Why Old Vine Wines Are So Special

What is it about old vine wines that’s so special? Let’s explore some of the theories about aging vineyards and why they’re so rare.

 

Perhaps you spotted the words “old vines” printed on a bottle label. Or, maybe you heard some besotted crony at the local wine bar loudly profess a love for old vine Zinfandel. You can’t let a tasty option elude your palate, let’s figure out why these elderly grapevines are the real deal.

But first, are they?

How Old Do Vines Need To Be To Make Good Wine?

Here’s a brief lowdown on the lifecycle of a grapevine:

  • After you plant, it takes about three years for a grapevine to produce fruit.
  • A vine reaches “adulthood” around seven or eight years.
  • A “mature” grapevine is said to be anywhere from 12–25 years old.
  • “Old vines” are usually more than 25 years, and preferably more than 50 years old!
head - goblet pruned old vines - library vineyard petite syrah napa valley
Many old vineyards use head-pruned or “goblet” trained vines. Photo by d4v

What’s interesting is that over the lifecycle of a grapevine there are some noted changes that give aging vineyards unique qualities:

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  • They produce concentrated fruit

    Old vines tend to lose productivity with age. Many believe that this increases the concentration of the fruit and yields more concentrated wine.

  • Their roots run deep

    This sounds nice but it also means that vines pull their nutrients and water sources from far below the surface. For this reason, older vines don’t suffer as much vintage variation and tend to be more draught/flood tolerant.

  • Ripeness isn’t a problem

    The real issue with ripening fruit (especially with red wines) is the tannins. Unripe tannins can taste green and astringent. Producers note older vines tend to achieve physiological ripeness more consistently.

  • They take care of themselves

    Caretakers of elderly vineyards tend to not need to do as much futzing (as long as the vines are healthy). Still, one must be very careful not to damage the vine!

The problem with old vines (if you can call it that) is reduced production. Less production means less money for a grape grower.

Additionally, older vineyards aren’t on trend; you’ll find them planted with oddball varieties like Petite Sirah, Trousseau, Zinfandel, and Carignan. This means a grape grower can’t charge a high price for their fruit.


Stara Trta is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the oldest living grapevine in the world.
At over 400 years old, “Stara Trta” is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the oldest living grapevine in the world. Source

FUN FACT: The oldest living, grapevine, “Stara Trta,” grows in Maribor, Slovenia. The vine is a rare red Slovenian variety called Žametovka.

Wines are star bright, ruby colored wines with puckering acidity, raspberry, and red currant notes, and low alcohol. Surprisingly, it’s possible to buy wines made from grapes grown from this vine!


Soucie Vineyard, planted in 1916 in the super-sandy loam soil of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA
Soucie Vineyard, planted in 1916 in the super-sandy loam soil of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA.

Places With Old Vineyards

Fortunately, there are several regions that are known for old vine wines. These places are typically off-the-beaten path in areas where growers didn’t pull out vineyards to replace them with more “en vogue” varieties. Here are a couple of regions worth investigating!

    Lodi, California

    Lodi is twice as large as Napa Valley with about 100,000 acres (40,500 hectares) of grapes. The region was an epicenter of grape production back in the late 1800s. You’ll find a lot of Zinfandel along with other unique varieties like Trousseau, Touriga Nacional, and Tannat.

    Languedoc, Southern France

    During the 1970s, Languedoc became known as “The Wine Lake” because of the overproduction, namely with the Carignan grape. It got so bad that wines produced in the area went directly to be distilled for fuel. The country instituted a large scale grubbing up regime, paying farmers to pull out their vines, and many did. Fortunately, the ones that didn’t still produce some of the best Carignan wines known to man!

    Barossa Valley, Australia

    South Australia is lucky enough to be so isolated that the Shiraz and Grenache vines here haven’t been infected with phylloxera. This area is replete with ancient vineyards! In fact, it’s the only region in the world with an official Old Vine Charter – “Old Vine” (35+ years), “Survivor Vine” (70+ years), “Centurion Vine” (100+ years), and “Ancestor Vine” (125+ years).

    Santorini, Greece

    Red wines aren’t the only type of wine to benefit from mature vineyards. On Santorini island you’ll find the rare Assyrtiko grape trained low to the ground into bizarre wreath-shaped vines. The best grapes are often used for a rare oaked version of the wine called “Nykteri,” which is not too dissimilar from fine white Burgundy.

Greece wine Santorini Vines Assyrtiko
Assyrtiko vines are wrapped around each other like a wreath.

Last Word: In With The Old

It’s easy to get caught up in the latest trends, whether they be in technology or health movements. But remember, it is useful to make an effort in preserving what’s worth keeping, even if it comes with a cost. After all, time is one of those things we can never get back.

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About Madeline Puckette

James Beard Award-winning author and Wine Communicator of the Year. I co-founded Wine Folly to help people learn about wine. @WineFolly