Time To Recognize the Vines

Upon reading my last post about my status as Wine Czar, Harold Baer, publisher of the Colorado Wine News, passed on to me a very interesting initiative carried out by Yalumba, Australia’s oldest family owned winery.

Yalumba has created an "Old Vine Charter".

What is it?

OLD VINE = a vine that is 35 years of age or older
ANTIQUE VINE = a vine that is 70 years of age or older
CENTENARIAN VINE = a vine that is 100 years of age or older
TRI CENTENARIAN VINE = A vine whose life has spanned 3 centuries

While this last designation is odd insofar as what separates it from a CENTENARIAN VINE today is 8 years, the project is interesting. According to the folks at Yalumba they hope to spur discussion with their in-house Old Vine Charter. There is regulation in Australia that defines "Old Vine" or any of the other other designations that Yalumba lays out here.

I once heard Will Bucklin of Bucklin and Joel Peterson of Ravenswood offer similar definitions of old vine as well as offer similar distinctions for vines of varying ages.

The really critical thing about the idea of "Old Vine" is that a vine of significant age does NOT necessarily deliver grapes that will necessarily produce "better" wines. However, most everyone who has worked with well established, older vines (particularly those more than 50 years of age, seem to agree that these vines establish a natural balance of fruit and vegetation growth and they appear to weather both very cold and very hot weather particularly well.

Others will suggest these wines tend to produce fruit that is particularly intense or powerful. That is not my experience.

What I HAVE noticed about old vine vineyards however is that when particularly old, say in the 80-100 year range, they almost always are field blends when located in California. They almost always possess some combination of Zinfandel, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, Grenache and Petite Sirah.

It is this that I believe makes Old Vine vineyards so unique and in many cases account for the unique character that is often assigned to the wine produced from these grapes.

The best example of this phenomenon is the Old Hill Ranch planting in Glen Ellen that was first planted in the middle of the 19th century. Today one finds more than 25 different varieties of vines planted in its primary 14 acres.

If it were up to me, I would want to regulate the use of the term "old vine" long before I got to the term "reserve". It is more easily quantifiable than anything that can be done with the term "reserve". In addition, while there is no quantifiable improvement in quality that comes with making wine from old vines, there is a strong presumption that there is something special about these vineyards.

One thing California has never done is look to the few remaining old vine vineyards and see them as landmarks. They should be recognized and designated as such. They represent a significant part of the state’s agricultural history. And given the status of grape growing in this state they deserve to have that significance recognized.

It is unlike that the state or federal government would ever work on moving toward a rule for use of the term "Old Vine" on American wine labels despite the fact they should. Given that, would it not be interesting and useful for an appellation organization to create a policy similar to what Yalumba has put in place. It would be nice to see a symbol on a label of Russian River Valley Zinfandel that told me that by using the term "old vine" we know that it means the grapes used to make the wine came off a vineyard that is at least 75 years old.


17 Responses

  1. Jack Everitt - December 14, 2007

    I do suggest we not let wineries decide this, but rather a distinguished panel of wine writers, I mean, wine lovers, I mean, oh heck – what about all of those guys in the UK with “M.W.” affixed to their name? Can’t they figure this out rather than a marketing team from wineries?

  2. Jason Ohmann - December 14, 2007

    Please god, no, we can’t let the MoWs touch this one. Though I do agree that standards need to be set, most likely by a mixed panel of winemakers, wine biz insiders, and a few famous consumers for good measure. I strongly suspect that even within California that standards might vary a bit. After all, not all vines enjoy the same status as they reach old ages.
    But what a great article, Tom. It’s about time we tilted at this windmill, though I might have first chosen the nefarious use of “Reserve”.

  3. Fred - December 14, 2007

    Beam Estates put out a line of Zins that is meant to be an exploration of the effects of vine age to taste profile. Each wine (there are three) comes from vines that were at least 10, 50, or 100 years old at the time of harvest. They call it XYZin, for no apparent reason, but the wines are instructive. Check it out: http://xyzinwines.com/

  4. Arthur - December 14, 2007

    Jack, Jason:
    Am I misreading some tongue-in-cheek thing or do you have real reservations about knowledgeable wine writers or MWs contributing to this? If so, why? Wouldn’t we want knowledgeable people from all sides of an issue to contribute? Am I missing something here?

  5. Greg - December 14, 2007

    Man, I love that gnarly vine picture. Very nice blog post. Thanks.

  6. Jason Ohmann - December 14, 2007

    Well, and you can argue with me if you want, I feel that with all that hard earned knowledge that MoWs and the like tend to be a bit out of touch with about 99% of the wine market. I even know 2 MoWs to back up my broad sweeping generalization! All kidding aside, I don’t see a lot in the pursuit of that degree that is involved with the confusion and hoodwinkery that goes on every day between wine labels, and good intentioned, if poorly informed, wine consumers. I’m not really saying that we shouldn’t let MoWs have their say. I’m just saying that VV or Old Vines classifications have a lot more to do with the consumer than they do with the wine.

  7. Thomas Pellechia - December 15, 2007

    Old Vines, in my view, needs no designated chronology. For one thing, not every grapevine is the same, so what one does in “old age” another may not do until it hits “ancient Old Vines says only that the vines have been around long. So what? Vines are supposed to be around long.
    Surely, a number of things happen as grapevines age, (lower yield is one of them) but not one of the things happening to the vines have to do with how good a winemaker is or isn’t.
    What would really help consumers is a designation for New Vines, because wines from them are likely more problematic and less consistent as the vines age.

  8. JohnLopresti - December 15, 2007

    I hear a lot of humor in the replies. I think the Australian threshold ages are a problem. There are excellent wine chemistry treatises showing the reservoir of carbohydrates in old wood helps provide character to fruit and helps preserve vine health. Cultural methods affect how viable that old wood is, however. I agree there are some vineyard blends as they used to be called, that are difficult to characterize in a label; maybe they could have a checkerboard tablecloth logo to signify oldstyle family still red tablewine, with a numeral like 65 or 90+ superimposed on the image of the tablecloth. I agree with the youngvines commenter, but much of the industry is going to hide behind varietal designation; this happens often after a megacorp buys out a prestigious small label and begins adding young out of region juice to the must while staying within varietal designation rules. I, too, liked the gnarled vine image, but wonder if one arm was trained by inexperienced pruners for the past five seasons, though before that it seems to have a nice radial outward pointing growth. Besides the CHO reservoir masses of old wood provides, my palate tells me the complexity of tannins is extraordinary from old vines, and centenarian vines often are excellent, though lifetime injuries and disease problems sometimes are hidden inside all that wood to the inexperienced observer. This would be a great project for a team of grad students, to develop a meaningful ranking of old vines by age; there are some 30+ year old vines that I would exclude from an old vine category, too. I would require a history of the plot, a log, to guide the students toward the problems in each bloc. We are going to have some nice 70-year-old plots soon enough. I have been in a lot of the ones planted in the 1970s; 2040 is going to be a good vintage.

  9. Jason Ohmann - December 16, 2007

    Well, this is a great and much needed conversation, so I really don’t want to stir up the pot. However, I feel most of you are overlooking the driving force behind any such movement: it’s about the consumers. And while yes, even the MoWs are consumers, we have to think as consumers as a whole and all their needs.
    After all, is this not almost wholly an issue about clear and fair labeling regulations? I see a few of you getting into the nitty gritty scientific bits on what exactly vine age means to the fruit and to the wine, and that’s great, but you have to remember that VV and Old Vines designations are so bad off that ANY standard would be welcome even on a wine that comes from vines that isn’t considered to age well, hyopthetically speaking.
    Standards need to be set with care, no doubt. I would absolutely advocate a good mixed panel ranging from winemaker to marketer, to MoW, to even what you might consider humdrum consumers. However, clear concise information needs to be transferred to the consumer and that is of primary importance. It’s not for us to judge whether or not older vines have a significant impact on the wine (although we should clarify whether or not it does just to give such a labeling effort a purpose), but it’s up to us to make sure that no one is trying to ride the coat-tails of an awfully romantic sounding, yet loosely moralled turn of phrase. The consumer decides the rest. Of course, we as consumers are free to debate what affect Old Vines have on wines, but that is exactly why we should keep our debate out of the wine label. We need to be giving other consumers the same opportunity to have this debate with a solid base of fact beneath them.

  10. el jefe - December 16, 2007

    Tom – You have hit the nail on the head, and I am little depressed that most of your commentors so far have missed the point. Old vine vineyards are interesting for their history, and for the snapshot in time that they represent. Preserving them is important. But the labeling issue is about as relevant as the word “reserve” to the relative goodness in the bottle. Sure, you can specify years in the ground to try and quantify it, but it still really means nothing.
    By the way, there are new vineyards up here in Calaveras being planted as field blends. Have you seen that up your way?

  11. wineguy - December 16, 2007

    Good post, but I sure would NOT like to see the State of California getting into designating old vines as landmarks. Think of the bureaucracy you would have to deal with if you wanted to re-graft, or do anything else with them!

  12. Thomas Pellechia - December 16, 2007

    Just like the word “reserve,” (a discussion ongoing in Fred’s blog) everyone seems to have a pet peeve concerning which terms are relevant and need regulating on wine labels.
    You can see the obvious problem with, on the one hand, wanting the government to not regulate some things that are important to some of us, but on the other hand wanting the government to regulate some things that are important to others of us.
    More important, however, is that you Old Vines with chronology would help the consumer. Help the consumer do what? If the impact on the wine is left for debate and for the consumer to decide, what does regulating the words do to make life any better? I don’t get the reasoning.
    The reason for regulating labels is to identify certain attributes and make sure they are within the boundaries of those attributes if they are claimed on the label. That helps the consumer who knows what’s in the bottle, and it helps the consumer who doesn’t know to learn it on tasting and then identify the next time.
    The reason for regulating wine began as an indication of authenticity and quality…from there, marketing has taken over.

  13. Thomas Pellechia - December 16, 2007

    Sorry, Jason, that should read “you say that Old Vines…”

  14. el jefe - December 16, 2007

    hi wineguy – I would agree with keeping the state out of it if possible, perhaps by agreement within CAWG or a group like that. But you bring up the interesting point that if you graft the old vine over to something else, would it still be an old vine? And how would you police that?

  15. Jason Ohmann - December 17, 2007

    You raise a good point, Thomas. But you are presupposing something. You say, “More important, however, is that you say that Old Vines with chronology would help the consumer. Help the consumer do what? If the impact on the wine is left for debate and for the consumer to decide, what does regulating the words do to make life any better? I don’t get the reasoning.” See, you’re presupposing that the regulation–whether private or public–would need to be “necessary” to be used. My point is the necessity comes from the consumer. I wouldn’t be of that opinion if the term weren’t already widely used with spurious legitimacy. You see, the cat is already out of the bag. Doing nothing at this point or denying that OV or VV means anything would simply to be acquiescing to the hoodwinkery that is already happening. In fact, it’d be WORSE to deny that Old Vines have any serious impact on wine and then let wineries continue to use the phony classification. At the very least we should prohibit using the term at all–something that I think would raise a lot more opposition than regulating its fair use. Again, the pieces are already in play and there’s nothing we can do to get them back. We can only make sure they “play fair”.
    I’m not sure why you gave me a run down of why classifications exist at the end of your post, especially when I’m only advocating for the fair and standardized use of a phrase which is much in the spirit of a good classification system. While you’ll get no argument out of me how far marketing has gone with wine (too far), you may want to keep in mind that classifications were originated as and continue to be nothing but another form of marketing. Only unlike many other forms of marketing, they seek (sometimes misguidedly) to portray the crystalline truth.
    You’ll notice that so far I’m avoiding entering the debate over whether or not Old Vines really do anything significant to the wine. That’s because while I think it’s a healthy and needed debate, I think we need to stop the bleeding and the lies being passed onto consumers first. Then we’ll have the luxury of pleasurably debating the finer points of age on vines and the results for wines.

  16. Thomas Pellechia - December 18, 2007

    Wine and food labels are filled with meaningless terms. It serves the public little for govt either to sanction the terms or to allow the terms to be used for no reason other than marketing. But we are a huckster culture, and no regulation is going to stop that from flourishing.
    I don’t think regulating Old Vines on any basis other than identified parameters governing its impact on wine is worth anything to the consumer.
    I’m afraid the answer is: buyer beware, and do your homework.
    I do like the qpr of Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel…

  17. Resveratrol - May 7, 2008

    Obviously, weight training cannot stop the aging process. But it can stave off the limitations of old age by keeping the body healthy and strong. Weight training slows down, and in some cases reverses, what time and gravity inflict on the body. As a consequence, a woman can have an eye- catching, physically fit body regardless of what her chronological age may be.

Leave a Reply