Wine Talk

Snooth User: Nancy Hawks Miller

Old Vine Mystique

Posted by Nancy Hawks Miller, Apr 23, 2011.

Since Vine Master Fanucci started such an interesting discussion about hillside vs. valley floor, how 'bout we tackle the virtues of old vines.

Every time I've asked a winemaker if they think old vines make more complex wines they equivocate. Is this marketing hoo-hah? I've gotten replies like "old vine Zin is complex because it's usually not just Zin - it's a field blend" and "the vineyard wouldn't have lived to be this old if it wasn't a good one in the first place." Jancis Robinson says there's really nothing to substantiate that old vines make better or more complex wine. I'd be really interested in what y'all have to say since the Europeans put so much stock in it.

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Reply by GregT, Apr 24, 2011.

Don't know that Europeans put all that much stock in it - in Bordeaux they replace their vines pretty regularly.  In a few places you have really old vines, but the oldest vines are actually in Australia if I'm not mistaken, although you have a few patches in Spain and maybe a couple other places in Europe where the vines weren't destroyed by phylloxera.  Also in Argentina and CA.

Anyhow, vines don't make more complex wine just by virtue of age.  That's a simplification for laymen.  Mostly it has to do with what we do to vines. Left on their own, vines seem to do OK.  They don't train themselves on trellises and they don't green harvest and they don't do shoot thinning and they don't grow in straight rows, etc.  We do all that. 

There's essentially nothing that's "natural" about vine growing and winemaking.  We put vines thru regular hell and they eventually give out.  Plants store carbohydrates in their woody parts and that all gets  cut away.  And the graft is a point of weakness. 

There's no reason a vine should ever die.  Unlike animals, there's no built-in senescence, or if there is, it's far longer than a human lifespan.  But if you've been abused your whole life, it may be shorter than if you'd been given gentle care.

So if you leave a vine alone, it might be OK.  If you look at most of the really old vines, they're generally bush vines or goblet trained for one thing.  They can generally regulate themselves insofar as the crop load that they're able to produce and ripen.  Their root systems are mature.  More interestingly, the vessels within the canes are mature.  And there's a nice story to tell for the marketers and the pseudo sophisticates and the romantics.  I'm aware of no science that demonstrates what constitutes "old" and how that vine differs from a younger one, or how the grapes are chemically different on vines that are 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 years old. In fact, quite the opposite.


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