In Praise of Old Vines

I don’t even want to count the number of wines I tasted this week. Five tastings in three days is a bit much. But stacking grapes as disparate as zinfandel, pinot noir, and garnacha against each other on consecutive days allowed an unexpected common denominator to leap forth: Vine age matters.

People often ask “How old is old?” When it comes to vines, age is relative. They’re like dog breeds. A golden lab just isn’t going to live as long as a cocker spaniel. Likewise, nebbiolo isn’t going to be as productive after 60 years as sauvignon blanc or zinfandel, which at twice that age will continue to be happy workers churning out premium grapes.

That’s why it’s impossible to establish a definition for “old vine” that’s meaningful across the board. It’s got to be grape by grape. Australia is leading the way with its BAROSSA OLD VINE CHARTER. Home to some of the oldest shiraz grapes in the world, Barossa has established four tiers: Barossa Old Vine for vines 35 years of age; Survivor Vines for those over 70; Centurion Vines for 100-year-old vines; and Ancestor Vines for those 125+ years (like the 169-year-old Langmeil vineyard, planted in 1843 and still commercially active).

The rest of us don’t have such clarity. Here in the U.S., in fact, it’s good to raise a skeptical brow towards “old vine” labeling, since there’s nothing to stop abuse of the term.


Interestingly, “old vine” usually isn’t advertised on the label when it comes to pinot noir. But at IN PURSUIT OF BALANCE, a tasting that spotlighted cool-climate California pinot noir and chardonnay, I was struck by the extra dimensionality that vine age provides. One example is the gorgeous Escarpa Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 fromCERITAS, a miniscule winery on the Sonoma Coast. Planted in 1978, these 34-year-old vines are some of the oldest pinots in the county, or so I was told. The result is layers of black cherry, minerality, and a pleasing tannic backbone in this lip-smacking pinot.

Pinot specialist Ross Cobb, of COBB WINES, laid out his own old-vine charter for me. “Up until seven years, it’s simple, primary fruit,” he said. “From 7 to 12, it’s showing its varietal character and acidity. From 12 to 25, that old-vine aspect is developing, giving the wines a more sappy, dark, dimensional character. Then from 25 years on, it’s at its peak.” That means that Cobb’s Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008 (my favorite at his table) will only get better with each vintage. It’s incredible now: subtle at first, then boom! An explosion of raspberry and cherry, flower and earth.


This Spanish grape makes simple quaffers when young—all that one needs at a tapas bar—but turns out serious stuff when older. Unfortunately, many of Spain’s oldest garnacha vineyards have been ripped out, to the point where top Riojan winemakers are tracking down the survivors like frenetic bloodhounds.

In nearby Cariñena, old-vine garnacha is evidently alive and well. One standout at the SPANISH WINE CELLAR tasting was Torrelongares Garnacha Selección 50 2007,sourced from 50-year-old vines. Made by a 300-member cooperative,Covinca S. Coop, it’s a great argument for hanging on to those geriatric oldsters.


Over at ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers), old-vine zins were popping up everywhere. Like Shiraz, Zinfandel can remain commercially viable well past the century mark. In fact, California’s oldest producing vineyard was planted 147 years ago, in 1865: the Grandpere vineyard in Amador County.

At this tasting, the vines were younger—but only slightly. PEDRONCELLI’s delicious Mother Clone, Dry Creek Valley comes from a vineyard planted in 1903; a half acre remains of the original field blend of zin and petit syrah. At only $16, it was the best value in the room. Italian names crop up again at WINE GUERILLA, a boutique producer making 11 zins from sourced fruit. Winemaker Bruce Patch's  Forchini Old Vine and Coffaro Old Vine from Dry Creek Valley both come from centurion vines. (Interestingly, his Conte Vineyard zinfandel is sourced from a new vineyard planted as a field blend, an approach that’s long gone out of fashion. Are we seeing the harbinger of a new back-to-the-roots trend?)

Several vineyards represented at ZAP were planted during Prohibition. That seems counterintuitive, until one recalls that zinfandel surged during this dry spell due to the fact that it could endure travel by train, thus was in demand by East Coasters making wine at home. One such case is KLINKER BRICK WINERY’sOld Vine Lodi (another great value at $18), dating to 1927. RIDGE’s Paso Robles vineyard, planted in 1922, is another Depression-era survivor. Ditto for GAMBA’s Old Vine, Moratto Vineyard, Russian River Valley 2009, planted in 1929. While coming from diverse parts of California, each of these Zinfandels was packed with such briary flavors and complex personalities that other zins seemed like juvenile pretenders in comparison.