A reader emailed me to ask the meaning of the words 'old vine' on their bottle of Zinfandel. They wanted to know 'how old' and whether old vines were better.
The phrase ‘old vines’, or ‘Vieille Vignes’ on French labels, implies that the wine is made from old grape vines but there is no agreed definition of how old a vine has to be and there is no legal control on its use.
Vines can be productive for more than 100 years and old vines are considered by many to produce more intense and complex wines because they produce fewer grapes and thus the flavour is concentrated. And because less juice per vine is produced the resulting wine is more expensive.
In 1999 the United States Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (BATF - now renamed Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau TTB) who regulate wine labels said it was going to make a ruling on the use of the words ‘old vines’ but in the end left it to the industry.
Several wine producers adopted alternative phrases. Dry Creek uses ‘Heritage Clone’ and Rodney Strong Vineyards uses ‘Knotty Vine’ for their Zinfandels. Charles L Sullivan interviewed winemakers in California for his 2002 book Zinfandel – A History of a Grape and its Wine and wrote “most of those interviewed have expressed an opinion that forty years should be the absolute minimum age”, although he would “prefer at least seventy-five years”.*
So it comes down to how much you trust the winery. From a reputable winery, then assume the vines are something special but, unless they say on the back label or on their web-site, you don't know how old those vines are.
So, 'Old Vine' means exactly whatever the winery wants it to mean – it is a marketing tool, nothing more.
Agree or disagree?, please share your comments on our forum.
* Sullivan, Charles L. Zinfandel: a History of a Grape and Its Wine. Berkeley: University of California, 2003. – Link below
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. Now available as a Kindle eBook, click link on left