WE OFTEN SEE the epithet Vieilles Vignes or “Old Vines” on wine labels. The term is supposed to connote heritage and quality. Conversely, nobody speaks of young vines. For those in the know, young vines can bring delicacy and an attractive freshness to a wine under certain conditions, yet the strength of the old-vine hegemony suggests a lack of seriousness or substance in a wine made from younger vines. Just how much does vine age really matter to a wine's quality?
For all intents and purposes, young vines are younger than 10 years of age, while old vines are mostly older than 30. Most vines face a gradual senescence from the age of 20. Thus the Bordelais frequently replant their vines after 20 to 30 years due to disease pressures and efficacy, while the Australians cling to their gnarled old centurions in regions such as the Barossa and McLaren Vale as stalwarts of yesteryear.
The most elderly vines in Australia, many older than 150 years, are still on their own roots. In most instances, the need to graft them onto foreign rootstocks, as in almost all European vineyards, was obviated by fortuitous isolation and the absence of phylloxera at the time. Vines of that age exist in few other places, though California and Spain also boast plots of significant age. In stark contrast, vines throughout New Zealand are far younger on average due to the precocity of the country's wine culture.
Both young and old vines have their advantages and disadvantages if a vineyard is in balance – in other words, when the confluence of climate, site and vine facilitates enough water and with it, nutrients, to be drawn into the vine for healthy, ripe grapes. The notion that old vines are intrinsically superior to young ones, therefore, is a sweeping generalisation.
Indeed, despite popular opinion, young vines are capable of good balance. This is because they lack vigour and produce fewer clusters of grapes and foliage which, despite promoting less photosynthesis, allows for lower yields and less foliage, meaning less shading, better ripening of what fruit there is, and less risk of fungal diseases. This vineyard equation has positive implications for quality grapes and wine.
Young vines do, however, demand richer soils to flourish because their root systems are relatively undeveloped and not yet capable of digging deep into the soil to forage for the water and nutrients intrinsic to quality grapes and wine. This dynamic is augmented with irrigation, legal throughout most of the New World and increasingly permitted in the Old, as well as the agreeably warm growing seasons that are increasingly the norm in many regions.
To underscore these points, the winner of the Judgement of Paris, an event held in Paris at which French wines were pitted against upstarts from California, was a Stag's Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon – a wine from three-year old vines! The Judgement, which served as the basis for a lousy film, remains the measuring stick for Californian wine's emergence on the world stage.
The disadvantage of young vines, however, is that their shallow root-systems also mean that they are susceptible to heat, drought and water-logging. Top Burgundy producer Dominique Lafon believes that fruit from young vines failed in 1997, a warmer than average year at the time. This was, he thinks, because the root systems failed to penetrate the deeper substrata of soils to draw on the necessary water and nutrients for holistically ripe grapes.
While sugar ripening was initially hastened in this particular vintage and alcohols soared, respiration was compromised by the heat. Unable to draw on the soil's deeper reservoirs due to shallow roots, young vines shut down in self-protection mode and stopped producing sugars. Overall ripeness was ultimately insufficient, yields low and acidity meagre. Flabbiness was further accentuated by phenolics in the thick grape skins.
In contrast, old vines can mitigate drought and excessive alcohol to a large degree due to their developed root systems. In the case of the very hot 2003 Bordeaux vintage, for example, the best wines were those with freshness. According to Frédéric Engerer of Château Latour, the most balanced wines came from older plots able to mitigate hydric pressures. Not only can old vines readily deliver nutrients, but they can also ripen grapes faster than younger vines because of the rapidity of this delivery. This results in less alcohol in the ensuing wines.
Advantageously, young vines can help nurture desirable textures and flavours in a wine. For example, Domaine de l'Arlot in Burgundy produces a declassified Nuits Saint George from young vines. It is fresh, fragrant and balanced. Moreover, Claude Dugat credits his eight-year-old plot of Pinot Noir vines in the prodigious Grand Cru vineyard Charmes-Chambertin with providing his 2005 with lift and poise in a year marked by extract and concentration.
In the New World, too, Mahi in Marlborough prizes its year-old vines' adaptability to alternate rootstocks, clonal research and training systems – and, most importantly, for the pungent flavours these impish vines imbue to its Sauvignon Blanc. Research indicates that young vines can produce more isobutyl-methoxypyrazines, the chief compound responsible for Marlborough Sauvignon's passion-fruit punch. Undesirable among seasoned drinkers perhaps, this aromatic trait is responsible for the tsunami of New Zealand Sauvignon that has conquered the world.
Old vines nevertheless give an unparalleled depth, concentration and vinosity to those wines from the Barossa and other hallowed sites. In fact, old vines seem to contribute to longer-chained tannins in wine, bringing a supple smoothness and balance. Roda, the new-wave Rioja producer, has received funding from the EU to pursue this research further. The rub, however, is that the oldest vines are susceptible to disease and declining productivity, with obvious ramifications for yields and revenue.
Ideally it would seem that a good mix of vines, of varying ages, makes for a healthy vineyard and the platform for quality wines and flexibility in the winery. While it's unlikely that we will see a label screaming “Young Vines” any time soon, don't be conned by the ubiquity of the “Old Vines” mantra. There's more to it than meets the eye.