Sun 23 Dec 2007
The term “old vines” on a wine label conjures an image of a hillside in Sonoma County that supports thick, gnarled, somewhat stunted grapevines, usually zinfandel, planted in the 1880s or 1890s or early 1900s by Italian immigrants. The vines are so old that they must be carefully tended, and they manage to bring forth only a handful of grapes in each vintage. Yet how deep, rich and flavorful are the wines that these venerable vines produce, like the essence of the grapes, the vine and the vineyard itself. Drinking an “old vine” zinfandel, we feel as if we are imbibing not merely wine but the history of California itself, the struggle of the immigrants, the tales of failure and success, the origins of the Golden State’s wine industry.
But how old is an old vine? Sometimes a wine label that uses the term “old vines” will state that the wine was made from 50-year-old vines. Is that really old compared to a vineyard planted in the 1890s? If one producer can call the wine made from 100-year-old vines “Old Vines,” does the producer of a wine made from 30-year-old vines have the right to use the same term?
Before we tackle the issue itself — because the term “old vines,” like the designation “reserve” and its many variations, is completely unregulated by state or federal laws — let’s talk about the concept itself.
It is an article of faith, in Europe (especially France) as well as in California, that wine made from old vines is inherently better than wine made from young (or younger) vines. A vineyard, after being planted, usually takes seven to 10 years to produce grapes that might be made into superior wine, while vines at the ages of, say, 25 to 50 years may potentially produce wines of great character. Wines made from those 100-to-120-year-old zinfandel or “field blend” vineyards in Sonoma County can be a models of purity, intensity and integrity.
However, the term “Old Vines” on a wine label does not guarantee, as some writers assert, that a wine will display the highest quality; our notions of “old vine” virtues are enmeshed in romantic ideas about the history of the vineyards and the wines they produce. As Tom Pellechia wrote about the “old vines” concept on VinoFictions in August: “Of course, this whole subject is mere sentimentality. Whether they are old vines or new vines, it still takes good grapegrowing and winemaking to produce the best wine.” Yep, it’s possible to take great grapes from a venerable vineyard and fuck up the whole process; I’ve had “old vine” zinfandels that tasted like stewed raisins on steroids.
Conceding, though, that it’s possible to make fabulous and unique wines from old vine vineyards, what should the consumer who plucks such a wine from a shelf in a neighborhood wine and liquor store think? Since the term “old vines” is officially unsupervised, producers can put anything on labels they want to, even if the vineyards are 25 or 30 or 35 years old. What, then, is the proprietor of truly old vineyards, over which a great deal of pride and work are exercised, supposed to do? Can’t we help out the innocent wine buyer?
I would favor regulation from the TTB that at least required producers who used the term “old vines” to state, on the back label, the age of the vines or vineyard, and if possible the name of the vineyard, from which the grapes derived, as in, “Made from vines planted in 1920 in the Big Heart Vineyard” or, also acceptable, “Produced from grapes planted circa 1895 in Sonoma Valley,” since sometimes exact dates and deeds are obscure.
Joel Peterson, founder of and former winemaker for Ravenswood, recommends that vines be classified in this way: 0 to 10 years, young vines; 10 to 50 years, middle age; 50 to 80 years, old vines; over 80 years, ancient vines — see the discussion about old vine zinfandel at the website of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission — though I wonder if we need an official classification for young and middle aged vines. Meanwhile, Tom Wark, writing on Dec. 14, on Fermentation in his guise as “Wine Czar,” recommended that all “old vines” be required to be 50 years old or older, a scheme that has the advantage of simplicity.
In any case, consumers need to know with confidence that when they pick up a bottle of wine designated “Old Vines” or “Century Vines” or “Grandfather Vines” that they’re getting something real, not a phrase tricked out by a producer’s marketing department.
FK took the photograph of a zinfandel vine in the Barricia Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, originally planted in 1858 and replanted between 1885 and 1940.