Strength in maturity? A look at old vines

GOING UNDERGROUND

Somewhere around the age of 30- 40 years a vine falls away from maximum productivity, but might be retained because of high quality, marketable fruit. By this age, says Eben Sadie, of Sadie Family Wines in South Africa, “an advanced root system is established.” Clearly a young vine needs to establish roots. Carbonneau says we “can assume wine quality is not optimal until the vine has aged enough. A vine requires a minimum of five, six, seven years to be fully established… permanent roots are established six to seven years after planting.”

Old-VineA step change at some point after a decade is mooted. Carbonneau says, “There is no experimental proof that very old vines, 30, 50, 70 years old, produce better wines than a balanced, well-trained, 12-year old vine”. Dr Yerko Moreno, director of the grape and wine research centre at the University of Talca in Chile also pinpoints balance, saying, “If you are at the right site – soil and climate – you can also produce high quality wines coming from 10 or 12 year- old vines as long as you are able to achieve a correct balance between the crop load and vegetative growth.”

Sadie, who makes eight single vineyard, old vine (50-150 years) wines, says, “The development between canopy and roots is disproportionate in young vines. Roots grow slower than vigour. For roots to grow you need vigour on top to absorb energy from sun. This may be the case for the first 15 years on average, though every soil is different.”

Thus balance is argued to improve with age. Pablo Morandé, the winemaker and founder of Morandé Wines, suggests balanced vines really register over 20 years, depending “on conditions, terroirs, density and management.” The confounding variables are manifold and potentially wide-reaching. Brett Jackson, chief winemaker at Viña Valdivieso, says that 20 years marks the approximate point from which wines are “extremely consistent in quality and yield.” And, adds Prue Henschke, of Henschke Wines in Australia, between about 20-30 years old there is a “slow build-up of more mature varietal flavour and structural characters. Tannin and textural maturity in 30+ year-old vines is most obvious.”

Roots and reserves provide balancing points. Marcelo Retamal, chief winemaker at De Martino, says: “The younger the vine is, the more affected by vintages it will be, as roots will be more superficial. In warmer years vineyards will be much more affected and therefore have a strong influence in the quality and style of the wines. In my experience, in vineyards over 30 years in some areas in Chile, you can see that its roots are deep enough if there are no soil difficulties. The stability in quality and wine style is much more even from year to year.”

Water stress is a recurrent theme. Dal says, “Old vines have a better root system, deeper and developed over a significant area. They have more wood and therefore more reserves… [which give] old vines the best adaptability to climate changes and a more regular water nutrition than young vines.” Carbonneau adds that when water is limited, there can be “some difficulty for grapes to mature. Then the vines that are not adult enough respond too much to such stress.”

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