Earlier this year, a group of California vintners formed an alliance (actually a non-profit company) called The Historic Vineyard Society. The purpose of this group is to bring awareness to Calfornia’s oldest vineyards. Unfortunately, every year, California loses another piece of vinous history; vineyards up to 100 years old get ripped out for real estate development or alternately, are replanted to more fashionable varietals. The 1905 Barbieri Zinfandel Vineyard, in Russian River (formerly owned by DeLoach), was sold in 2007 and the new owners ripped it out to plant Pinot Noir. Some think this borders on the criminal; others feel it is economics at work. The founders of ‘HVS’ of course are in the former group, and are lining up some of the state’s most illustrious producers for support. Already wineries such as Ridge, Williams- Selyem, Ravenswood, to name a few, have signed on. We have numerous other proponents of ‘old vines’ as well which, whether they join the movement or not, they really think it matters and market their wines using their vineyard’s heritage: Terre d’Oro’s ‘Deaver Vineyard’ Zinfandel, Cline’s ‘Ancient Vines’ wines, Ridge’ Lytton Springs’, Dry Creek Vineyards Old Vines Zinfandel, Seghesio ‘Old Vine’ Zinfandel, Sausal ‘Reserve’ Zinfandel. All of these cite vineyards are at least 80 years old (the Cline has some vines 120 years old!)
However, what does ‘Old Vines’ mean legally? The answer: nothing. Its right up there with the term ‘Reserve’; its use and the standards are up to the winery. Hence one will see ‘Old Vines’ Zinfandel from Boho, Glen Ellen, Kenwood ‘Yulupa’. Of course, I’m sure these are from ‘older’ Vineyards, but based on their price points – and the yields that really old vineyards provide – it is doubtful that they are 100 years old. Interestingly, the T.T.B. (The federal agency that oversees wine labeling – and most other wine production stuff ) has just started hearings to solicit input from the trade to determine if there should be legal requirements to use terms like old vines, ancient vines, antique vines and the like. Likely, by the time they get through with the hearings, all the vineyards will likely actually be old. Stay tuned.
This all brings up the question: what do old vines mean for the quality of the wine made from them? The answer to that is almost as elusive as what the term means. The principal assertion is that as vines age, they produce less fruit (true) and less fruit per vine means more concentration, more intense, complex fruit (not necessarily true). It is also asserted that older vines have deeper roots (usually true) therefore they imbue grapes with more complexity, ‘uptake’ of the soils and site (hooey). It is true that the older vines do seem to be able to handle droughts and some other weather extremes better than young vines, presumable due to their more advanced root structure. Note that European vintners were the most vocal about the importance of old vines to quality. Could it be because they had old vines and the new world (for the most part) didn’t? On the flip side, there are many vintners that claim the best fruit comes from vines that are three (their first producing year) or four years old! Just last week, we had a vintner tell us he bottled some special magnums for his personal use from the 2008 vintage. Since it was “fourth leaf ” and he was sure the wine would be special. On the economic side of the discussion, as stated at the beginning of this paragraph, there is less fruit from older vines, so at some point, all vineyards will become economically unviable: if it takes two vines to make one bottle of Zinfandel and this means the winery must charge $125 to make the math work, how many of us will pay the price to taste history? We’ll follow the progress of the Historical Vineyard Society and see. (And feel free to try some of our old vine examples before they go up to $125!!)