Are old vines the new black?
Question from Marcus: What’s the deal with heritage vines? Why do older vines make better wines? I had both an apricot tree and a lemon tree growing up and they both stopped producing fruit eventually. Why are grape vines different?
In a nut shell – They’re not really. Old vines stop producing fruit just like apricot and lemon trees do but grapes grown on old vines produce more intense, richer and complex wines than grapes grown on new vines and hence all the fuss. But to be honest, I think it’s largely a marketing ploy so be warned and read on.
In a clam shell – There is a general acceptance that wine from old vines will taste better – more balanced, more concentrated, bolder, richer and more interesting but there is absolutely no legal agreement, anywhere in the world, defining ‘old’.
A producer could put ‘heritage’ or ‘old vines’ on their bottle but the vines may only be a few years old! No one is going to give them a slap on the wrist. The unassuming consumer will drink the wine from ‘old vines’ in ignorant bliss, commenting to their friends on the complexity of the wine (but secretly they’re thinking it tastes no different from the last bottle) and that’s because it very well mightn’t!
Grape vines can grow for over 120 years but after about 20 years they will start to produce less fruit and this production decrease is what leads to a more concentrated flavour and therefore a more intense wine. Your bottle of wine from ‘old’ vines’, that you paid a small fortune for, could come from 20 year old vines or 120 year old vines and there is really no way of telling.
Generally, the more reputable the producer and more likely it is that the grapes in your bottle will actually be from ‘old vines’. At 60 the vine will be producing much less fruit and at 80 it will hardly be producing any grapes meaning that the wine will be much more concentrated and complex.
The most common use of the term ‘old vine’ is for Zinfandel grown in California which comes from 120+ year old vines. In Australia, Barossa Valley has plenty of old Shiraz vines dating back to around the 1850s. So if you want to drink wine from ‘old vines’ I’d stick to Zinfandel from California or Shiraz from the Barossa.
Just like your apricot and lemon trees, grape vines definitely do slow down and whether it’s worth the price tag to buy wine from old vines is entirely up to you. I wouldn’t blow the budget on a wine from ‘old vines’ unless I was absolutely certain the wine actually did come from old vines (and the only way to tell this is to directly ask the producer, don’t trust the bottle).