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. Continue reading
Will you look at the color and size of these things? I was taking one of my favorite walks, by a who knows how old vineyard, and spotted these crazy-looking, neon grapes.
Could it be that I’ve laid my eyes on Flame Tokay grapes, in person, for the first time of my life?
And look at the vine’s next-door neighbor. Nice, normal looking black clusters. Could be Zinfandel, Grenache, Carignan, Petite Sirah, Barbera, Alicante Bouchet… Who knows? It’s a field blend.
In the first wine boom in California (late 1800s) there was a great deal of Italian influence and many of the grower/producers were inclined to plant several compatible varieties all together. They’d harvest and vinify them all together, too, so the blend was pre-made.
Since different varieties ripen at different rates, they’d end up with less mature fruit in the mix, which would keep the acidity lively and very ripe fruit, too, for rich fruity flavor, and everything in between. And they knew that including a little Barbera in the vineyard would also bolster acidity, where if they wanted more structure, Petite Sirah was the go-to grape. This choir of different varietal aromas and flavors coming together provided a kind of instant complexity and natural balance. Continue reading
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? Continue reading