Old Vines make better wine, they say but what is it that make old vines special?
Old vines – vieilles vignes in French - is often stated on wine labels and yet legally it has no meaning. There is no agreed definition on how old a vine has to be before it can claim the name. A vineyard established in 25 years ago may label wines from its 20 year old vineyard as ‘old vines’ whereas another winery might use it only on wine from vines older than 50 years. Some wines come from grapes planted more than 100 years ago. Australia’s Turkey Flat winery makes Shiraz from vines planted in 1847.
Old vines have time to grow longer roots which may descend more than a hundred feet through the depths to find water and extracting nutrients and trace elements that make more complexly flavoured wine. Old vines produce fewer grapes, which means all the flavours from the vine are concentrated in those grapes
Yet others claim that young vines can make better wine because they have less disease and were virus-free clones selected for the terroir planted with the benefit of modern viticultural practises. They point out that by pruning and ‘green harvesting’ – i.e. reducing production by removing grape bunches – young vines can also concentrate all the flavours into fewer grapes.
Winemakers’ opinions seem to depend on whether their vineyards are planted with young or old vines. But where winemakers have access to both, usually older vines are used for the premium labels and the younger vines are used for the second labels.
I asked Abrie Beeslaar, who is winemaker at South Africa’s Kanokop Estate about the advantages of old vines. Kanonkop’s premium estate vineyard, Block 202, was planted more than 60 years ago as freestanding bush vines on a low hill. They are never irrigated.
“Older vines can sometimes be temperamental, especially when dry-farmed” Abrie told me. “But with age the bushes grow larger and are better handling weather, including drought and winds. They grow more slowly and send out less growth than young vines, which means the bushes are more open which lets in air and sunlight, so they need less management. Young vines grow fast, sending lots of canes and leaves and we have to prune them and hand remove leaves to let in light.”
So old vines need less viticultural work, but what benefit do they give in the winery? “On old vines the grapes grow more slowly”, said Abrie. “Because of this they develop thicker skins which give more flavour to red wines. After véraison (when the grape changes colour from green to black) they take longer to fully ripen to when they are ready to pick, thus they have more time to develop complexity and depth of flavour.”
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.