Monday, August 27, 2007

Old Vines

~When I worked for a wine distributor, Pellegrini Old Vine Carignane was one of the wines in our portfolio. I loved the wine for its rustic quality and for its year-to-year consistency. (The winery also produced an Old Vine Zinfandel that was every bit as appealing to me.)
~I loved the wines but never gave much thought to the Old Vine designation. I suppose, however, like so many others, I made an assumption that older vines are better than younger ones at producing fine wine.
~California producers noticed that seemingly innate assumption that older is better. Not long after I had taken myself off the road as a wine salesman, the Old Vine designation seemed to become ubiquitous as California wineries used it to command high prices.
~To be sure, Old Vine designation isn’t a California invention. European wine producers have used the designation to make a point about the quality of their wine. But what that point is has never been clearly spelled out to the consumer, and I am not so sure it can be.
Talk to a New World winemaker with young vines and you will hear that old vines offer the same quality that proper crop control on new vines offers.
Talk to an Old World winemaker whose vineyard has been in the family for generations and you will hear that old vines offer more depth and concentration in their wines because they provide reduced crop and because their root systems are so deep that they manage to bring up more and more of the “terroir.”
Go back to the New World winemaker and mention the potential “terroir” connection to quality Old Vine designated wine and you are likely to be laughed at.

~In Europe, I believe the Old Vine designation started out to mean vines that were never affected by the nineteenth-century phylloxera blight. Over time, the designation took on new meaning and the date of an old vine shifted based on various high or low points in vintages and in wine production calamities.
~To my palate, something unique seems to be at work in wines produced from older vines (beyond about 50 years old). Such wines almost invariably seem earthy, rustic; they seem more complicated at the same time that they seem well integrated; they make me think of wisdom.
~Conversely, wines produced from young vines (under ten years old) often present themselves not as having come from the earth but from the fruit factory; they are forward and in your face at the same time that they seem shallow; they remind me of impetuous immaturity.
~Wines produced from vines between 10 and 50 years old are all over the map; some show promise, others falter and then regroup, others are consistent, and still others are inconsistent. In other words, these vines seem to be constantly reacting and adjusting to life in the vineyard.
~Is it possible that my feeling for wines produced from old vines is just a reflection of good marketing? Am I that shallow?
~Maybe, but having once been a grape grower, and still being a gardener and fruit tree grower, has made me a believer that what comes from the soil brings to us what is in the soil.
~I have no scientific proof to back me up, but I believe that the Old Vine designation, when it truly denotes wines produced from old vines, gives us something that only durability can give. The vines have formed a symbiotic relationship with the soil and site in which they reside. The longer the two are together, the more the symbiosis strengthens and the more we can taste that relationship in the wines.
That older vines produce less fruit likely means one of two things.
Fruit production is incidental to the survival of plants. Leaves are the carriers of continued life and survival. In fact, fruit production is an energy sapping process. Maybe older vines put out less fruit as a way of expending less energy, thereby doing what we do when we get old—slow down.
On the other hand, older vines might produce less fruit because over their lifetime they have learned the lesson of focusing on quantity over quality. Maybe old vines have something to tell us.
~Of course, this whole subject is mere sentimentality. Whether they are old vines or new vines, it still takes good grape growing and winemaking to produce the best wine. Sadly, things can and do go wrong.
~Still, I have a suspicion that when things go wrong, like older trees that are often able to withstand an insect onslaught better than younger trees, older grape vines may be more forgiving of the mistakes of others and of nature.

Here’s a link to a conversation about Old Vine designation:

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
August, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

2 comments:

Jay said...

Hi TP. Some food for thought about Steven Spurrier's Cab/Chard French:American faceoff in 1976 in Paris was that Warren Winarski's Stag's Leap Cab champ allegedly was made from fruit from three-year-old vines. Go figure?

Thomas Pellechia said...

Yes Jay, I heard that before.

Wine always humbles me; doesn't change my opinion, but always humbles me ;)