Does Age Matter? At what point do vines reach their golden age?

left: Hill of Grace right: Yalumba is custodian of Grenache vines in the Barossa Valley that were planted in 1898.

BY Michelle Bouffard and Michaela Morris

Choosing a wine is an ongoing dilemma. Even if you narrow down the selection to a specific country or grape, you are still presented with plenty of choices. While aesthetes may pick the wine with the pretty label, the more methodical look at the label for additional clues.  The phrase ‘old vines’ certainly alludes to something extra special.  Will it be better and more complex than the bottle which sells for the same price but doesn’t mention anything? Or is it simply a marketing ploy?

On their own, terms like ‘special reserve’ or ‘proprietor’s selection’ mean absolutely nothing. ‘Old vines’ (or ‘vieilles vignes’) is seemingly more descriptive, making reference to the age of the vines that produced the wine. It infers that old vines are intrinsic to the quality of the wine. Indeed the general belief is that the older the vine, the better the wine it will produce. As a vine ages it becomes less vigorous and naturally produces less fruit per vine. ‘Lower yields’ concentrate the fruit flavours in the grapes giving more concentrated wines. In addition, a vine’s root system becomes better established with age stretching deep into the soil and reaching precious underground minerals. These are purported to endow the wine with a certain je ne sais quoi, an extra layered of complexity. It is not unlike us humans who become less active with age but more interesting with life experience. At least we like to think the latter is true…

Typically the fruit of a vine isn’t used to produce a wine until the vine is three years old.  In fact, some European regulations impose a minimum of more than three years. Until vines reach approximately twenty they exhibit a childlike exuberance and the vine grower must work hard to keep yields in check.  Subsequently, they become less and less productive. By the time they reach fifty, most vines produce so little they are no longer economically viable. Yet some producers persist in making wines from vines over 100 year old.

At what point do vines reach their golden age? Global or even regional agreement simply doesn’t exist.  In fact, the term ‘old vines’ isn’t legislated so technically a producer can label his bottle as such even if the vines are a mere nine years old for example. “A vine can be old if the producer decides it is old…” quips Philippe Trébignaud of Domaine de la Sarazinière. Even among those who use the term honestly like Philippe, it is relative. Domaine de la Sarazinière’s ‘Vieilles Vignes’ cuvées come from vines that are over eighty years old but even the regular bottlings are made from sixty year old vines.  In the Okanagan Valley, Tantalus’ ‘Old Vines’ Riesling is made from a selection of vines approximately thirty years old. This may be considered young by more established regions’ standards; however these are some of British Columbia’s oldest wine producing vines.

From the consumer’s perspective, it would be helpful if there was an international standard. In Australia, Yalumba has actually developed a hierarchy based on age.  A vine is considered old at 35 (what a blow to our egos!), ancient at 70, bi-centennial at 100 and tri-centennial if it spans three centuries.  The folks at Yalumba would like to see this hierarchy adopted by the rest of the world but they have their work cut out for them. Getting winemakers to agree on what age is old is an impossible task. It is an ambiguous notion, not a science.

The fixation with old vines pervades every region.  When you see those twisted gnarly trunks you start to understand why.  It is an otherworldly experience to walk through an old vineyard with rows of thick stocky stumps and we tread reverently. A recent visit to the Napa’s Moore Vineyard, made famous by Turley’s Zinfandel ‘Earthquake’ bottling, provoked a sense of awe. Planted in 1905, it is one of region’s oldest vineyards. Winemaker Mike Hendry, who will eventually make wine from these treasured vines, posed the question while we were exploring the vineyard with him: “Do you think a vineyard is good because it’s old or do you think it’s old because it’s good?” He believes that vines make it to ‘old age’ because they produced good grapes to begin with. It sounds like the chicken and the egg debate.

Winemakers agree that there are advantages as well as disadvantages of working with old vines. The well established root systems of older vines enable them to perform more consistently in adversarial conditions such as drought and extreme heat or cold. Yet these old vines are not necessarily economical. By the time a vineyard reaches thirty, the vines’ behaviour is no longer uniform making them much more difficult to work with. As vines age, they become more susceptible to disease, which affects yields. A common set of diseases goes by the sinister name of ‘dead arm’.  These are fungal diseases which essentially causes the wood to rot.  Some of those 100 plus year old vines at the Moore Vineyard have trunks as thick as 40-50 centimetres in diameter yet they are so fragile that they could be swept away by a strong wine storm. Working a vineyard like this is a labour of love. Surely the wine comes at a higher price. Old vines bottling are usually an estate’s top and most expensive wine.

Those who persevere with this demanding work demonstrate a rare fascination with old vines. They are drawn to the intrigue and a seemingly intangible character that they give the wine. Bertrand Sourdais, winemaker at Dominio de Atauta in Spain’s Ribera del Duero region describes this as a sense of place. According to him, vines that have spent over a century adapting to their specific environment will express: “a typicity that will be amplified and that only old vines are capable of offering us.” We fully agree with Bertrand that wines made from old vines can have a unique and intriguing character. But does this mean that young vine wines lack charm and complexity? One has to look no further than ‘The Judgement of Paris’.  The recent film Bottle Shock is based on this famous tasting where France’s top established wines were pitted against California’s newcomers. The winning wine was the inaugural vintage (1973) of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon made from three year old vines.

The old vines debate will always come into play when questioning why a wine is so good. One of Australia’s most iconic wines, Henschke’s ‘Hill of Grace’ comes from a vineyard planted in the early 60s, not 1960 but 1860. Almost 150 years ago!  The wine has gained worldwide acclaim and the 2004 vintage stunned us with its layers of complexity and refine flavours.  Is this a result of the vines’ age? Or can it be attributed to brilliant winemaking and proper care in the vineyard?  We suggest a combination of all three. Old vines are just one part of a very complex story.


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