How Long do the Vines Last?


Question from Josh: We were in Napa Valley last weekend and noticed more than one vineyard that had been cleared. The stumps were piled up. How long do the vines last?

Reply: ‘Tis the season. The grower takes the last crop and rips out the vineyard. I remember sitting by a vineyard with some friends about this time last year when all of a sudden this huge bulldozer showed up and ruthlessly mowed down what looked like perfectly healthy vines. I’ve seen it before but my friends were mortified.

There’s no simple answer to your question. Virtually every vineyard that’s knocked down is still alive and producing a crop. The vines can live a remarkably long time. You’ll see some very gnarly, tortured looking old vines that predate prohibition in the Sierra foothills and in Sonoma. Here in Napa Valley they’re out there, too, but it’s more of a hunt.

Common practice in old vineyards is to replace individual vines with new ones as they die off. In that case there’s no absolute age for the vineyard. You think of it in terms of average age.

What I can say is that the economic life of a vineyard is often somewhere in the thirties. When the vines are in their twenties they become less vigorous and the crop yield often has to be scaled back. It could be because they have some kind of virus. Or it could be because they’re simply getting old. At some point a decision has to be made.
I don’t like to kill the romance, but in most cases the longevity of the vineyard is very much a business decision.

So, what about all those “old vine” wines out there? In some cases the vines are like people – they gain (or maintain) distinction with age. The grower or producer may be afraid to replant it. Even if they replicate every aspect of the old vineyard when they replant, the results might not be as good.

Incidentally, there’s no regulation behind the “old vine” designation on the label. Any producer can market all of his wine as old vine if he wants to.

Also, there’s no official definition for the term. I’ve asked a few winemakers what they think and the number 50 comes up a lot. One winemaker said it seems to him that if vines are often ripped out in their thirties that 30+ makes sense. Makes sense to me, too.

Do old vines make better wine? That’s a complicated question. When you talk to French producers “older is better” seems to be a accepted as a fact. In the new world we’re more analytical. As one Zinfandel grower put it, “The vineyard would never been allowed to get this old if it wasn’t a really good one in the first place.” Kind of a chicken and egg situation.

I’d guess the majority of growers and producers around here would say that their best chance for getting good results is to plant the vines in the right place and manage the vineyard properly, paying close attention to yields. 

So, a long answer to a short question. Like most things to do with wine the correct answer is “It depends.”

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