Someone recently asked about the term old vines on a bottle of wine.
The term has no legal meaning, however it can be significant. Grapevines, like people, go through changes as they age. While there can be a lot of variety – depending on the type of grape, soil and weather conditions – when a vine is planted, it usually takes about five years before it bears mature fruit. Within weather variations, it will continue to be reasonably consistent, production wise, for about the next 30 to 50 years. After that, it begins to produce less fruit.
Each year the shoots of the vine die and are trimmed. The roots, however, continue to grow and expand deeper into the ground. The deeper roots can reach better nutrients in the soil. This enables the vines to produce more complex fruit with more concentrated flavors. Mature vines also are usually more immune to diseases.
The yield per acre is an important measurement of a vineyard. Older vines often produce less than half the fruit as young vines. While it can’t be quantified, it’s as though the soil only has so much flavor to offer. Wine growers get paid for their grapes by the ton. It’s not uncommon for growers to replant when production begins to drop off.
Gallo of Sonoma growers said they use satellite images to make sure the vines are planted as they want them. They replant vines when they become 30 years old.
Growers and makers have tricks and procedures to mimic the old vine effect. One way is to cut green. After young vines have produced new grape bunches in the spring, the growers go through the vineyards and selectively reduce the yield by removing some of the grape bunches before they mature. This helps to concentrate the flavors in the remaining fruit.
In the 1980s, the South Australia state government offered money to growers to rip out older vines and replant. A few years later, the Barossa Grape and Wine Association, a trade group in Australia, endorsed the benefits of older wines and formulated categories and titles for vines that are at least 35, 75 and 100 years old.
How old is an old vine? Grape types have different life spans. Under favorable conditions most grapevines can live and produce fruit for at least 120 years. In the U.S., old vine is most often associated with zinfandel, however we’ve seen wines made from grenache, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, riesling and other grapes. Most of the vineyards in the U.S. were planted in the past 25 years.
In Slovenia, a zametovka grapevine from the 17th century still produces fruit. In northeast Italy an active grapevine that’s more than 350 years old. The oldest substantiated vineyard in the U.S. is the Grandpere Vineyard in Amador County in the Sierra Foothills of California planted in 1869. It’s a zinfandel vineyard and still produces excellent fruit.
▪ Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel 2012, Mokrlumne River, Lodi, Calif., about $20. This wine is made from grapes sourced from 16 vineyards with an average age of 85 years. It’s dark in color with a nose of berries and spice. It’s well made with flavors of dark fruit, plum and licorice. It’s layered with a long lingering finish with notes of minerals.
▪ Yangarra Estate Old Vine Grenache 2013, Kangerilla, McLaren Vale, Australia, about $25. These grapes are from 69-year-old vines. This wine has a floral nose with complex flavors of cherry, plum, licorice, cocoa, cinnamon and other spices. It’s made utilizing wild yeast.
▪ Kestrel Old Vine Chardonnay 2013, Yakima Valley, Wash., about $20. This wine is made from the oldest chardonnay vines in Washington. They were planted in 1972. The wine has pleasant aromas of citrus and spice with flavors of pear, pineapple, honeysuckle, nutmeg, cloves and oranges.
Jim and Marie Oskins live in the Lake Wylie area. They can be reached at email@example.com.