Do Old Vines Make Better Wine?

So, yesterday there was a wine-trivia tease: “Did you know that ‘Old Vine’ isn’t a regulated term in the US?” Thought I’d better follow up with a little more substance! So, do old vines make better wine?

The short answer is “we don’t know.” There’s no real evidence that old vines produce wine of greater depth or complexity. Yet, the Europeans put a lot of stock in it (or, at least they use it as a marketing tool – how cynical of me!) But, do they think old vines matter just because Grandpa said they matter? A lot of the European school still relieas on what Dad and Grand-dad did, which is kinda nice…

I like to ask winemakers this very question whenever I get the chance. One common response is “Maybe it’s not so much the fact that the vineyard is older. The most likely reason a vineyard survives into old age is that it’s a really good one. No one’s going to hang on to a mediocre vineyard for 80 years, right?” Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Probably the most common explanation is low yields. Old vines can’t produce as much as young ones. Maybe character and flavor intensity are on the increase because the vine has fewer clusters to ripen. In fact, it’s common to hear growers say that the best wines come from very young or very old vines. What do they have in common? Low yields. so, maybe it’s just a question of cropping the vineyard properly.

From a practical standpoint, providing the soil allows for it, old vines have deeper root systems, which helps them weather difficult conditions, like drought, better than shallow-rooted vines. That’s a good argument for dry farming.

In California, the term “old vine” often crops up in reference to Zinfandel. Here, there’s a simple explanation for added complexity. More often than not, pre-prohibition Zinfandel vineyards weren’t pure Zin. It was very common to plant Zinfandel together with Carignane, Alicante Bousché, Petite Sirah and a few other varieties. This mix is called a “field blend”. I call it “Built-in complexity!” Each variety brings something a little different to the party.

So, no one really knows and there’s not really a good way for any of us to find out. You can’t hold a side-by-side tasting and consider it valid because each vineyard is unique. But you can sure have a good time trying and I highly recommend it!

What do you think?  

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Do Old Vines Make Better Wine?

  1. Great post on this often over used, but at times important designation. I’m a firm believer in old vines making better wine. As long as the old vines are planted in the right place.

  2. Nancy Hawks Miller

    Hi, Greg! Thanks for the comment! Are you going to the ZAP tasting?

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