vines?


Conventional winegrowing wisdom asserts that grapevines with some maturity produce more interesting and character laden wines than young or recently planted vines. It is also generally accepted—particularly by those who live and die on the land—that Old Vines also make more nuanced and attention grabbing wines than even thirty or forty year old vines. Armed with that perspective, California producers market their Old Vines—particularly Zinfandel—as having very special qualities; the French promote their Vielles Vignes—both red and white—as being something special; and the Germans tout their Alte Reben—primarily white—as being exceptional.

What brought this topic to mind was my recent bottle browsing in a retail wine store wherein I noticed that one Zinfandel producer had prominently displayed on the front label that theirs was produced from Ancient Vines. While I was aware of the Old Vines designation, I had never seen Ancient Vines before, and I wondered about the underlying qualities and characteristics of these two vineyard elder statesmen. What was it—other than age—that makes them so unique and so appealing?

As with other marketing oriented designations on the wine bottle, like Reserve and its numerous prefixes—Vintners, Special, Limited, Proprietor’s or Grand—there is no industry or government regulated definition of either Old Vines or Ancient Vines, and there is no widely agreed to minimum legal age by either body. However, many in the California wine business refer to the hierarchy suggested by Ravenswood’s founder Joel Peterson, which put young vines in the 0-10 years group, middle age vines in the 10-50 category, old vines in the 50-80 years class and ancient vines in the super-senior, over 80 enclave.

Other than surviving for many years, what’s so special about old and ancient vines? As you might guess, it has to do primarily—though not exclusively—with roots, how deep they grow searching for nutrients, and how its grapes (and wine) benefit from that life-long, geologic excursion. First, deep-rooted older vines are less affected by weather extremes—think rain and sun—than shallow-rooted, younger vines. Second, older vines move through and reside in several layers of soil and absorb a wider variety of minerals and nutrients. Third, older vines produce fewer and smaller berries (think more skin contact) that tend to be more intense and deeper colored. Fourth, combine those three aspects and what results from old and ancient vines is a wine that, rather than being young, jammy and overtly fruity, is one with a mature, reserved and polished intensity of character. Nuances? To be sure, but for Riedel-swirling enthusiasts, that’s what it’s all about.

Just as a person in the September of his or her years has accumulated much experience, insight and perspective on the pleasures, pains and vicissitudes of life, so too—apparently—does a deeply gnarled and contorted ninety year old vine. That old veteran of the vineyard has weathered the droughts, storms and other viticultural upheavals, and has developed the “wisdom” in its roots that strive for sustenance and survival while its vines strive sunward to process its few, intense berries into a high quality pour. Old timers and Old vines, it seems, are endowed with very special, character-enhancing, time-tested qualities. Nature does its job well. (Sidebar: One wonders, are older winemakers similarly endowed?)

In closing, if grapevines over eighty years of age are classed as ancient, what do we label one that is over 400 years old, that has survived “a number of revolutions and two world wars,” and is still producing wine? There is such a rarity and it exists in Slovenia latticed to the front of a house in the town of Maribor. Its age has been authenticated, and it is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as having been planted in the mid 1600’s; oil paintings from that era verify its age and location. Its annual production of 35 to 55 KG is enough to fill about one hundred, four ounce, specially designed bottles that are passed out as ceremonial gifts to visiting dignitaries. I have not seen any tasting notes on it, but, for the right set of receptive taste buds, I’m sure it has stories to tell and experiences to reveal.





























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