Strength in maturity? A look at old vines

On this basis old vines may find a preferred place in a more sustainable world. Yerko says, “Old vines require less irrigation as their root systems are deeper and well expanded in the soil. Canopy management is also limited due to the fact that they are less vigorous. Disease management is similar to younger vines except for the presence of wood diseases that force the replacement of dead vines by means of layering or replanting.” And in the Barossa, Henschke says, “Many old vines have survived without irrigation and have extensive root systems that act as a buffer in less favourable seasons. In drier years the deeper roots are more active, keeping the canopy supplied with moisture and nutrients.”

PESTS AND DISEASES

Pests and diseases are contra-indicated for old age. Almost by definition old vines have survived disease pressure. Clingeleffer says, “Vine longevity may be impacted by soil-borne pests such as nematodes and phylloxera, termites, trunk diseases [e.g. Eutypa] as well as virus diseases.”

Quite often wine quality may also be affected by disease. Jackson says, “Young vines’ lack of reserves make them more susceptible to diseases and pests such as powdery mildew and spider mites, which can both have extremely detrimental effects on both fruit quality and long term longevity of the vine.” Yerko adds, “An old vineyard with a high proportion of vines contaminated with wood disease fungi will definitely produce a lower quality wine – less colour, dry and harsh tannins.”Leafroll virus is a major problem in South Africa, but, says Kruger, “Wine quality from older vines seems to be less influenced by leafroll; older vines seem to show more resistance to disease,. but not always.” In the Loire, Dal also reports a conflicting picture for the virus issue: “Older vines contain more viruses than younger ones,” he observes. “Viruses can sometimes affect the quality but they also often have a good repercussion on the quality and the complexity of the wines.”

New World moves to formalise old vines

There is a real or imagined cachet for old vines. In Europe the various monikers – vieilles vignes, viñas viejas, alte reben etc. – are used solely at the quality discretion or implied marketing intention of the producer. The New World is taking a different approach.
BAROSSA OLD VINE CHARTER
Australia’s Yalumba drew the first line in the sand in 2007 with its Old Vine Charter: “Dedicated to the recognition, preservation and promotion” of their old vines in the Barossa, the charter was subsequently tweaked and adopted by the Barossa Grape and Wine Association, for the whole of that region. No wine style or quality statements are associated with the age categories.

Louisa Rose, Yalumba’s head of winemaking, explains, “35 and 70 years is based around a human generational concept. Seventy is two generations of people who thought the vines were special enough to keep in the ground.”

Old 35 years + Beyond adolescence; fully rooted and mature
Survivors 70 years + Twice the age and survived the 1980s vine pull scheme
Centenarians 100 years + Thrice the age, give or take.
Ancestors 125 years + Nothing left to prove: “Tend to be dry-grown, low-yielding vines of great flavour and intensity”

CALIFORNIA HISTORIC VINEYARDS SOCIETY
This group formed in 2010 with the aim of preserving old vine vineyards in California. Old vines are defined as those greater than 50 years. This is the same age used by federal government to define things, such as homes, as being of historic nature.

Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery says, “We felt creating a registry of all vineyards in which one-third or more of the vines are at least 50 years old would be of great interest to consumers as well as to other growers and producers.” David Gates Jr, vice-president of vineyard operations at Ridge Vineyards adds, “A vineyard of 50 years or older has already lasted almost three times as long as the vast majority of California vineyards. Fifty years also represents at least two generations of people tending these vines, dedicated to preserving them and earning their livelihood, especially 30+ years ago, from them.”

Officer adds, “Old-vine vineyards are complex ecosystems that have taken decades and decades to develop. There’s something special and unique to an old-vine wine that cannot be easily replicated.” The society has no plans to formalise a definition of “old vine” for wine marketing.

VIGNO (VIGNADORES DE CARIGNAN)
A group of about a dozen growers of 30+ year-old, unirrigated, Carignan in Chile’s Maule Valley created an association in 2009, with the aim, says Ricardo Baettig, the director of Vigno, “to become the first DOC of Chile.” Wines must have a minimum of 65% Carignan and are sold under the name “Vigno”.

SOUTH AFRICA
An audit of vines older than 35 years in South Africa is under way. Kruger says, “The 35-year age barrier was just an idea by some of us interested in old vines.” Sadie works with some of these old vines. He says, “South Africa has the third biggest acreage of old vines (35 years) after France and Spain.”

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