“OLD VINES”: A Term In Need of A Meaning

What does it mean when you see the term "Old Vine" on a wine bottle? The answer is, nothing you can count on. It falls into the same category as the term "Reserve". "Old Vine" is a term you often see on the front of the wine label, yet unlike the varietal, appellation and vintage, the government plays no role in dictating what that term should mean.

Should it?

The question we asked in our latest survey of Fermentation readers was: The criteria for labeling a wine "Old Vine" should be?

In addition to offering the choices of 20, 40, 60, 80 or 100 for the age of the vine we also let folks choose "None, there should be no criteria".

Clearly this question should have been broken up into to questions, first asking if the govt. should regulate the use of the term, then asking what criteria should be used.

Nine Percent of respondents said there should be no criteria for the use of the term. I’m not one of the 9%. I think there should be a criteria for putting the term "Old Vine" on your bottle simply because it implies the wine is special in some way that others aren’t. You could say the same about the term "reserve", but you could not so easily verify what it is about a "reserve" wine that made it special without laying down a whole slew of regulations and dictates on who the wine was made. With old vines, you’d need only say how old the vines must be to be considered "old" and what percent of the wine must contain juice from those older vines.

For the record, I’d go with the vines must be 80 years old and the wine must be 100% from these Old Vines.

"But this is an arbitrary age," you say. Indeed it is. And that’s one of the real mysteries of "old vine" wines. Although most folks attribute something special to their character, there really is no solid determination of what that special quality in the wine really is.

Are they more intense?
Are they spicier?
Are they more balanced?

I don’t know. But, I should know that they are made from older vines.

What’s interesting about "old vine" vineyards in California that tend to be at least4 60 years old is that they seem likely to be field blends with Zinfandel carrying most of the load. This is particularly true of vineyards that have been in the ground for more than 80 years. This is not so much the case with 40 years old vines and certainly not the case with 20 year old vines.

And by the way, 13% of respondents in the survey said the vines should need to be only 20 years old to be called "old vine". These folks tended to be overwhelmingly male, more educated, more likely to not mind high alcohol wines and much more likely to attribute the meaning of terroir to simply soil characteristics. Interesting, but I don’t know what that means.

What I do know is that it is very unlikely to seen any regulations on the term "old vine" appear any time soon. The outcry against regulating the term would be HUGE. All those folks that own vineyards or buy grapes from vineyards that are about 30 years old and call them old vines would protest. They’d claim any requirements regarding age are arbitrary. And they’d be right.

Posted In: FermSurvey, Terroir


4 Responses

  1. VinoJoe - November 28, 2006

    C’mon, Tom, it took 50 years to get “chablis” off of California wine labels — you think there’s any chance of “Old Vines” becoming a regulated term?
    I think your point regarding old vines — “…there really is no solid determination of what that special quality in the wine really is” — is the loudest reason this won’t happen anytime soon, and the debate over how many years constitutes “old” would be a major obstacle as well.
    Along the same lines, is there any specific regulation regarding the terms “oak aged” and “barrel fermented” ? Can these terms be used for wines immersed in oak chips? Does it matter whether it is “new” oak? Does the barrel size matter?

  2. Ben Bicais - November 28, 2006

    Tom, I agree that there should be an age standard for old vines, but as you and vinojoe say, it probably will not happen because of the vested interests involved. It is difficult to determine exactly what makes wines made from old vines special, but lower natural yields plays a role. Growers who tend old vines are harvesting fewer grapes, and should be able to have a legally protected term to indicate this on their label.

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