Old Vines | September 2017

In the 1980s, viticulture discovery travels took me to Napa and Sonoma. Growers there found it amusing that someone would even consider growing grapes on the East Coast. Our conversations often ended with a certain air of arrogance: “You’ll have to wait a couple of decades to make good wine. Young vines just can’t do it.” On return trips in the 1990s, those same growers were replanting most of their vines due to phylloxera. When asked, it seemed that there now wasn’t much difference between old vines and young vines.

In Europe, winegrowers treat their young vines as second-class citizens, automatically declassifying the wines to a lesser bottling, regardless of the terroir status.

One can’t plant old vines, and because I had only young vines, remained agnostic on the subject. I now have vineyards ranging from one to thirty-three years old. Now I have opinions on the matter. Vine age has a significant influence in both the vineyard and the wines.

Old Vineyards

Just like people, vines go through developmental phases. In their early bearing years (the first decade) they are teenagers. Vigorous, often out of control, they want to recklessly over-produce. Lots of discipline is required from the grower in terms of canopy management and crop control.

They become young adults in their second decade. Vigor and yields become more balanced. Confident and independent, they require less work for the grower. We often see this shift in years ten to twelve.

The third decade can be the sweet spot if the vines are planted in the right way and in the right place. We start to see significant vigor decline which can be a shock after years of battling excessive vigor. Seemingly all of a sudden a soil amendment program is urgently needed.

The fourth decade becomes more geriatric. Vigor and yields decline, often to unproductive levels, replants become more numerous. We start asking the hard question: Hold’em or fold’em?

Having experience now with all four “decades,” my thoughts on trellising and vine spacing have changed. In the 1980s and 1990s the thought was to use low density (6 x 9 feet) and/or divided canopy trellising (Lyre and GDC) to compensate for high vigor. This worked in decade one and into decade two, but eventually the vines aged and could no longer fill their allotted space. We tried interplanting, soil amendments, and re-trellising (to VSP). These band-aid measures helped, but each solution had its own set of problems. Eventually it became apparent that the best solution was to remove the vineyard and re-start from scratch.

The Wines

Young vines ripen their grapes faster than old vines. They produce an abundance of sugar and lose acid quickly. Ripening can be asynchronistic vine to vine. Old vines can take one to two weeks longer to ripen. Sugars (or potential alcohol) are a bit lower, but acidity remains higher. Tannin and phenolic development is more in sink with flavors and chemistry.

Wines from young vines are different than those from old vines. Young vine wines are fruit forward, voluminous, simple, varietal, and early drinking. They are rock and roll wines. They give immediate satisfaction and don’t require much contemplation. They show well in a typical tasting room situation or wine competition.

Old vine wine expresses terroir and minerality over fruit. The wines are complex with density and length. Just like classical music, they need attention and time to appreciate. These are fine dining wines and wines for experienced wine writers.

An increasingly frequent question coming from our tasting room visitors is: “What is the life span of a vineyard?” At this stage of our viticultural evolution a vineyard’s life is not so much about keeping vines healthy and productive as it is about mitigating inexperienced pre-plant decisions from years ago. All of the vineyards we have removed and replanted have been a result of unsatisfactory grape (wine) quality.

For those vineyards where the right variety was planted in the right place and in the right way, economics play a major role. Yields will decline and missing vines will need to be replanted. As our vineyards age, will an increase in wine quality justify a higher grape or bottle price to compensate lower yields?

Grape Press, September 2017

Jim Law