Old age is relative. When we were teenagers, 35 seemed pretty “up there.” Now that we can barely see 40 in the rear view mirror, our perspective has changed. Just how old is “old?”
That’s a philosophical question in wine circles as well. We’re not referring to how long a wine has aged in oak barrels or the number of years a bottle has spent in someone’s cellar. We’re talking about wines that are made from “old vines.”
You may have seen that term on bottles of California Zinfandel or Australian Shiraz. Or you may have seen it in other languages and not known it: vieilles vignes in French, vigna vecchia in Italian and viñas viejas in Spanish.
The average lifespan of grapevines is about 25 years, but they can grow for over 120 years. Starting at about 20 years old, vines start to produce smaller crops. With less fruit on the vine, the theory goes, the better the grapes – and the more concentrated and complex the wines. “Old vines” wines are considered prestigious and are priced accordingly.
The deep roots of old vines are their greatest asset. In a particularly rainy season, they’re immune to the ill effects of surface water that can bloat the grapes and dilute the juice. Conversely, in drought conditions those same roots can access deep water reserves that younger vines can’t.
But what is old? It’s really a subjective opinion of the winery because the term “old vines” is not regulated. In relatively new winemaking areas like Washington State, 20 or 30 years might be considered old. In other parts of the world, old means over 100. With any luck, the winemaker will tell you on the label how old is old. If not…who knows?
Bottom line: Are “old vines” wines better? That too is subjective. Again, you’re on your own. But who can argue with a little tasting experimentation!
Barbara and Beverly