Aged vines deliver resplendently rich and boldly intense flavors
Just as the designation “Grand Cru” on French wine labels attests to standards of excellence inside the bottle, so the descriptor “old vines” has come to be an imprimatur of wine superiority. But, like “private reserve,” 2this is an ambiguous term, undefined and unregulated, and there’s no general consensus on exactly what it means.
Young grapevines (less than 10 years old) are quite vigorous, producing plentiful berries and abundant canopies and leaves, but as they age toward the 20-year mark, their vigor diminishes, resulting in less fruit with smaller berries. At this point, many are ripped out of the ground and new vines are planted. But some growers choose to leave the canopies in place, allowing them to produce grapes for decades to come. The yields may be lower, but these twisted, gnarled vines with their deep, nutrient-sourcing roots are able to produce grapes with greater extraction and more concentrated flavor profiles. The resulting wines can be resplendently rich, complex and boldly intense, with a profound structure that is both layered and balanced.
The oldest documented vine (over 400 years old) grows in Slovenia, followed by that of Alto Aldige in northern Italy (of approximately the same age) and Hampton Court Palace in England (250 years). A Shiraz vineyard in Australia’s Barossa Valley has been producing grapes since the middle of the 19th century and old vine Zinfandels have been thriving in California since the Gold Rush.
The problem is that there are no legal restrictions for the use of the designation “old vine” on a label. To one winemaker it can mean 20 to 30 years and to another 50 or 60, though many rely on the benchmark of 50 years. Because the term is associated with quality, it is sometimes used strictly as a marketing buzzword applied to much younger vines, prompting some growers to label their 80 years and older wines as sourced from “ancient vines.” Likewise there are no regulations as to the percentage of old vine wine that has to be present in the bottle. The best yardstick of quality is the reputation of the vineyard.
EXPERT WINE RECOMMENDATIONS
• Mike Montone
2827 Aurora Ave., Naperville
-2013 Three Wines Company “Old Vines” Zinfandel California) $16.From 100-year-old vines, blackberries and cherries, with notes of coffee, pepper, spice and violets kissed by hints of minerality. Full-bodied and balanced, with silky tannins.
-2014 Domaine Lafage “Tessellae” Old Vines Cotes du Rhone Rousillon Rouge (France) $12 Blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre from 70-year-old vines. Brilliant notes of cherries, spice and pepper backed by a vibrant acidity. Dense and well-balanced.
• Anna Trost
Wine by TCC
24104 W. Lockport St., Plainfield
-DeLille Cellars Chaleur Estate Blanc (Washington) $35. Opulent, complex Pinot flaunts a bouquet of cranberries, cherries, spice
and a hint of earth. A vibrant acidity lends backbone.
-2012 J. McClelland Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (California) $40. Nose of blueberries, black fruit and baking spices opens to rich flavors of blackberries, red and black cherries, currants and plums with overtones of smoke and vanilla.