The champions of survival – Old vines

The words ‘old vines’, ‘vieilles vignes’, ‘alte reben’ or ‘viñas viejas’ can often be found on wine labels. The aim is obvious on the part of winemakers: age adds dignity and commands respect. But is there any rational reason for respecting old vines?

 

According to the general view, grapes become grown-ups when they reach 10-15 years of age, and can be regarded as old from the age of 40-50. With young vines, the growth of the foliage and the roots are not in harmony: they soar above ground, but grow slowly below the surface. The vine blossoms between the ages of 15 and 40, growing abundantly and producing good quality. Above 40, the vine settles as its growth slows down and it produces smaller berries and bunches. As colour and aroma matter can be found in the skins, with smaller berries the proportion of skin and juice shifts towards the former; old vines yield wines that are richer in flavour and more concentrated. The other major difference between young and old vines is in the depth of their roots. The roots of the younger plants remain close to the surface of the soil – drought or a large amount of rain immediately affect them. In the case of lengthy heat spells – instead of photosynthesis, the vines vaporise the water and the ripening process halts. When there’s too much rain, the berries become bloated, diluted and they may burst, which can leave the vines susceptible to fungal infection. Owing to the roots that go deep into the soil and the holding capacity of their thick trunks, older vines are not left directly at the mercy of the weather and their ageing progress is more balanced. This is also true about vintage differentiation: with old vines the differences appear in the form of mild waves instead of dramatic swings.

Grapes are also human

When we bring up adulthood’s settling down in tandem with old vines and teenage extremities with young wines, we fall into the trap of antropomorhia. The parallel is unacceptable as a scientific explanation, yet as a metaphor it’s more than apt. The excellent Portuguese winemaker David Guimaraens explained the parallel between the development of humans and grapes as follows:

“The lifecycle of vines is the same as that of humans. First, they require complete care, just like a baby. One has to water and nurture them. Between the ages of about 3-4 and 12-14, the vines concentrate on growth. The crop is not that exciting during this time. Then come the teenage years. If we don’t water the grapes, the roots will discover virgin areas and they will give the terroir’s qualities back genuinely. If we water them, we overturn the natural balance and the terroir cannot manifest itself truly. The vines have to find the balance between the parts that are over and below the ground. Just like a teen: sometimes they manage to do so, at other times they overdo it. During their first 12 years, vines cannot give big wines. They can give good ones, but not big ones. Between the ages of 12 and 19, they can give extraordinary wines but only if the vintage is balanced and the yield control is right. One shouldn’t expect steady quality. Between the ages of 20 and 40-50, the vines are in their heyday. They are good both in terms of quality and consistency. The same is true about humans, they are not as prolific but they are wiser and more balanced. This is the virtue of old vines.”

 

 

The winners of evolution

The fact that a grapevine can live up to 100 years is not a miracle of nature in itself. The oldest recorded vine is 450-years-old, and it can be found in neighbouring Slovenia, in Maribor. However, when a whole vineyard reaches the age of 80-100 years, it is indeed respectable. For it means that all through its life, it grew grapes of such quality and quantity that it was worth keeping. The existing old vines of today are the winners of ecological selection: the reason they can live up to this age is that they yielded excellent wines at the ages of 30, 50 and 70. The majority of similarly aged plantations have long been cut out or re-grafted. Old vines have to prove themselves in every vintage, in order to live for another year. Still, we can find a fair number of such plantations in Europe’s classic wine regions, for example in Spain’s Bierzo and in the southern part of France’s Rhône Valley. 

 

Bierzo – Palacios wines are the benchmarks of the wine region

Spain is an old-vine superpower. Although the cutting-out wave that swept through Europe at the end of the previous century didn’t spare the country, there were regions into which international varieties couldn’t penetrate. The irony is that these regions with their ancient plantations and forgotten varieties became the engine of the rejuvenation of Spanish wine. On the barren plateaus or steep slopes of river valleys that cannot be cultivated by machine, centuries old vines – some of them from even before phylloxera – survived. One of these reservations is Bierzo, the one before the last stop of the pilgrimage route leading to Santiago de Compostela.

 

The main variety of this hilly and cooler region (owing to the closeness of the ocean) is Mencía. For a long time, it was believed to be a relative of Cabernet Franc – in fact it’s an indigenous variety from the Iberian Peninsula. The wine made from it is dark with aromas of forest fruit, game meat and violet, and medium-bodied with lively acids and pronounced tannins. Alvaro Palacios and Ricardo Perez, founders of the Descendientes de J. Palacios winery, played a vital role in the rediscovery of Bierzo and Mencía. Their single vineyard wines are the benchmarks of the wine region and their Villa de Corullón was selected as the wine of the year by Decanter magazine.

 

The southern Rhône – region for the old

The southern part of the Rhône Valley is truly a region for grape growing: the sun is constantly shining, the soil is thin and rain is scarce. The mistral wind that gusts from the north turns winter into hell but it exerts a cooling and drying effect throughout the year, so fungal infections have no chance at all. For centuries, wine from here was used to boost the colour and concentration of Bordeaux and Burgundy in poorer vintages. The Côtes-du-Rhône makes some of the best value wine in the world. Although Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where 13 varieties are permitted, is regarded as the capital of the southern Rhône, it is fundamentally a Grenache region. Mourvèdre and Syrah play second fiddle, the rest are rather curiosities. Alongside Châteauneuf, the three most import PDO (protected designation of origin) regions are Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Cairanne. Serious, structured and tannin-rich wines are made in Gigondas; the style of Vacqueyras is similar, although slightly friendlier; while full, yet elegant wines are made in Cairanne. Due to the mistral, the majority of the estates are organic, or even biodynamic. It can also be thanks to the good health brought along by the mistral that 80-100-year-old vines cannot be found in such concentration anywhere else in the world. Owing to the bush-vine training, the vineyards provide a surreal sight for Hungarian eyes: the vines are like larger bonsai with a thick, rugged trunk and branches reaching towards the sky.