Venerable Vines

Inspired by her visit to Bedrock, Sarah Knowles can't help but photograph the many old vines she comes across on her travels

On my trip around the California wine regions I was really taken by the distinctive sculptural look of zinfandel vines, particularly old-vine zinfandel. From Lodi to Amador, Sonoma to Napa the traditional bush-vine pruned wizened older vines are so distinctive that I couldn't help but get carried away. I seem to have come back with a great many photos, so hope you'll excuse my indulgence! Here are just a few:


Old vines – old wives’ tales?

We often get asked what the significance of old vines is and what constitutes ‘old’? Clearly some of the vine stock that Morgan Twain-Peterson MW is dealing with at Bedrock easily qualifies at over a century old, but are there any laws around what can be called and ‘old-vine wine’?

It takes vines three to five years to produce grapes that are even usable for wine. Young vines (4-15 years old) tend to have high yields and vigorous growth – preferable for high-volume wine production, but yields need to be tightly managed in the making of fine wine. As they age further often the vigour and yields of the vines begin to reduce and plateau. Older vines are better adapted to their environment and more easily able to weather any climatic stress or seasonal problems: more developed root systems allow them to mitigate the negative effects of periods of drought, for example.

Morgan Twain-Peterson MW echoes this view, saying:

‘Old vines produce superior wine. They are more established plants and so give yields with greater fruit concentration. Not only that, but I believe there is a Darwinian element. In order to have survived war, drought, Prohibition and more, the vine has got to be special or else it would have been ripped out!’

With age comes maturity and complexity

Experienced winemakers often agree that as a vine reaches 50 years or more, the grapes produced will have better natural balance between acids and sugars, and can have a more complex flavour profile. However, while old vines may produce more concentrated, balanced or healthier grapes, this does not guarantee that better wine is made – a lot can go wrong in the winery...

Age is all relative

In defining ‘old’ there are few rigid definitions and certainly no legal ones for wine drinkers, but certain regions have attempted to create their own categories. The Barossa Valley in South Australia is home to some ancient vines which the winemaking association has quantified accordingly: ‘Old Vines’ must be more than 35 years; those over 50 are referred to as ‘Survivor Vines’ and when they exceed 100 years, ‘Centenarian Vines.’ However, in a relatively new wine-producing region, such as Oregon, winemakers would consider vines to be ‘old’ at 15 to 20 years of age. In a classic fine wine region, such as Bordeaux, there is no regulation on the term, however speaking to viticulturists, the ideal average age of a vineyard would be over 30 years with both younger and older vines contributing to the blend.

If you are interested in reading more about this, Caroline Gilby MW writes about the subject of old vines in more depth in her article ‘Justified and Ancient’

In the meantime, just looking at some of these gnarled old vines makes you think that they must surely produce something special.

Where to go next?

Going South… The Central Coast

Frog's Leap & the Napa Valley

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Members' Comments (1)

"Lovely Pictures of old vines-never realised how old they could be. Certainly enjoyed some of their produce!"

Mr Ian Thomson (10-Feb-2018)