What makes old vines more sustainable?

Wine writer Amanda Barnes investigates the nuances of old vines, and how they contribute to the sustainability of a vineyard in multiple ways.

What makes old vines more sustainable?

What are old vines? It is tough to quantify ‘old’ in a living world where we have such a range of lifespans — from the giant tortoise’s average life span of a century to the brief life of a mayfly that barely surpasses 24 hours.

In the world of grape vines however, any vine over the age of 20 is considered mature and when a vine reaches over 35 years old it is largely considered an ‘old vine’. It takes around four years for a vine to start bearing grapes, and thereafter young vines can be incredibly vigorous and high yielding until they reach around 15 years old. As they become more mature the yield continues to drop. Most industrial growers therefore uproot their vines at around 15 to 20 years old — as the vine becomes less productive and less economically viable for mass market wines.

Why then do ‘old vines’ still exist, and how can they be sustainable? 

The main reason for their survival is that old vines can often be attributed to greater quality in wine, making them worthy of keeping in the ground. Symington Family Estates in the Douro, for example, has a diverse range of vineyards and vine ages. While the youngest of their red grape vines can produce over 2.5 kilos per plant, in the case of their oldest vineyards the yield is reduced down to barely half a kilo per plant. The quality, however, can be superlative. Symington’s Retiro vineyard is one of their oldest, with some vines aged over 100 years old, and although the yield is one of the lowest, this vineyard produces some of their top wines and Ports.

Beyond the higher quality attributes, there is also a growing argument for the greater sustainability offered by old vines.

Old-vine wisdom and adaptation in the face of climate change

Due to their time and experience in the ground, old vines are usually well adapted to their site. With each year that passes, the vine roots grow deeper (read more about what happens under the vineyard soil) and the trunks grow thicker, storing greater reserves of water and nutrients. This makes old vines far more sustainable than young vines, as they are less reliant on irrigation (depending on the climate, of course) and fertilisers. New vines create not only a greater carbon footprint in their establishment, but also typically with their maintenance that requires more water, fertilisers and treatments, and also more labour in the vineyards due to higher vigour.

The deep root systems of old vines also give them a stronger anchor and greater resilience to face the heat waves, droughts and storms increasingly prevalent through climate change. Herència Altés in Terra Alta, Spain, has over 20 hectares of old vines that are on average 100-years-old. The depth of the roots of these old vines is what enables the vines to seek water sources stored deep below ground and remain productive despite the average 400 mm of rain (200 mm less than a vine typically requires) that falls annually today.

As well as requiring less surface water, the deep root systems of old vines make them more resilient to the heat spikes and less sensitive to vintage variation. In addition, old vines can be more disease and pest resistant than young vines, having learnt to live with diseases or pests, or developed immunity to them.

Sustaining a heritage for the future

One of the other key assets to old vines in terms of sustainability is what they retain in terms of genetic, cultural and social heritage.

The large majority of old vines are planted as massal selections – this means using older rootstocks to populate a vineyard instead of newly propagated plants, which are usually taken from one vine and grafted onto new rootstocks. This retains important clonal and genetic diversity, effectively making them living libraries. There is great value in retaining this genetic diversity, as each different clone has its own assets and attributes which can be preferable in different climates, different vintages or facing different challenges in the vineyard.

As well as offering a sustainable opportunity for the future of viticulture, the genetic diversity within a vineyard can offer some safeguarding in the face of environmental challenges like climate change or emerging diseases and pests. Mendel in Mendoza, for example, has 11 hectares of massal selection malbec planted in 1928. Winemaker Roberto de la Mota says that this diversity has been crucial to the long-term health and resilience of the vines over the past century.

There is also an important social and cultural heritage offered by old vines which contributes to sustainability. The craft skills and artisanal approach that old vines require, cultivation of which is difficult to mechanise, retain and preserve cultural heritages from different parts of the world.

Maintaining old vines also offers social sustainability, creating and retaining work and economies in rural communities, while sustaining livelihoods of growers. However the survival of these old vines, is dependent on winemakers — and ultimately consumers — being willing to spend more on the quality of wines offered by the old vines.

Rafael Urrejola of Undurraga in Chile argues that the age of the vine is fundamental to quality, and he specifically seeks out older vines for their quality, even if the grape cost is significantly higher. “The age of the vines is really important to show a sense of origin,” he argues, adding that he typically only works with vineyards over 25 years old for his premium wines. “I don’t know exactly what happens in the chemistry of the old vines but I can tell you that it is evident when tasting the wines blind between older and younger vines. The chemical make-up of the grapes are different. For example, our young vine Grenache comes in at 3.65 pH and a potential abv of 15% whereas the old vines come in with 3.2 pH and a potential abv of 14%. The balance and combination of lower pH and alcohol means that the old vine wines are more in balance, fresher and have a far greater ageing potential. The wine quality that these old vines give us is the key to their survival.” 

Amanda Barnes


Amanda Barnes

Amanda Barnes is an award-winning British journalist and editor who specializes in wine and travel writing. She is an expert in South American wine and regions and a regular correspondent for international wine and travel publications (including Decanter, The World of Fine Wine and Wine Enthusiast). She is currently studying to become a Master of Wine and is author of the South America Wine Guide.

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