Old Vines Make Better Wines – Myth or Reality

It’s quite common among wine drinkers to believe that “Old Vines Make Better Wines,” since this statement has been traditionally supported by many influential wine magazines and reviewers.  In my opinion, this is not a question that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.”

I recently purchased 15 different brands of Zinfandel at price points ranging from $10.99 to $19.99.  I was surprised to find out that 10 of them had the “Old Vines” statement on their front label. The wines made with the “old vines” were not consistently dark and complex in character like you would expect.  Some of them were as jammie and fruity as the wines made from the so-called “young vines.”

Unfortunately, there is no legal or commonly accepted definition of “Old Vines.”  Since the name “Old Vines” gives the wine a marketing advantage, it behooves the regulators to establish a definition of “Old Vines.”  In my opinion, vines should be at least 50 years old before they can be considered “Old Vines.”

I think that the generalization of “Old Vines Make Better Wines” can be fallacious.  I have seen some very young vines producing excellent wines.  The Syrah and Petite Sirah that I planted in 2001 have consistently been making excellent wines from the first harvest in 2004.  On the other hand, the Zinfandel that I planted in the same year has been a late bloomer.  It wasn’t until 2012 that these vines started producing some decent wines.

In general, the reasons why old vines have the potential for making good wines are as follows:

  • Old vines have deeper roots, which may have some positive or negative connotations.  The deeper roots go through different types of soil, with each type having some influence on the flavor of the wine.  This could have a positive effect on the complexity of the wine. 
  • As a vine ages, it loses its vigor restricting the amount of fruit bearing capabilities of the vine.  This might have the potential of producing more flavorful fruit that makes better wines.  We can accomplish this in young vines by dropping fruit or restricting the amount of water given to the vine during the growing season.

On the other hand, I will share with you some issues that I have regarding the “Old Vine” statements made on wine labels:

  • For an old vine to produce a great wine at an old age, it had to be producing good wines when it was young.  I don’t believe that getting older will make a mediocre vine produce great wines.
  • When I see a claim on the back label that a wine is made from a vineyard that is 100 years old, I ask myself if the entire vineyard is 100 years old.  I know from my experience that over the years a part of the vines will die.  Like in my vineyards that were planted 17 years ago, about 2% of the vines died, which were promptly replaced.   When my vineyards reach 100 years of age, maybe 50% will have died and replaced.  To be truthful, the claim should be as in the following example:  “About 50% of the vines used in this wine came from 100-year-old vines, with the other 50%, the age is unknown.” 

Obviously, nothing lives forever.  At some point the vineyard that was planted a long, long time ago, will lose all the vines from the original planting.  Should we still call this wine “Old Vines?”  I wonder!

Chaim