Wine Myths, Misconceptions and Misinformation #3: Old Vines Make Better Wine
Nearly everybody knows that “old vines” make better wine. If you didn’t know that before, you heard it here first.
But is it true?
The answer is, unfortunately, a very qualified “yes and no”. Come now, if it had been a straightforward answer you probably wouldn’t be reading about it, and I certainly wouldn’t have written this article. Nevertheless, if pressed, I would say that the best answer would have to be, in fact, “no”, even though that is considered heresy among many wine professionals.
Because getting older will not transform a poor-quality vine into a good-quality vine. Regardless of age, for vines to produce good wine to begin with, they need first to be good quality vines, growing in appropriate conditions and being cared for properly – and that isn’t even taking into consideration the skill of the winemaker!
I’ll go through the main positive and negative aspects of “Old Vines” in a moment, but first I need to deal with the elephant in the room: the term “Old Vines” itself.
When is a Vine “Old”?
This is the heart of the problem: nobody controls this, so nobody knows. There isn’t a single wine region that has codified a standard for what should constitute an “Old Vine”. Some regions do have declarations about the age of a vineyard, however, with rules generally stating that you can only say your vineyard is X years old as long as at least YZ% of the vines in said vineyard are that age (or older). Naturally, as vines die or become unproductive, they tend to be replaced – rules like this prevent people from replanting most of their vineyards and still trying to call them old.
But this has nothing directly to do with the term “Old Vines”.
Do We Need a Rule?
Without some kind of standard that has been agreed-upon by a governing body – or at least a voluntary association with regulations and some kind of identifying certification mark – anybody can call vines of virtually any age “old”. I’ve developed the, doubtless very annoying, habit of asking every producer I meet who uses the term “Old Vines” for some of their vines in any context (on the label, in the marketing materials, in a presentation, etc) just how old their vines are. The answers vary from as high as 150+ years (I think we can agree that such venerable vines pass muster for the designation of “Old”) all the way down to 25 years, believe it or not.
No offense to all of those aspiring ultra-premium winemakers out there, but 25 years? Seems a bit too young to me, personally – I’d prefer a lower limit of 45 years or so – but that is precisely the problem; without a legal standard, there is little basis for complaint. So, sure, 25 years qualifies as an “Old Vine”. So would ten years, who’s to say?
So What’s the Point of Using the Term “Old Vines”?
“Old Vines” work on several fronts simultaneously to enhance the appeal of your wine, and, therefore, your ability to sell it – possibly for a higher price.
- Since “everybody knows” that better wines come from older vines, your wine is automatically thought to be of higher quality if you have some.
- Older vines produce less wine, so scarcity (and higher prices) are built-in. This effect is compounded due to the comparative rarity of truly old vines, since poor-yielding vines tended to get replaced instead of getting cherished, historically.
- A vine of sufficient age is a direct link to our history. Vines can live for generations, and it is an extremely romantic notion to think of the historical events that a very old vine may have been alive to witness. This enhances the story of a wine and an estate immensely, and that can be exploited. If those vines were planted by the founder of the estate or some important scion, or were a gift from some important person, so much the better; who has planted the vine can be as important and seductive as when, and both elements offer serious value for the narrative.
- In our disposable society, the idea of “Old Vines” bestows an element of continuity, even stability. Not to mention communicating a certain respect for nature and history on the part of its caretakers, the wine estate – whether deserved or not.
What to Look For on the Label
Caution is advised. Many producers – both those proud of their authentically old vines and those who might be embellishing a little – will communicate the age of the vines on the label somewhere. Usually on the back, of course. There is an exception: if the vines are over a hundred years old, many producers will put “Centenarian Vines” (in whatever vernacular is appropriate) on the front label.
Otherwise, they will just put “Old Vines” in the local language. Here are the most important of those:
- French: Vielles Vignes
- German: Alte Reben
- Italian: Vecchie Viti
- Portuguese: Vinhas Velhas
- Spanish: Viñas Viejas/Cepas Viejas
Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
What Happens as a Vine Ages:
Root network expands, so far as permitted
An older vine has both the time and the opportunity to dig deeper looking for water. The root system that it creates helps the vine to handle drought and heat better. That is, if the vine is permitted to do so. There are several factors that can inhibit or prevent a vine – even an old vine – from getting too carried away. The soils themselves are important:
- if the soils are very fertile and water retentive, the roots will not necessarily dig deeply, since the vine is getting as much as it needs close to the surface
- some kinds of rock (granite, for example) are much harder to penetrate than, say, limestone. If the underlying bedrock is both very close to the surface and very hard, the vines will not be able to penetrate. This can be considered an absolute limit on the depth to which the vines could conceivably go.
Beyond the soils, there is the influence of the people and how they work the vineyard.
- irrigation, by supplying the necessary water, can prevent vines from digging deeply
- ploughing between the rows can cut the shallow, horizontal roots. This can encourage the vine to dig deeper
Trunk enlarges, becomes more robust
Pretty self-explanatory. More permanent wood gives the advantage of making the vine more resistant to some weather events, and also provides a carbohydrate store. And, let’s face it: truly old vines look cool, gnarly and bent as they often are.
Since vines are creepers, they would normally be found wrapped around trees, climbing up rocks or what have you. But this is rarely the case for cultivated vines these days. There are a variety of systems used for “training” the vines to grow in certain ways. One of the oldest is so-called “bush” training, where the vine is essentially free-standing instead of being tied to a stake or onto wires. Bush-training is a system that tends to be used in most of the areas of the world where there are authentically old vines, and is particularly useful where it is hot and dry. And old, bush-trained vines look amazing.
As a vine ages, it produces less fruit. This, obviously, has the potential to be economically problematic – particularly for smaller estates – and it is one of the reasons old vines have not always been appreciated by the farmers who had them. But it also means that quality-oriented producers need to expend less energy and invest less time keeping yields down to a level that is considered optimal for the quality of wine they are trying to make. In some cases, the natural limits of the older vines mean that no further measures of yield control are necessary at all. The vineyard is “in balance” – at least with regards to the desires of the winemaker.
So far, so good.
But the other alleged effect of decreases in yield is far more troublesome, and relates to the next point.
Concentration/quality of juice increases
Old vines are said to have less juice, but of a higher quality or concentration. The problem is, nobody has ever offered a satisfactory explanation for why that might be the case. There are two main reasons that many people trot out:
- it is an effect of the increasing age of the vine and how it directs its energies into fruit production
- reduced vine yields improve the grape must
I can’t say much about the first point; it is very possibly true.
The second point, however, bears some inspection. Received wisdom says that less fruit on the vine leads to more concentration/higher quality in the grapes that there are. It is an interesting claim that tends to contradict most research and learning throughout agriculture – except, apparently, for viticulture. Personally, I fail to see why grapes should behave differently than any other fruit, and, fortunately, I am not the only one who happens to be sceptical.
Rest assured; I’m not intending to get into a discussion of this phenomenon here, but there is a very good book by Mark A. Matthews called Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing that discusses the research into the effects of yield reduction on grape quality. I highly recommend reading it. Spoiler alert: most methods of yield reduction have no correlation with fruit quality. In fairness, though, vine age and the associated reduction in yields was not examined in the research Mr Matthews discusses.
In Favour of Old Vines
I’ve briefly touched on some of the reasons to love old vines. But I cannot stress enough that one of the most important reasons to love them is their resilience. If the vines have not been coddled, not been irrigated, and have been permitted to develop good, deep roots and healthy wood, they are going to produce good fruit reliably, despite vagaries of climate. An occasional drought won’t phase them. They’ll weather the storms more ably. They are a fantastic resource and aesthetically pleasing.
Vine Quality Trumps Vine Age
Beyond the above considerations, however, there is a single, overriding point that needs to be mentioned: the quality of the vine itself.
The sad fact is, no amount of vine age is going to sufficiently improve the quality of the wine coming from a poor-quality vine. If you start with a poor-quality clone, you are going to have a wine of inferior quality. You’ll just get less of it (lower yields) and some of its negative qualities as well as its positive qualities are going to be accentuated (increased concentration). Oh yes, an excellent winemaker working with an excellent viticulturalist (naturally these two hats could be worn by the same person) is going to produce something drinkable, perhaps even something good, even from poorer-quality vines. But this will almost certainly be of less quality than what they could have achieved if they had access to good material.
There are plenty of estates with young vines making outstanding wines. And too many estates with very old vines making boring wines.
Go back to Wine Myths #1: Decanting!
Go back to Wine Myths #2: Smelling the Cork!