What Makes a Wine, Old Vine?
Anish Patel @ 2022-09-08 19:45:34 -0700
Good wine takes time. It’s common knowledge that wine develops in flavor and complexity for years in the bottle—sometimes decades. We also know that before bottling, wine benefits from aging in oak barrels, clay, concrete, or even stainless steel. There’s something about time that just makes wine better.
But did you know that there’s also something to be said about the age of the grapevine? If you’ve seen the term “Old Vine” on a bottle of wine, then you’ve encountered old vine wine. This is a generally accepted category of wine that is made from the fruit of old grapevines. With a little more life under its belt, a grapevine can produce better quality fruit.
However, the term “old vine” isn’t regulated by law, and it’s still up to the winery to know what to do with that fruit. Some commercial wineries take advantage of the term, while others use it to communicate the honest quality of their small production wine.
So when is a grapevine old? And why does it make better wine? This is a topic of great interest to the wine science community. We have answers, but we also have some big questions. Let’s go over it all in this guide to old vine wine.
What is old vine wine?
Old vine wine is made from grapes that are grown on vines that are considered old, typically between 30 and 65 years. Vines can live for over 100 years, but it’s also very common for them to stop producing fruit around year 20 if they aren’t supported by nutrient-rich land, or if they succumb to disease. Keeping a vine alive to see its golden years is not an easy job.
A new vine doesn’t even begin to produce fruit until around year 3. Around year 5 or 6, vines start making fruit worthy of being fermented into wine. It’s up to the people working the vineyard to make sure that the conditions are right for the vine to produce lots of fruit, and to stay healthy as the years pass by. This means providing the right nutrients, sunlight, and water. But it also means making the environment a bit harsh for the vine, which causes it to struggle and dig deeper into the ground in search of a dependable water supply.
So when is a vine old? That depends on who you ask. The generally accepted age range is between 30 and 65. If you ask California, they’ll say no younger than 50 years. But if you ask Barossa Valley in Australia, a region famous for their old vine Garnacha, they’ll tell you that a 30-45 year vine is old.
Then there are some really, really old vines.
The oldest authenticated grapevine that is still producing fruit was planted in 1768. It is a Schiava Grossa vine, a varietal that originates in northern Italy. Surprisingly, this grapevine resides in London at the Hampton Court Palace. But around the world, there are other fruit-producing vines that are older.
Maribor in Slovenia is home to a 400-year-old Zametovka vine. The vine still produces a small number of grapes which is made into enough wine for 100 small bottles.
Old vine = good wine.
It is said that old vine fruit is the most complex and delicious in the world. Here’s why.
Once a grapevine reaches 30 years of age, it begins to slow down grape production. Less fruit is kind of a good thing—it means that there are more nutrients to go around for the fruit that is left, and this improves the quality of the wine. But there’s another reason why the fruit increases in quality.
When a vine is young, its focus is on growing vigorously, not so much on producing fruit. The grapevine directs all of its nutrients towards getting bigger, and it’s up to the vigneron to create conditions where the grapevine spends less time on growing and more time on ripening grapes.
But when a vine gets older and vigor slows down, resources are more naturally directed towards the fruit, rather than to shoot growth. And the result is juicy, complex fruit that makes impressive wine.
But there’s a catch.
There’s actually some debate about the significance of old vines on wine quality. Some questions we’re asking are: are we putting too much emphasis on vine age and not vineyard management? Can young vines be trained in a way that they receive all the nutrients they need to make regal wine?
If you ask a scientist, they’ll tell you that there’s simply not enough scientific evidence to support the claim that old vine wine produces better fruit than young vines. However, we do have tons of anecdotal evidence, and that is what keeps us investigating this topic.
In the meantime, “old vine” remains an unregulated term, and as a result, some commercial wineries employ it as a marketing tool rather than an accurate representation of their wine.
What kinds of grapes are grown on old vine wine?
Any wine can be made from old vines, but there are some grapes that are more common than others. In California, it’s very common to see old vine Zinfandel. This is because there really is a lot of Zinfandel that was planted during the Gold Rush. Spain is home to tons of old vine Garnacha, and they typically refer to vines that are 50 years and older when they employ the term.
Burgundy is home to a 115-year-old Aligote vine in Bouzeron. Lebanon, South Africa, Chile, Australia, and Italy all have old grapevines as well. However, it is up to the winemaker to put the term “old vine” on the label. Some simply don’t care to. Others know it’s part of the local tradition to do acknowledge the age of the vine.
But, of course, the language is different for each country. In France, the term vieilles vignies means old vine. In Spain, look for viñas viejas. In Germany and Austria, you’ll see alte reben.
What does old vine wine taste like?
How the wine tastes depends on a lot more than the age of the vine, but there are some major differences. While it’s very common for the fruit to be more concentrated, old vine wine doesn’t equal richer wine. More than often, it means softer, more balanced, and elegant. Anyone who has tasted great old vine wine agrees that the experience is unique.
One reason for a balanced wine is that over time, the flavors, sugar, acid, and pH of the grape itself become more harmonious. These wines are delicate and restrained, but often more complex in the range of fruit, earth, and savory flavors that they show.
Wines that are simple and fruity at an earlier stage can develop interesting flavors like baking spice, truffle, clove, or flowers as the grapevine ages.
So is old vine just a marketing term?
Just because the vines are old doesn’t necessarily mean that the winemakers took the steps to preserve the elegance of the fruit. And because the term “old vine” isn’t regulated by law, commercial winemakers will sometimes add no more than a dash of wine made from an old vine and throw the term on their label.
However, old vine wine is still significant. It’s not just a marketing term—for the serious winemaker, it’s a way to communicate the quality of the wine. Natural winemakers are interested in maintaining their vineyards in such a way that their vines can age with grace. That means taking proper care of the land and refraining from pesticides and herbicides that will degrade the soil quality. It also means tirelessly preventing pests and diseases. Protecting vine health also means advocating for sustainability and environmental preservation.
Even urban sprawl threatens vine health. Here’s the good news: you can do your part as a consumer by drinking excellent wine. Seek out natural winemakers and retailers that prioritize environmental sustainability to support businesses that will in turn use their resources to protect the environment. You can do it, one glass at a time.
Don’t waste another minute. Shop our natural wine selection to start drinking excellent wine and supporting sustainability.