Wine Talk

Snooth User: Brad Coelho

How old are your vines?

Posted by Brad Coelho, Mar 11, 2009.

Vine age has to be one of my favorite, controversial arbiters of wine quality (next to native yeasts). I strongly believe that my favorite region of the wine world, Chateauneuf du Pape, benefits greatly from the century old Grenache vines that dug their roots in the ground sometime before World War One. Well how old is old? According to Lenz Winery in Long Island, they happen to have the oldest Merlot vines on United States soil, checking in a little over 30 years of age. Well the gnarly vine Zinfandels of California can claim close to 100 years of age or greater, so I suppose that puts Zin in such rarified New World Air that they can rival some of the oldest bush vine Syrah in the Australian outback.

How about 200 year old vines?

Now you must have just done a double-take, so let me repeat for effect.

How about 200 year old vines?

I guess vine age is all relative.

Do Ferreiro, of Rias Baixas Spain, reportedly has Albarino vines that push the 2 century mark, planted on sandy soils just west of the Atlantic (and just south of the War of 1812). The prestige cuvee, referred to as Cepas Vellas (or Vieilles Vignes to you Francophiles), is from a single plot of ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines that are so old they could have been a great grandfather to shoeless Joe Jackson. Whether or not vines hit a particular age that ‘maxes out their potential’ (in terms of clusters per vine, root penetration, minerality, depth or concentration) is certainly debatable, but really, how many 200 year old vine data sets to we have to form an educated opinion?

While 200 year old vines are a notable, freakish accomplishment of enduring viticulture in and of themselves, what does it mean in terms of the actual wine product they’ve created? Well I’ll just say this; the historical pundits won’t be the only ones interested as the wine’s quality is nothing short of remarkable. Think warm vintage Chablis, w/ a bit of Sancerre tossed in for good measure.

Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas Albarino, '07
Profound Albarino may seem like an oxymoron, but Do Ferreiro's Cepas Vellas absolutely smashes any preconceived notions of this varietal’s potential. Deep straw in color and surprisingly flattering in the nose, as a whiff of a tropical breeze rises from the glass in the form of peach, sea salt, cantaloupe, white flower and hot stone notes. A powerful, honeyed attack turns expansive and full in the midpalate, chiseling its way to a lacy, mineral-rich finish that seems to sail on and on. A unique display of force and focus that really stretches out as it evolves in the glass. What breed! 94 points.

*Eh-hem, behind the bottle the winery makes a rather modest suggestion of pairing this wine w/ oysters. Do yourself a favor, up the ante and bring something more serious to the table...it will plow right through shellfish.

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Replies

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Reply by Rodolphe Boulanger, Mar 12, 2009.

I've had a few wines from 100-year-old vines, and they were all fantastic. 200 is really pushing it. The fact that it is Albarino is even more crazy!

I can't imagine there are many sites in the world with vines older than 150 or so. You'd need:
-A site that was not impacted by phylloxera in the period from 1860-1900 and so its was never grubbed up and replanted with grafted vines.
-A producer who, for generations, didn't have the financial pressure to replant the vineyard. They'd either have to be wealthy enough to have an increasingly low yielding vineyard for all that time, or have been able to charge a premium for their wines for centuries.

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Reply by alavaughn, Mar 12, 2009.

I know that the producer Feudi Di San Gregorio makes their Aglianico, Serpico, partly from vines that are pre phylloxera, it's an amazing wine, but how they escaped the plague of phylloxera I don't know. Anyhow, it's worth searching out!

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Reply by Brad Coelho, Mar 12, 2009.

RB-
Couldn't agree more...straight up freakish viticulture for Albarino of all things :) Perhaps its eccentricity and appellation has kept it remote enough to stave off phylloxera. Whoever was farming those parts wasn't interested in financial pressures...nor did their offspring (which makes it most interesting to me).

Alavaughn,
The whole conept of where phylloxera 'couldn't get to' is a fascinating one...South America is another case and point...simply from its remoteness or is there another mystical element we are missing?

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Reply by Philip James, Mar 13, 2009.

I'm trawling back through my memory and am pretty sure that 120 year old vines is the oldest I've tried, but I've only ever seen Zin come from vines that old.

I heard that generally after it's 20th year the vine began to decline anyway. Is there a real advantage to really old vines? Maybe that depends on the varietal / rootstock combo.

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Reply by Rodolphe Boulanger, Mar 13, 2009.

Yes - some vines start to become less productive after 20 years. Most commercial vineyards are replanted by 30 or 35 years old because the yields start to drop off a cliff and diseases like dead arm can become a big problem. With a few vines dying every year, do you replace those individuals? But if you do that, you have to wait 5 years to get good fruit from the replacement vines, but your mechanical harvester won't be able to figure that out!

The advantage of really old vines is that their low vigor means fewer grape clusters and smaller berries. In the right hands, this would lead to a smaller quantity of better balanced, more concentrated and even more complex wine than a more recently planted vineyard.

Caveat Emptor!
"Old vines" on alabel doesn't really mean anything. It isn't legally defined. Moreover, old vines won't produce truly great wines if they are the wrong variety for the site, are a crappy clone that isn't used anymore, or are grafted onto an undesirable rootstock.



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Reply by Rodolphe Boulanger, Mar 13, 2009.

Brad, I just had to look up the world's oldest vine.

It's in Slovenia, is more than 400 years old and producers 35 to 55 kilograms of grapes each year. This thing has got to be enormous!

Now I want to learn more about Slovenian wine.

http://www.slovenia.info/?naravne_z...

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Reply by Brad Coelho, Mar 13, 2009.

Great info RB! Is it vinfera?

Philip,
A lot of producers in the Rhone believe Syrah can produce beautiful wines even when the roots are in their infancy (particularly in Cote Rotie), but most domaine's find Grenache to be relatively insipid until it has clocked in a couple decades...and they definitely find differences in terms of yield, cluster per vine, depth, concentration and ultimate character from 80-120 years of age. So I think your last comment, regarding the rootstock or varietal, is most apt....broad brushes almost never work w/ wine!

As for Albarino...I don't have a clue what the average vine age is out in Galicia...so I'm not sure how much data there is on vineyard maturity and ultimate quality....anyone want to chime in?

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Reply by Rodolphe Boulanger, Mar 13, 2009.

I would have to assume it's vinifera. It is so old that it predates the introduction of most other vitis species to Europe.

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Reply by fibo86, Mar 13, 2009.

We have a couple of sites here in Australia that have 150yr old vines (down in Barossa), where some awesome wines live and interestingly enough there is a wine called dead arm from d'Arenberg, great Shiraz.

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Reply by Brad Coelho, Mar 13, 2009.

Fibo,
Have you tried any funky old vine Grenache from Australia that doesn't make its way here to the states? That category really interests me.

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Reply by fibo86, Mar 15, 2009.

Not that I can recall atm, However, of coarse now after trying a sensational French Grenache just recently, I'll make it a bit of a effort to post some notes over the next few weeks.
So I'll search out some Grant Burge and some other older vine wines and will get back to you.

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Reply by Hunz0, Mar 18, 2009.

Perhaps this may be of interest to you concerning Slovinian wines. My ancestral roots are near the vipava valley so I like to drink wine from there. Somehow it is a connection. My father told me that when he was about 4 (he is now 85) he would crawl in and out of the bungs of the large wine barrels in that region. http://www.matkurja.com/projects/wine/


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Reply by Hunz0, Mar 18, 2009.

Shoot, I checked the post twice and still spelled it wrong. SLOVENIAN not slovinian I've not had any wine today either. I just ignored the spell checker on top of that. The natives, I believe prefer "Slovene" .

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Reply by Brad Coelho, Mar 18, 2009.

Fibo,
What Grenache would that be? Anything about my beloved Grenache deserves posting, please share!

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Reply by Hunz0, Mar 18, 2009.

The Old Vine.

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Reply by Hunz0, Mar 18, 2009.


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Reply by chaser68, Mar 19, 2009.

Hey RB, there is an article in Food and Wine magazine this month featuring Slovenian wines...well in particular..one wine producer. Very interesting.
http://www.foodandwine.com/articles...

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Reply by Brad Coelho, Mar 21, 2009.

Another reason that I need to drink more old vine Spanish whites:

Vineda de Nieva, Pie Franco '07
Along w/ Do Ferreiro’s Cepas Vellas this is yet another ancient, pre-phylloxera western Spanish gem; coming from Rueda, in the form of 100 plus year old Verdejo vines. A slightly spritzy haze accompanies the straw robe, revealing an idiosyncratic nose of wintergreen, salt, apple, citrus peel and a leafy, almost arugula like note chiming in to add intrigue to the fabulous bouquet. The attack is wispy, almost weightless in nature, w/ a nice fleshy edge to frame the seashell-mineral core. This is fascinating, complex stuff and yet another reason for me to believe that vineyard maturation does indeed make a difference in determining a wine’s ultimate quality, 90 points.

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Reply by vks, Nov 5, 2009.

Some infos regarding the oldest vine the one from Slovenia.
It's a local variety called "Žametovka". Some oenologists believe that Zametovka is autochthonous in Slovenia, but no proof exists; the vine is also cultivated in Austria and Croatia.
Zametovka is primarily grown in the Posavje region; it is not particularly choosy regarding site, but the grapes do ripen late and inferior sites may produce less intensive pigmentation. The vine buds early, so it is quite sensitive to spring frosts.

It those bear approx. 35 to 55 kgs of grabe which theay then bottle into 2,5dcl bottles made by a famous slovene designer Oskar Kogoj.The last vintage they made only 100 bottles that are available only for protocol use of the city of Maribor.

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Reply by GregT, Nov 5, 2009.

That Pie Franco is indeed a good wine. They also do a version in barrique, super small production, not imported but I have some and think it should be, and their basic verdejo is very good too. Their sauvignon blanc is one of the best in Rueda. It's actually by far the best I've tasted, but I've only had a few dozen.

There are a few places in Spain that haven't been hit by phylloxera and that have old vines.

However, as regards old vines, nobody can say for sure that they're in fact better and if so, why they are better. I've asked and asked and it's like everything else - people have a thousand theories and no actual science to support them. The person I know who's done the most science regarding it is another Spanish winemaker and interestingly, he's coming to believe that you can get the same effects with other methods.

Despite popular belief, the roots don't continue growing deeper each year. At some point they would hit the center of the earth and there isn't much nutrition in molten iron. So it seems that deepness of the roots is not the key factor, which is interesting because that would be the most logical place to look for reasons that old vines may differ from younger ones. I don't want to write a whole Snooth article about it, but there are many factors, not least being that different vines have different growth habits.

One might note as well that Bordeaux claims few "old" vines. They typically replant after a 40 years or so and if the quality kept improving, it would be dumb for them to do so. Is that due to the rootstocks they use? Maybe, but not likely for several reasons. My hunch is that it has more to do with the way we treat our vines today. However, that's a whole research area and I'm not qualified to really discuss it with any authority. It's been many years since I got a biology degree and vine age was not something I recall EVER reading about for class.

Of course, if you express any doubt about old vines, you get laughs, mostly from people who know pretty little about the issue other than the mythology. So maybe the best thing to do is to simply enjoy those wines that we still get from ancient vines and leave it at that. Interesting subject though.

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