One of my favorite Chateauneuf du Pape wines, Chante Cigale, has two versions, regular and Vieilles Vignes. I bought a case of both from the fantastic 2009 vintage. I no longer have any regulars left. They were delicious; I drank them all – hence the 2011 in the above photo. I do have six Vieilles Vignes left. They were not as good. Yet they were more expensive, as are all old vine bottlings. That’s what Vielles Vignes means.
Is wine derived from old vines better than that from young vines? Is it worth the extra price? After a bit of research, I posed the question to David Lucas of Lodi, whose eponymous winery derives largely from century old vines, planted before the Prohibition.
Vines can live up to 120 years. It takes around four years for a newly planted vine to yield fruit. Afterwards, for their first 20 years such young vines, while vigorous – just like people – yield large quantities of grape but are uneven from year to year as weather and soil conditions change. When they get older, they lose their vigor and yield less, but their fruit is more opulent and they maintain better consistency across different vintages. Wines extracted from them have higher potential for depth and balance.
“When it comes to grape vines old is gold”, says Beppi Crosariol of The Globe.
It is indeed, in price. But what about quality?
Dave Lucas disagrees with the common notion that all old vines translate into better wine. “You can produce great wine from young vines,” he says, “you can produce mediocre wines form old vines. Depends on the viticulture and how the winemaker interacts with the viticulturist.”
Old vine labels are ubiquitous in France and appear on different varietals from different appellations. In the U.S. this designation is mainly restricted to Zinfandel, the only varietal planted in the late 19thand early 20th centuries. Our own Lodi appellation has the largest acreage of head pruned zinfandel vines in the world, says Lucas. I didn’t know that!
Nor did I know that there is no consensus in what constitutes old. In this regard vines are also like humans.
In the U.S., comparatively laissez with wine supervision, this may be understandable. Lucas told me that the government has left it up to the industry to determine what exactly constitutes an old vine. So far it has not happened.
But what about France where everything related to wine suffers from strict regulation? Mais non, monsieurs et madams. No rules there either. Nor are there any rules in Australia, home to the oldest vines in the world.
As I researched the subject I found advocates for 35, 50, 75, even 150 as the demarcation for old. Suffice it to say that old is what each winemaker says it is. I know it when I see it, as a famous Supreme Court judge once said, about a different subject.
There is one sure thing with old vines: they are more expensive to farm. With lower yields, this creates a quandary for the winemaker. How much can the Zinfandel market bear in bottle price? The highest priced old vine Zin is from a Russian River producer, Martinelli, from their Jackass Hill vineyard, $125 per bottle. It is alleged that at that price the winery still cannot recoup its expenses for producing the wine.
Dave Lucas commiserates. It is expensive indeed, and in low yield years, his own business is also financially dicey. Furthermore, Lucas adheres to certified organic principles in winemaking, and that costs even more.
So is Old Vine in wine akin to Organic in the supermarket aisles, invariably more expensive, yet no different in taste and quality?
“Organic,” says Lucas, “is good for the environment.”
Lucas’ old vines regularly die, at a rate of around 25 vines every two years. “We give them a nice ceremony,” he says – just like people – “and we replant new vines.” And that exemplifies his approach to laborious, financially risky winemaking with old vines. “You gotta love it,” says Lucas.