Strength in maturity? A look at old vines

Old-age vines divide the winemaking world, both in terms of the cost/benefit ratio and recent New World moves to formalise this otherwise informal aspect of viticulture.

Old-VinesMANY GROWERS say their best wine is produced from their oldest plots… [and] oenologists are convinced the best tank they get every year comes from the old plot – from Château Ausone, from Château Mouton Rothschild, and in many Languedoc vineyards, especially about Carignan,” says Alain Carbonneau, professor emeritus of viticulture at Montpellier SupAgro Carbonneau. Authoritative anecdotes abound that regale us with the glory of wines from old vines, but science has yet to illustrate that experiential appreciation is based on measurable parameters.

HOW OLD IS OLD?

But what is old, even? There’s no agreed, regulated definition of “old vine” anywhere around the world. Intriguingly, it is the New World that has been taking this particular bull by the horns, looking for acceptable norms that might be used when describing wines made from vines that are “of an age” (see box, page 57).

Commercial reality dictates that vines be regularly replaced. But some vines survive: humans have elected to keep certain plots of vines for some reason. Presumably not just for altruistic reasons, but also because profitable wine can still be made. François Dal of SICAVAC in the Loire valley summarises: “Older vines need more work for less yield. The only interest to preserve old vines is the quality of the wines produced.”

Peter Clingeleffer, group leader at Australia’s CSIRO Plant industry says, “While rare, in Australia there are vines that are 100 years old that are still in production. However, the economic life of a vine is generally considered to be around 40 years, provided there is still demand for the fruit. In contrast, 25 years would be considered to be the economic life of a vineyard in Europe.” It’s a similar picture in South Africa, where viticulturist Rosa Kruger says “the life expectancy of vineyards in South Africa is 20 to 25 years before they become not economically viable.” And in Chile, where Mario Pablo Silva, the managing director and CEO of Viña Casa Silva, adds, “After 25 years the plant starts to show the effects of age – a progressive decline in production.” If vines are kept beyond this economically viable 25 to 40 years, can we call them old? In the central Loire, the BIVC’s director Benoit says “most producers who use the term vieilles vignes do it with a minimum of 30 or 40 years old.” Fernando Almeida, winemaker for Miguel Torres in Chile agrees: “An old vine has to be at least 30-40 years old.”

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