Defining old vines

An old vine at Hamilton Ewell Vineyards

An old vine at Hamilton Ewell Vineyards (Photo: Hamilton Ewell Vineyards)

Langmeil’s The Freedom 1843 Shiraz, which I wrote about last week, carries the words ‘Ancestor Vine’ and ‘Vine Age Greater than 125 Years, Barossa Old Vine Charter’.

What does it all mean? And are old-vine wines necessarily superior?

The following is an edited version of a column I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald when Yalumba (tastings) released its Old Vine Charter in 2012.

‘Old Vines’ is a phrase commonly read on Australian wine labels, but what exactly is an old vine and what, if anything, is the big deal about aged grapevines?

Veteran Adelaide wine marketer Brian Miller once replied, when asked if it was true that old vines made superior wine:

“Like people, old vines do it less, but they do it better.”

Uh-huh. But what is the explanation?

There are many reasons why older vines – or at least mature vines – can produce superior fruit. As vines age, again like humans, they become less vigorous, and less vigorous vines produce less foliage (leaves, shoots and tendrils etc) so there is a better natural balance between fruit and growth – vines usually tend to produce an excess of foliage in relation to fruit. Balanced vines produce better grapes. As well, devigorated vines tend to set smaller crops of fruit, and, as a generalisation, small crops of fruit make better wine than big.

What else?

Mature grapevines are better established in their framework: they have deeper roots which can be a buffer against dry conditions, and their root systems are more extensive, exploring more of the ground and making more nutrients available to the vine. As well, established vines have thicker trunks which contain more carbohydrate reserves, which again can buffer against adverse conditions as well as get the vine off to a good start come spring, because it’s the stored reserves that provide the fuel to start the growth cycle in spring – there being no foliage to act as an energy generator.

The mistake people commonly make, and marketers and promoters commonly exploit, is to assume or pretend that all old-vine wines are superior. This is patently not the case. If the winemaker messes up in the winery, great fruit will not be enough to salvage the wine. And old vines are just as vulnerable to bad vineyard management as young. Also, in droughts, even deep-rooted old vines can run out of water and become stressed, resulting in poor fruit quality.

There is another, less tangible advantage of extreme vine age, which is agreed on by all winemakers who have experience making wine from such fruit. It’s hard to quantify, but there seems to be an extra degree of character and depth of flavour, a certain X factor. Some talk of the fleshiness or higher extract in these wines; others say the flavours are more complex.

Robert Hill Smith, chairman and former CEO of Yalumba, states:

“Seriously old vines appear to have an advantage in their consistent ability to make wines of great structure, concentration and power – with minimal intervention. At least that is our experience in the Barossa.”

But there are no laws controlling the use of words like Old Vines on labels.

Occasionally a wine comes across my path that proclaims ‘old vines’ which has come from a vineyard that I wouldn’t consider old. I suspect Hill Smith has had the same experience because he decided to do something about it. Publicly.

In 2012, Yalumba circulated what they call The Yalumba Old Vine Charter, in which they lay down in black and white their definitions of various degrees of vine age, and give them names. They announced that from the 2007 vintage on, they would be using the charter on Yalumba wine labels, where appropriate (see below).

Hill Smith said he and his colleague Brian Walsh had been thinking about their charter for 10 years, but had finally nailed it to the door – to promote discussion and debate on the merits of old vines, to raise awareness of their value, and to hopefully encourage viticultural regions to start a register of vine plantings by vineyard and variety.

He pointed out that in some parts of the world, wines made from vines less than seven years old do not qualify for their local appellation. And, while Australia has some of the oldest grapevines in the world, planted in the 19th century, more than half our vines were less than 10 years old at the start of the 21st century.

I welcome the Charter but see a few problems. The Barossa, as we know, is a repository of very old vines, rare in this world. Other regions don’t have the history of the Barossa and may have a different mindset about vine-age. In that case, they’re unlikely to adopt the system, at least not yet. In Margaret River, for instance, where the first vines were planted in the early 1970s, and most vines are very much younger, they might think vines only have to be 25 years to be termed Old. In the Riverland, where vines have to be irrigated and have relatively short, frenetic lives of no more than 50 years, an Old Vine is much younger. It’s all relative…

And there’s a possible hitch, which concerns really old vineyards where replanting has taken place. In reality, people don’t classify individual vines, they classify vineyards, and a vineyard is composed of many vines. The older the vines become, the more die of old age. In some vineyards, they aren’t replaced, but in many they are. This reduces the average age of the vines, and could cast doubt on the use of terms like ‘Very Old Vines’.

A final word on why very old vineyards have survived. People argue about whether they are great because they’re old, or old because they’re great. Great old vineyards survived because they were never uprooted as lesser vineyards were: people understood they produced superior quality grapes. In the Barossa, they escaped the notorious 1983 Vine Pull Scheme, among the various ups and downs of fashion and economic hardship. Hence the idea of the ‘survivor’ vine.

The Yalumba Old Vine Charter

  • Old Vine – 35 years of age or more.
  • Antique Vine (or Very Old Vine) – 70 years of age or more.
  • Centenarian Vine (or Exceptionally Old Vine) – 100 years of age or more.
  • Tri-Centenary Vine (or Very Bloody Exceptionally Old) – a vine whose life has spanned three centuries.

The Barossa Old Vine Charter

(instituted by the region in recent years)

  • Barossa Old Vine – Equal or greater than 35 years of age
  • Barossa Survivor Vine – Equal or greater than 70 years of age
  • Barossa Centenarian Vine – Equal or greater than 100 years of age
  • Barossa Ancestor Vine – Equal or greater than 125+ years of age

2 thoughts on “Defining old vines”

  1. Tony Winspear says:

    Interesting topic and one that I had to speak to recently. A customer commented that our 1969 planted vines were not really old as there were much older vines in SA. I assured him that in our district they represented the oldest commercial vine holdings and that at 47 years of age they had been producing small crops of concentrated and complex fruit for some time. I think
    the vine charters outlined in your article make good sense as a general categorisation. A small criticism but I found the Barossa charter name for 70+ year old vines to be a touch underwhelming although I understand the sentiment.
    A little borrow from the Rutherglen Muscat naming system would give us ‘Grand Old Vine’
    which to me has a more positive cachet. Thanks for reprising the topic as I don’t think it is possible to make too much out of our amazing vine history.
    Cheers Tony Winspear Balgownie Estate Bendigo

  2. Nick M says:

    Make it simple vineyards over 100 years old called Millenium Vineyard and vineyards over 150 years old called Historic Vineyard…anything before just don’t bother.
    Just note young vineyards have recently won the Jimmy Watson Trophy and other major Awards, therefore wineries should be looking after their vineyards and not to worry about definitions etc..

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