The idea that vine age is directly related to wine quality is one of the foundational principles of fine wine, at least in the classic regions of the old world. Everyone wants to tell you how old their vines are. Centenarian vineyards are revered, and nothing gets people excited like the knarled, stumpy trunks of vines.
But do vines produce better wines, just by their virtue of being old? Is old always better than young when it comes to vineyards? It’s a subject that’s actually really difficult to research, partly because of the challenge of defining an agreed scale of wine quality, there are so many variables involved.
One way of looking at this is to say: if old vines weren’t better for wine quality, why would they be so highly regarded? If the relation between vine age and quality were a fiction, surely it would have been exposed. As there is likely some truth here the interesting question is now to ask: how vine age might contribute to quality, and is it always the case?
One factor is that older vines tend to produce smaller yields, and therefore there is a financial hit to the producer unless they are getting more money for their grapes or wine. So you could argue that vineyards that have survived to old age must be producing better quality grapes, or they would have been replanted. But is this higher quality a result of vine age, or does it just reflect the fact that the site is superior?
Vines are capable of living many hundreds of years, given the right conditions. Generally, vineyards survive for anything between 20 and 100 years, and some rare vineyards are over 100. A lot will depend on how they are farmed. Vines in high-yielding commercial vineyards get worn out, like a well-used machine, and need to be replaced more often. But what do 40 year old vines gain in becoming 80 year old vines?
From bonny baby to awkward teenager
When a vineyard is planted it usually takes three years to give its first crop, and often that first crop is of really good quality. It’s thought that this is because the vine has good balance: it has grown a small crop, and this is being fuelled by a small canopy of leaves. Maybe the roots haven’t grown deep, but the resulting wine is often fruity and delicious. Then, for the next few years, the vine typically behaves like an adolescent, which isn’t great.
Young vines often make nice fruity wines: where they lack is in terms of depth and complexity.
How long does it take for a vine to start to really kick into gear? It all depends on the site and the climate. Many people I’ve spoken to in New Zealand reckon they started to see a change in the quality of their Pinot Noirs after the vines reached the age of about 10. After this the wines showed a bit more consistency, revealed their sense of place more, and were less about simple primary fruit. In Burgundy, some winegrowers voluntarily declassify the fruit from young vines when they have replanted top vineyards, as they wait for the vines to get a bit of maturity. Some Burgundians say a vine only really kicks into gear at age 20. In South Africa, the Old Vine project uses a cut-off of 35 years for considering a vineyard ‘old’.
Is there a scientific explanation?
The first, and most obvious factor is the development of an extensive root system. Most vines are grafted, so the root is actually a different species. This root system has three functions: it’s a structural support, it interrogates the soil to sequester water and nutrients, and it also stores reserves to help the vine get going again the following season (it can’t feed itself until it has grown leaves to photosynthesise). Older vines will have better developed roots, but is this enough to explain all of the benefits of age? Probably not, although it’s likely to be a significant factor.
Older vines tend to be more in balance. When it comes to producing high quality wine grapes, the vine needs to grow a big enough canopy so that it can get the grapes ripe, but the canopy growth should ideally slow down as the season progresses, so that the grapes become the chief destination for sugars made by photosynthesis rather than the growing shoot tips. Too much canopy – such as that produced by a well-watered, vigorous young vine – and the fruit won’t ripen. Typically, an old vine will produce lower yields of higher quality grapes, with balanced bunches and smaller berries, both of which are commonly associated with higher quality.
Then there’s the relatively new science of epigenetics. It’s too complicated to explain in full, but basically these are changes in the way that genes are read that allow plants to adapt to their environment over time: some scientists think that old vineyards may have epigenetic changes that cause them to be more in tune with the site.
In conclusion? Vineyards that are allowed to grow old are probably those that are performing well, but there may be little benefit of being older in itself. The quality of the wines from old vines may reflect that these are vines planted in good places.A number of producers on The Sourcing Table work with old vines, does it make a difference, try their wines and decide for yourself!