Are old vines better?
In just about any walk of life you can think of, nobody ever wants to admit to being old. In the world of wine however, the title 'old vine' is a badge of honour.
Old vines; 'vieilles vignes' if French wine is your thing; 'alte Reben' if your preferences are more for something German. You'll find these words on wine labels all the way from Albariño to Zinfandel. They are an indication that a wine is the product of grape vines that have been around for a while. Amongst wine aficionados, it is a commonly held belief that old vines are better and that as vines get older, they will give a better wine. But how true is this really? And what qualifies a vine to be considered an 'old vine' in the first place?
There is no legal or generally agreed definition for 'old' when classifying vines. However, many of the estates in our portfolio have vines that would definitely qualify as old, whatever criteria one uses. The Bodega Numanthia estate in Spain, for example, has vines that pre-date the phylloxera plague that devastated vineyards across Europe in the late 19th century. In Mendoza, Argentina, both the Terrazas de los Andes and Cheval des Andes estates have incredibly old plots of vines in within the jewel of their crown of their single vineyard Las Compuertas. In France, Clos de Lambrays (the oldest wine estate in our portfolio, founded in 1365) has vines that were planted in 1902.
It takes a newly planted vine about three years to begin to produce fruit that can be harvested. By the time the vine is five or six years old, it is ready to be harvested annually. Over the next few decades, the vine will continue to grow and develop. As it does so, its roots go deeper into the earth, giving it more access to the deeper layer of its terroir – the specific natural environment in which wine is produced.
Having deep roots enables an older vine to reach water located deeper below the earth's surface than a younger vine's roots can reach. This gives older vines an advantage in the event of a drought. The diameter of a vine increases with age, and so the older the vine gets, the thicker and more wrinkled it looks. Think of the talking trees in the Lord of the Rings films. A vine reaches its productive peak at around the age of 30. From then on, it may be considered as an old vine.
Older vines yield less fruit than younger ones. But although they produce fewer grapes in number, those grapes tend to be more concentrated in flavour. The grapes then produce wines with more complex flavours and a bit more intensity to them than wines from younger vines.
So, are all old vines better quality and more expensive? Not necessarily; a Zinfandel may have 'old vine' on its label and be affordable and cheerful. The terroir on which the old vine is grown as well as the care taken in the vineyards and the cellar will also determine the quality and price of the wine.
There is a side to the old vines debate that is less about the wine itself, but more about story and prestige. An old vine is a piece of history; it is part of a nation's heritage. Within our wine collection, there are wine estates and vineyards that are hundreds of years old. Maybe that is what makes some of us believe that old vines are better. Just as with vintage fashion, music, art or cars, history gives old vine wines a degree of chic and a layer of complexity that young pretenders simply cannot compete with. With old vines, you are not simply drinking wine; you are partaking in tradition and tasting history.
At the end of the day, the ultimate judge of whether old vines are better is the drinker. If you like your wines from old vines, keep going. If you have not tasted any yet, then get started.