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.
The Vieilles Vignes Conundrum
One way of looking at the question of whether old vines produce better wine or not 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: does vine age contribute to quality, and is this 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 4 vines gain in becoming 8 vines?
Young Vines vs Old Vines
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 Science Behind Why Old Vines Often Taste Better?
The first, and most obvious factor behind why old vines often taste better 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
- It 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 b roots, but is this enough to explain all of the benefits of age? Probably not, although it’s likely to be a significant factor.
Old vines tend to be more in balance. When it comes to producing high-quality 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. This allows the grapes to 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, old vines will produce lower yields of higher quality grapes, with balanced bunches and smaller berries, which are both commonly associated with higher quality.
How Epigenetics Can Impact Old Vines
Epigenetics is a relatively new science, but it may be another factor impacting the wines coming out of some old vineyards. Epigenetics is a complex science, but it’s essentially about changing the way that genes are read to allow plants to adapt to their environment over time.
As a result, epigenetic changes can allow old vines to become more in tune with the site they’re grown in, which may impact their taste further.
Wine From Old Vines At The Sourcing Table
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.
At The Sourcing Table, we stock a number of wine producers who work with old vines, including:
- Domaine Jean-Michel Stephan
- Bodega Lanzaga
- Once & Future
- Eduardo Torres Acosta
- Chateau du Mourre du Tendre
- Terroir al Limit
- Dominio del Aguila
Find out for yourself whether old vines really do make their mark on the taste of wine by trying them for yourself. Discover all of our wine producers here.