Reading Wine Labels: Old Vines

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Chances are you will have seen the term "Old Vine" or one of its foreign equivalent terms such as "Vieilles Vignes", "Alte Reben", "Viñas Viejas", "Vinhas Velhas" or "Antico Vitigno" on some wine labels. There is no requirement under any wine regulations that I know to mention the age of the vines used for wine grape production and yet old vine is a term that seems to be used increasingly frequently and with the implication that old vine wine should be held in high esteem. In this latest wine blog post, I'm looking into whether grapes from older vines really do make better wine.


How old is old for vines?

Here in the UK we have an amazing old vine at Hampton Court Palace. Planted in 1768 under Capability Brown's direction, it is said to be the largest vine in the world but even at circa 250 years old, The Great Vine cannot claim that it is the oldest vine in the world as Slovenia and Italy have vines believed to have been planted in the 17th century (nor that its fruit is used for wine since it produces a table grape variety).

It is hard to imagine when looking at a woody, gnarly old vine that it could produce good quality fruit or indeed any fruit but vines can still produce grapes when very old - those Slovenian and Italian 17th century vines are said to be producing grapes still used for wine today.

The Barossa Valley is proud to have some of the oldest continuously-producing vineyards in the world. It is one of the few wine regions that has avoided the phylloxera aphid which is the reason why most of the world's vines are now grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. Understandably keen to protect its precious ungrafted old vines especially after many were uprooted in the 1980s (you can read more about this in my blog on Australian wine), it is the only region I am aware of that has started a register of its old vines. The Old Vine Charter categorises the old vines further according to their age:
Eduard Old Vine Shiraz Barossa Valley intense wine.jpg
Not all wine producers wait until a vine is 35 years old before labelling it an old vine; it is very much a matter of personal preference or perhaps more of marketing preference.

California by the way is believed to have the highest number of old vines - ironically Prohibition helped this as vines were simply abandoned and later "rediscovered".

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New vines vs. old vines

New vines take time to establish themselves; they don't tend to produce many grapes until year three first concentrating on establishing their root structure and a sturdy trunk. It is usually only by year five or six that the grapes are of use for commercial wine production. After that the vine's growth below and above ground is more balanced. As it ages further the vine's growth becomes less vigorous and as a result fewer grapes are produced; this reduction in yield starts as early as the age of 20 years old.

The advantage however of the smaller harvest of grapes or lower yield from older vines is that the fruit's flavours tend to be much more concentrated and intense. The wine produced will display those intense, concentrated flavours along with complexity or multiple layers of flavours and a good structure - largely from a balance of fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannins. And because of that structure old vine wines are likely to keep for longer than wines from newer vines.

Low yield is key but is it exclusive to old vines?

I'll be looking into yield in more depth in another blog post but, as those of you who have attended wine tastings with me will know, low yield is a very important factor, some say the key factor in producing good wine - and one reason why the wine quality classification systems in many countries like the AOC system in France stipulate a maximum yield per (AOC) region.

It is important to note however that it is not only old vines that can produce low yields. We already know that in its very first years a vine produces low yields and often these first crops can produce good quality wine (though it is not usually permitted by regulations to be released to the public).

There are also ways to reduce yield in the vineyard e.g.
Managing the leaf canopy can help alter a vine's yield.jpg

So it is not just old vines that produce low yields. And yield plays a large part in the quality of a wine, more so perhaps than the age of the vines.


Let the buyer of wine beware

Grapes from old vines, if handled well, can produce really concentrated wine bursting with intense flavours. Younger vines with low yields can also produce great wines but the term "low-yielding young vines" is unlikely to make its way onto wine labels anytime soon.

Clarrys GSM made from old vines concentrated red wine from Barossa Valley.jpgAs mentioned already the term "old vine" is largely undefined (though some producers are now mentioning the age of their vines on the label as in the photo on the left) and there is no regulation governing use of the term so there is a danger that it could be used for example where only a small percentage of old vine grapes are used in a wine or, dare I say it, if none of the grapes come from old vines. It can be a very useful marketing tool as the production and prestige of old vine wine adds a premium to the wine's price.

Until the wine industry starts to use a common definition for old vines, use your common sense when buying wine - after all a £10 bottle of wine is unlikely to have come fully from old vine grapes despite what the label might be telling you.


© Wines With Attitude Limited,

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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.

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