There is a general perception that “Vieilles Vignes” (Old Vines in English) produce higher quality wines. Vine, as described by many winemakers, behaves just like human being – the older it gets, the “wiser” it becomes. Is it really the case? When you throw this question to the winemakers, typical answers would be: “Yes” for producers that do own old vines; “No” for those that do not own any old vines. So, is it just a marketing gimmick?
Well, let’s go back to the biological fundamentals. The major difference between young and old vines lies in their root system – young vines have much shallower roots. In a rainy season, a young vine’s shallow root system would suck up surface water thus diluting juice in the fruit. During drought, younger vines tend to suffer from lack of water. Old vines are mostly unaffected, as their deeper root system is untouched by surface water during a rainstorm and can reach down to the water reserves in subsoil. Deep root system also allows old vines to absorb richer nutrients from deep subsoil, thus less impacted by any potential chemicals on the surface soil.
Quality of young vine can also vary greatly from vintage to vintage, with unpredictable ratios of sugar levels and phenolic compounds depending on the weather. Old vines are steadier - the grapes are rarely unbalanced or unripe. This is a key differentiator especially with unpredictable cool growing season. For instance, in Burgundy, cool growing seasons are common. Yet, producers almost never complain about unripe grapes from their old vines as their juices tend to be more concentrated and richer. Moreover, old vines allow producers to harvest earlier in warm climates as the tannins in their grapes ripe sooner than young vines.
It seems like the benefits of having old vines are quite apparent. Why don’t all producers focus on producing wine from old vines? Here comes the classic dilemma of yield (quantity and revenue) vs. concentration (quality).
Old vines produce significantly less quantity of grapes. They are also more susceptible to potential diseases. Generally, vines reach their prime after 10-15 years and begin to show an obvious decline in “energy” and yield after 50 years. From an economic management standpoint, producers wouldn’t want to just rely on old vines and bare the low quantity and risk of severe disease, to which old vine is more susceptible. Some producers choose to systematically replant 1/50th of their vines every year to maintain the balance. They would not religiously aim for having significant exposure to old vines.
However, there is no legal definition on what can be classified as vieilles vignes in France, and certainly not across countries. In fact, the perception of “old vine with better wine” does not necessarily hold everywhere, especially in the New World where irrigation is allowed.
Joe Heitz of Heitz Cellars of Napa Valley indicated that a good wine can be made from vines with just 2 years old. Chateau Margaux believes it takes 15 years for the vines to reach its prime, so juice from younger than 15 years would almost never get into its first wine, but ended up in its second wine. Jean Grivot of Burgundy also believes that excellent juice can be produced from vines of 15-20 years old. Aldo Conterno of Piedmont would only classify its wine as Barolo from vines more than 25 years old (and he thinks 40-year-old would be ideal balance).
In sum, “vieilles vignes” probably does offer better quality in general. It’s the winemaker choice whether to push for the extra quality (and charge higher price), but facing the risk of old vines. Of course, always remember that there are so many other elements (terrior, climate, winemaker skills) that impact the final quality of the wine.
One last thing, from a tasting point of view, Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator offered a great tip. “As the wine ages and the bright fruitiness of youth diminishes, you get a sense of a more layered complexity in old vines…Yet, these differences are often not apparent until a wine is at least a decade old.”Be patient! Let the wine age, while you grow older and wiser…
Photo credit: By Megan Mallen (Flickr: Rhône Valley - Châteauneuf-du-Pape) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons