The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Vines get better with age, too
We all know that youth is overrated. But what are ‘old vines’, and what’s so great about them?
The sun was bearing down. We had travelled and eaten and slept and arrived, on a dusty, hot day, at Alpha Estate in the Amyndeon region of mainland Greece. It was September, harvest time, and the vines were heavy with grapes. We drove around the estate, which looks across to the Voras mountains, and our host, founder and winemaker Angelos Iatridis, pulled up by some magnificent old bush vines planted in sandy soil. He picked a handful of grapes from these venerable old plants and handed them to us along with xinomavro grapes from much younger plants on the estate. “Xinomavro. The vines are 90 years old. You must try them.”
“Old vines” or “vieilles vignes” (French) or “viñas viejas” (Spanish) is a phrase you might have come across on a bottle of wine. It is sometimes bannered proudly across the front, often appears as part of the name of the wine or might just earn a passing reference in the text on the back label. Its significance isn’t particularly wellunderstood by drinkers, but old vines are a hot topic in wine circles; a recent webinar on old vines attracted over 700 delegates from all over the world, who gathered to hear winemakers from Lebanon, Spain, South Africa and elsewhere talk about their experience of working with old vines and how best to protect these botanical treasures.
I wish I could give every wine drinker the experience of tasting – as I did that hot day in Greece – grapes of the same variety, grown in the same place, but on vines of differing ages. The disparity of flavour was marked: those from the nonagenarian vines didn’t just have a more intense taste, they were also more interesting, more complex, better. It’s a difference that translates from the grape to the fermented wine.
We usually consider vines “old” once they get to the age of 35 or thereabouts and it’s unusual to find vines that are more than 80-100 years old, though they do exist. The very oldest? Penfolds Kalimna Block 42 is made from a block of vines in Australia’s Barossa Valley that was planted in 1885. According to Penfolds’ winemaker Peter Gago these, – not a vineyard in, say, the Médoc – are the oldest cabernet sauvignon vines in continuous production in the world.
I once asked how he could be so sure. Gago said, quite reasonably, that he had been flying around the world telling people for years and no one had contradicted him yet. We can go back further, though. The critic Tim Atkin opened the Old Vine conference with a bottle of país from Itata in southern Chile that he said was made from a vineyard planted in 1798 (the first grapevines were planted here in 1551 by Spanish colonisers). Jancis Robinson’s old vine register, compiled a couple of years ago, records a field blend of “mostly ancient varieties” that are 70-200 years old in Baden, Germany, and a patch of traminer “at the foot of the Rietburg castle near the village of Rhodt” in Pfalz, Germany, that are thought to be 400 years old.
But these are exceptions. A rough reckoner when considering vine age is to think of it in the same range as human age – if we’re considering the lifespan of, say, a scientist or a writer rather than an athlete. Grapes from child vines are considered to taste so different that they are usually vinified separately: in Martinborough, New Zealand, they might be made into a second wine; in Barolo in Italy declassified to langhe nebbiolo. Teenagers really begin to show what they can do; thirtysomethings have youthful vigour as well as experience and ability.
It isn’t easy to explain the precise distinction of flavour that occurs in the grapes of a vine that has lived longer and put down longer roots, but one way of putting it is to say that older vines are better able to articulate the place in which they are grown.
Rosa Kruger, who is practically a patron saint of old vines, having done so much work to save them in her South African homeland, puts it more lyrically: “They show less fresh fruit and varietal character, and more terroir and soil. They remind me of our land. The cold, late afternoon winds on the hills behind Lambert’s Bay on the West Coast. The smell of kelp and sea shells. The sense of space and colour driving past fields of yellow canola, purple lupins and green wheat between Moorreesburg and Citrusdal in spring.”
If this is sounding too poetic to be within reach of the supermarket wine drinker, then consider that among the best cheap supermarket wine I know is good because it comes from older vines. Campaneo Old Vines Garnacha is made from the grapes of 15-50 year old vines grown on the hillsides of north-eastern Spain. It costs a fiver from Tesco but you have to catch it when the vintage is fresh.
Vine growers say that older vines are better able to ride out difficult weather conditions. “They are more self-regulating, more solid. They give you ripening at the right time, they give you quality,” says Faouzi Issa of Domaine des Tourelles in Lebanon. Keen gardeners might also be interested to know that there is also some suggestion that epigenetics might help vines adapt to their environment as they age.
A downside of old vines is that yields can be much lower than those of young vines – by a factor of more than 10, says Elias Lopez Monteiro, who farms in La Mancha in Spain. Around the world, many parcels of old vines are remote and small, and have often been owned by farmers selling the grapes to go into a big (cheap) blend in the local co-operative. If their yields are low, they make less money and often end up abandoning the vineyard or pulling it out in favour of another crop. Old vine programmes, like the one run by Rosa Kruger and André Morgenthal in South Africa – which matchmakes plots of precious old vines with winemakers looking for quality – have been helping to reverse this trend. There’s still a lot of work to do but the enthusiasm for it is great; now go out and enjoy the wines.
It’s a difference in taste that translates from the grape to the fermented wine