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The Beauty Of Growing Old: Fine Wines From Ancient Vines

Patrick Comiskey

Like all of us as we mature, old vineyards have acquired a well-weathered depth of character. Driving past acres of trellised, cordoned vines in any wine country on earth, one glimpses occasionally that singular field that breaks the measured monotony of endless, uniform rows. These vines are as individual as aged human faces. Gnarled, twisted, and craggy, weirdly sculptural and uncommonly beautiful, with their knots, burls, and thick, scarred trunks covered in lichen, they look more like a primordial forest of trees in miniature than rows of vines—or, better still, more like a congregation of old souls. Indeed, the prevailing ambience of an old vineyard is one of time’s passage, of history.

Such musings are apt. In many wine regions, vines were planted at the beginning of the last century or before, prior to the advent of tractors, irrigation, and chemicals. These plants are survivors, having adapted exceptionally well to the places in which they grow to achieve a hand-in-glove fitness to their particular soil, climate, and available water and nutrients. Yet their hardiness also reflects the immigrant farmers who planted and tended them, often with traditional agricultural methods. “These old vines were developed by old families,” says Ridge Vineyards’ Paul Draper, who has worked with old-vine fruit for nearly 40 years. “They knew that if you tried to over-crop, if you pushed them, the vines wouldn’t produce. So they managed their vineyards from the standpoint of producing balanced vines, where nothing is added to the ingredients except guidance and care.”

The concept of balanced vines is a simple one: The amount of energy a vine expends in growing leaves, shoots, and fruit is neither excessive nor compensatory; the vine produces exactly as much fruit as it should. Like anything mature, an old vine knows its limits. Vines in their youth are a little like adolescent children: precocious, prodigious in energy, and prone to growth spurts, channeling all of their vitality into huge, abundant clusters of fruit. This exuberance, properly managed, can result in some very delicious wines, though their expressions can be somewhat one-dimensional or simplistic. With vine age comes character—that elusive layer of complexity that young vines ultimately cannot convey.

Character communicates itself to the taste buds both subtly and distinctly. “Ideally, wines from premium old-vine material have a completeness—structurally and in a flavor sense,” observes Penfolds’ Peter Gago, who makes a number of wines from old-vine fruit, including his masterful Shiraz blend, Grange. “The better, stand-alone examples possess an added, wonderful textural dimension, creating another layer of interest, flavor, mouthfeel. This is sometimes expressed via an added tightness on the palate, sometimes by a more refined yet denser tannin offering.”

Turley winemaker Ehren Jordan agrees. “Young vines are aromatically more expressive, but in the mouth, the old vines show through,” he explains. “There’s a textural quality of old vines that young vines lack, a certain depth of character. With young vines, you taste them and say, ‘Hey, that’s really good.’ With old vines, you taste them and say, ‘Whoa.’”

That vines achieve old age at all borders on the miraculous. With each vintage, vines are cut, trained, pruned, thinned, and otherwise manhandled, exposing them, at each pass, to the threat of disease. According to UC Davis professor Andrew Walker, a vine’s ability to survive depends somewhat on its growth habit, as well as on the degree to which it requires major cuts to manage its growth. “You have to prune vines,” he says, “but you introduce them to disease when you do. You try to get the vine to naturally ‘bonsai’ by cutting it back each year.” Careful pruning and planting in low-vigor soils will slow a vine’s growth, extend its life, and bring it into balance. Those old vines that suffer these indignities and endure generally exhibit the greatest balance. But opinion ranges as to precisely when a vine can be considered old.

No set definition of an old vine exists. Some experts refer to vines as old when they have reached the ripe middle age of 35. Winemakers like Draper insist that a vine does not hit its stride until it arrives at the half-century mark. Most agree that, after this point, the fruit displays a greater concentration of flavors. “The physiology of concentration is just starting to be worked on,” explains Walker, “but most older vines produce smaller berries, smaller clusters, and fewer clusters, all of which amounts to more flavor compounds.” Yields tend to be minuscule, yet the fruit that does emerge produces a finished wine of incomparable distinction.

The nature of this distinctiveness varies from region to region, as do the conditions that permit or prevent vines from attaining their golden prime. Most of continental Europe, for instance, possesses a climate poorly suited to extending the life of vines. Europe’s predominantly cool, damp environment renders vines more vulnerable to disease and rot; along the Mediterranean coast, however, lie areas dry and warm enough to preserve old-vine material.

In southern France, where conditions are generally kind to vines, labels often bear the term Vieilles Vignes. This moniker sometimes represents a marketer’s attempt to promote an unclassified wine or to exalt a lesser grape variety, but it just as often identifies a wine of much higher quality. In the Rhône, Château de Beaucastel’s Vieilles Vignes Châteauneuf-du-Pape is an unblended Roussanne from 80-year-old vines, probably the oldest Roussanne material in the world. Originally blended, this block was recognized as so special and distinctive that it has been bottled on its own since 1986. This is one of the most complex and extraordinary wines the Rhône can produce.

Despite the scourge of phylloxera, the vine-killing louse that has cut short the life of many a vine in France, certain northerly vineyards have managed to survive. Champagne Bollinger draws from three such vineyards to produce the magnificent Françaises cuvée in vintage years—a Champagne of almost unimaginable grace and power. Another of France’s most unique old-vine cuvées comes from Comte de Vogüé in Musigny, a Grand Cru vineyard in Burgundy. The winery selects from within the Grand Cru parcel, isolating the fruit from 30-to-40-year-old Pinot Noir vines—a ripe old age for that grape variety. The result is one of the most concentrated and intense of all Côtes de Nuits.

In Italy, much of the old-vine material grows in the south, where economic hardship has restricted replanting—though this certainly has not affected the quality of this fruit. Italy is home to more than 2,000 indigenous grape varieties, many of them rare, and one routinely hears stories of producers reviving an ancient vineyard whose vines are the last of their kind on earth (such is the case with Pallagrello, a variety being restored by Vestini Campagnano). Feudi di San Gregorio and Mastroberardino have done much to preserve old vineyards and varieties. Of these, Mastroberardino’s golden old vine, Greco di Tufo, stands out as a marvel of intensity in a region not known for whites, exhibiting a delicate, savory almond character balanced by an ashy minerality. San Gregorio’s Serpico, made from century-old Aglianico vines (a red varietal originally brought by the Greeks to Italy), offers an exquisite example of what that grape can produce in its maturity: The wine—richly dark, with flavors of chocolate, leather, and tar—is admired for its long and graceful aging.

Spain’s old-vine hotbed of the moment is Priorat, a region that languished for decades under crushing rural poverty. No one replanted here because no one could afford to, and only recently has an economic infusion revived vineyards and wineries alike. Now, old-vine Garnacha and Cariñena fruit is being crafted into wines of uncommon immensity and depth. Leading this effort is young Alvaro Palacios, whose wine l’Ermita, from a 70-year-old vineyard, has established a new benchmark for the region.

Ribera del Duero, too, has endured its years of neglect, and young producers are now resurrecting older Tempranillo sites. Peter Sissens may be the best known of Spain’s new vintners producing new wines from ancient sources. Pingus, his flagship wine, is built from ancient Tempranillo vines: powerful, ripe, and deep, yet still modern in its sophisticated complex of flavors.

Not all old vines hail from the Old World, but those found in the United States have had to negotiate an unprecedented legal hurdle: Prohibition. In the 1920s, farmers—many of them Italian immigrants—were obliged to rip out their vines (then mostly Zinfandel) and plant walnuts or plums. Yet some of the best vineyards—those producing exceptional fruit—were saved. “That’s one of my markers,” says Turley’s Jordan. “If someone took the time to farm a vineyard during Prohibition, you know it was good. Prohibition amounts to a process of natural selection.”


Napa Valley’s Hayne Vineyard is one such place—what Jordan calls “the perfect match of rootstock and site.” Its century-old vines, growing in a 20-acre parcel just south of St. Helena, are revered by every grower in the northern half of the valley, and the wine made from these grapes is among the most prized in the Turley canon.

While Zinfandel is increasingly rare in Cabernet-centric Napa Valley, great old-vine Zinfandel upholds a long-standing California winemaking tradition farther west, in the Dry Creek Valley. This appellation in Sonoma County is home to two of Ridge’s distinguished 19th-century vineyards, Lytton Springs and Geyserville, each of which yields a richly rustic and thoroughly refined Zinfandel that ranks among the very best in the state.

Australia, too, among the world’s newer wine-producing regions, contributes significantly to the catalog of old-vine vintages. From Tahbilk to the Hill of Grace, the country has perhaps more old-vine material per acre than any other place on earth, including what is thought to be the oldest extant Cabernet vineyard, Penfolds’ Kalimna Vineyard, Block 42, planted in 1892. The venerable status of these vineyards is no coincidence: Australia’s climate is largely dry, its soils often sandy and poor, making survival there difficult for phylloxera. As a result, most vines grow on their own roots, as opposed to being grafted onto more disease-resistant stock, which contributes to longevity.

South Australia, in particular, boasts a significant share of that nation’s old-vine vineyards, many of which were planted by the Germans who settled the Barossa Valley, as well as by the English who settled the neighboring McLaren Vale. In both locales, immigrants planted two hardy varieties, Shiraz and Grenache. Grenache, used to make sherries and other rather dull sweet wines in the early part of the last century, seldom yields grapes of sufficient balance for quality winemaking until the vines are decades old. Tintara, a pioneer winery in the McLaren Vale, makes a Reserve old-vine Grenache that is among the country’s finest. Another of the custodians of old vines in that region, d’Arenberg, produces a dense, plummy blend of Grenache, Shiraz, and Mourvèdre called Ironstone Pressings from ancient vines that yield less than one ton an acre. Several old-vine Shirazes continue to be produced as well; one of the finest is Torbreck’s massive RunRig from the Barossa, blended from vines as old as 140 years.

Old vines thrive elsewhere below the equator, as well. Although hundreds of acres of old Malbec vines were ripped out of the ground in Argentina’s upper Mendoza in the 1970s to make way for the next Cabernet, wineries such as Achaval Ferrer and Bodegas Weinert were able to locate and acquire some of those that still remained. A wonder of dense, dark berry fruit, Achaval Ferrer’s Finca Altamira is made from century-old vines whose yields are so minuscule that, according to Santiago Achaval, “we need three plants to make one bottle of wine.”  The 2002 vintage of Finca Altamira was, in fact, selected as one of Robb Report’s Best of the Best international wines this year (see Robb Report, June 2005, page 272). And on the opposite side of the Andes, in Chile, Casa Lapostolle draws its grapes for Clos Apalta from vineyards planted with 80-year-old Carmènere (a Merlot-like variety now seldom found in Europe) to create a wine of phenomenal structure, power, and elegance.

These three qualities are the essential components of character, which can derive from vineyards old or new. But, as Achaval likes to say, “Some plots of land have a personality so strong that it overcomes vintage variations.” Indeed, few wines, however good, leave on the palate a more vivid, consistent, or delicious impression of place than those made from old-vine fruit. These vineyards preserve our cultural, as well as viticultural, heritage. “To blend wines from these special places,” Achaval observes, “would be a crime against the land.”

“If someone took the time to farm a vineyard during Prohibition, you know it was good.” —Turley winemaker Ehren Jordan

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