Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Value of Old Vines

A question that pops up now and then in wine circles is "What is the definition of 'old vines' and how important are they?"  It's not a burning issue, but it is one that has an impact on wine buying decisions. 

When a consumer reads "Old Vines" or "Century Vines" or ""Vielles Vignes," or "Alte Reben," the reaction is to wonder what exactly does it mean?  The easy answer is whatever you want it to mean, since there is no legal definition of the term.

Old Zinfandel vine

Wanting to be different, some winemakers decided on such fanciful names for old vines as "Gnarly Vines" which many of them are and "Ancient Vines" which many of them aren't.

A little history

The history of old vines is extensive, so here are a few highlights.

Most people would agree that the Monte Rosso Vineyard on Moon Mountain, in Sonoma County, is an old vine vineyard, since it was first planted in the 1880s.   And there are dozens of other old-vine vineyards in Sonoma County.

The Historic Vineyard Society (HVS) in California maintains that an old vine is a vine or vineyard at least 50 years old. Further, the society adds that one third of the existing vines must be traceable to the original planting. 

Interesting, as the idea for the society was inspired by the film "Sideways" and its enthusiastic endorsement of Pinot Noir, although there are very few old Pinot Noir vines in California, compared to the numbers for Zinfandel and Syrah. 

Old Vitis vinifera vines go back to the mid-19th century, but there are some surviving Muscadine vines still cultivated in the southern United States. The 400-year-old "Mother Vine" on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, is still producing grapes.  Supposedly, the Muscadine variety, Scuppernong, was the grape in Virginia Dare, a wine of Colonial times.

British wine writer, Jancis Robinson publishes an extensive free worldwide Vineyard Register, at  The register lists a vine at the Hampton Court Palace, planted in 1769 and still producing.

Today, ungrafted drought tolerant vines are being considered in Spain's Ribera del Duero, to replace the traditional Tempranillo, a grapevine that is suffering the ravages of climate change. Many of the existing vines in Ribera are considered old vines.  The proposed vine swap is being prompted by climate change and the desire of a wine region to get ahead of what may be an unknown.

Sonoma Old Vines

Most established vineyard regions worldwide have some vines that qualify as old vines. In California, Sonoma County is home to numerous old vines, especially planted to Zinfandel.

Here are 12 Sonoma County vineyards certified by the HVS that meet their criteria: Jackass Hill (1880s), Saitone (1895), Russi (1900s), Belloni (1900s), Limerick Lane (1910), Puccini (1900s), Hartford (1910), Maffei (1920s), Mancini (1920s), Montafi Ranch (1926), Carlisle (1927), Papera Ranch (1930s).

Sonoma old vine vineyard

Wines made from these old-vine vineyards have a concentration that comes only with age. Although technically not considered old vines, Pinot Noir heritage clones such as Wadenswil, Calera, Pommard, Martini and Swan have that character.  So too does the Mount Eden clone, from a cutting brought to California by Paul Masson as a "suitcase vine."

The value of adding "Old Vine" on the front or back label means the winery can tell the wine buyer that because the grapes used for the wine in the bottle are old, the wine is better than a wine making no such claim.

It is true that a wine made from old vine grapes has more stuff like texture, structure and concentration, but that alone does not make it a better wine.  Vineyard location, grape health and condition and wine making are but a few of the many factors that ultimately determine if one wine is better than another.

Wine consumers can rely on getting clearly defined varietal aroma and taste of specific varieties, when the wine is made from old vines. If the concentrated berry character of Zinfandel or Syrah or Petite Sirah is what you are after, then pull the cork on a bottle from Biale Vineyards, Pedroncelli, Aperture Cellars, Ridge Vineyards, Martinelli, Comstock Wines, Gary Farrell, Ravenswood, Hartford Family Wines, Joseph Swan and Limerick Lane.

Find your favorite winery, gather a few friends and do a comparative tasting. Select a regular bottling and one made from old vines, from the same winery. It can be fun and informative. 

Late add:  There apparently is enough interest in the value of old vines to warrant a get-together to talk about old vines.  Last month, the first Old Vines Conference was held in Veneto, Italy, sponsored by the InternationalWine & Spirit Competition. The aim of the conference was to show the value of old vines beyond their beauty and longevity.

Next blog: Sonoma Series: Sonoma Valley & Sonoma Mountain

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