Friday, January 29, 2016

Old Vine Wines - Here's the scoop

This past week I had a customer ask me to help her understand the term "Old vine" which sparked an interesting conversation, a few memories and this post.

Let's first get the definition out of the way shall we?

Well, I'd like to, However I can't do it easily because there is no true definition. You see the term "Old vines" has no rules governing its use. Not in Europe or in the United States. The next question is "If there is no rules governing its use, does it really mean anything at all"? or "Should I even care if it says old vine on the label"? Again this isn't easy but lets get into it a bit and see if we can shed some light on it.

In the United States there is sort of a gentleman's understanding that the term is used to describe vines that are at least 25 years old. This understanding is pretty well adhered to by wine makers and is a pretty good starting point for the discussion. Since the term has been showing up on the labels of so many Zinfandels, we often ask representatives to clarify it when tasting through their portfolios at the store. Most of the time we get an answer that is somewhere between 25-50 years old for American wines with a few exceptions where we have heard ages up to nearly 100 years!

This is an impressive number and has evoked conversations of the Beatles, 50's Drive-ins and even the great depression as sources of Americana that put a place in time when some of this very old root stock was first planted in our most hallowed vineyards of Napa Valley or other California regions. We think of all that the have endurred to still be producing grapes that will be turned into some of our best and most interesting wines.

Are "Old vine" wines better than younger vine wines?


You see, as vines age some pretty interesting things happen... First, the roots grow deeper and deeper into the earth. They find resources like water and minerals that help them to endure the droughts and bad weather that young vines depend on us for. They are fairly self regulating and need little to no help or interference. These gnarled vines are thicker skinned and heartier and produce the grapes that nature intends (No dropping fruit here). They aren't "leafy" which would cause humans once again to intervene to insure that enough sun gets to the fruit in order to ripen them. Put together these factors, pick your fruit at the right time and you get unmanipulated, and intensely diverse wines. The older vines, 50+ years, producing more interesting, complex wines than their younger vine counterparts.

Lets go a little deeper...

In Europe the term means a lot more. First, no self respecting European winemaker would put the term "Vieilles vignes" (France), "Vecchie viti" (Italy) or "Alte reben" (Germany) on a wine produced from grapes younger than 50 years of age, with many of the oldest vines reaching back well over 100 years. A Frenchman would scoff at the idea of a 25 year old vine getting this distinction they would be joined very quickly by their counterparts in Italy and Spain.

Grapes in Campagnia, The Rhone Valley, Burgundy and Priorat amoung other Old world regions can be 125+ years and older in many cases they are a century or more older than the "gentleman's agreement" age in the U.S.. Their gnarled beauty crafted by history that harkens back to a time before California wine making was even a blip on the screen. These vines that are sometimes thicker than a mans thigh and produce only a single bunch of grapes, perhaps 2 or 3 at most. It can take 3 or even four vine to produce a single bottle of wine! These are the ones that are included in the worlds most sought after wines, The wines that are other wordly... magical wines that defy proper description.

Does the term "Old Vine" really mean something?

Sometimes it is almost as much marketing as it is important but in some cases, in proper context, it means much, much more!


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