Conventional wisdom has it that well-balanced, healthy older vines, with their roots firmly in the soil and with grape yield kept in check, produce the best fruit. Deep down there seems to be some dirty realism to this supremacy of ‘old vines’, a term which has roots, so to speak.
But has it really?
Although generally accepted, the seniority of vineyards is a rather entangled plot, a knotty coming-of-age story.
Pushers of the old barrow have always alleged that senescent vines are more likely to bear fewer but better grape bunches with great flavours, ideal sugar levels and pliable ripe tannins, unlike very productive young vines.
Romantic old-vine love is all around us!
It’s ardent in the midst of vignerons (especially those that own acres of ‘vieilles vignes’ or ‘Alte Reben’), winemakers and scores of smitten aficionados influenced by flushed marketers who’re equally excited. Quick to cash in, they threw the vague and legally meaningless term ‘old vines’ on labels and it stuck.
Nearly everybody now raves about the alleged contribution that the age of vines brings to a wine. Surprisingly enough, even in Malta where international varieties made their entry only about 20 years ago, I have seen a winemaker try to pass off his rows of Cabernet and Merlot planted as recent as in 1994 as ‘Old Vines’ on a revamped label of his. Isn’t that a serious sign of a seniority complex?
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to vent caustic wrath on geriatric vines or you to think I have no respect for old gnarled trunks, their dead arms and cult cordons. In fact, I love the charm that surrounds really old vines such as Malta’s venerable native varieties Girgentina and Ġellewża, which are of indeterminate age but probably around 50 years old. But nor do I wish to just prattle sycophantically about their virtues like many wine writers naively do.
So, dare I say it and unsettle many an oenophile Benjamin mesmerised by the vinous equal of Mrs Robinson; disturb the sound of silence?
Yes, the truth is that the old vines’ tale is a die-hard myth. In fact, there’s little or no scientific proof yet that older vines always produce better fruit or, more to the point, better wine. There’s still much to learn about the actual ageing process – not the least bit in the vineyard!
Undoubtedly some older vineyards have on average made superior wine than teenage ones but this isn’t to say that centenarian vines are a must for quality wine. How about the great 1961 vintage from Bordeaux, produced mostly from grapes from young vines newly planted after the devastating 1956 frost?
Among the few tales with grains of truth, the veracity is likely coincidental.
It’s not the age of the old vines that’s responsible for the quality of the fruit. Probably, the two main variables that really need considering are, firstly, their open and less vigorous canopies and, secondly, their larger and more efficient roots systems. But both conditions can be replicated in leafier younger ones, namely by precise pruning or smart canopy management and by clever irrigation or soil drainage depending on the type of soil, site and climate, which combined will result in a properly stressed and balanced vine.
To me, really, old vines are like balding granddaddies with great abs. They make every jolt count, and although their six-pack may be impressive, it doesn’t make them super studs who are always hard at it!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying anyone’s ‘too old’ to love or what not. On the contrary. In real life, just as in the thoroughbred vineyard, a fruitful and happy sex life does not hinge on age!
Live your Wine!
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in ‘Cleanskin’. You can buy a copy through the online store.