Do old vines really make the best wines?

Old vines have a strange effect on winemakers. They exert an emotional pull close to enchantment – a kind of sylvan magic that becomes more powerfully bewitching the older the vine is. You notice it most keenly when you’re with a winegrower in their vineyard. You see the affection as they pat the trunks of the oldest plants, the wistful misting over of the eyes as they proudly reel off the vines’ age. The relationship may be emotional, but it’s not irrational, even if the science on the subject is somewhat sketchy and undeveloped.

Vine age is not a guarantee of quality in wine: many very bad wines are made from very old vines, and many good ones are made from relatively youthful plants. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of winemakers agree: an unusually high proportion of the world’s most beautiful wines are the product of vines between 50 and 100 plus years old.

Indeed, the hunt for a neglected plot of old vines – the more remote, the better – has become a rite of passage for ambitious winemakers. Their discoveries, from Spain’s Sierra de Gredos mountains to South Africa’s Swartland and California’s Santa Cruz mountains, have transformed the received wisdom about where it’s possible to produce great wine.

Of course, for an old vineyard to be rediscovered it first has to be neglected. So, why, if old vines are so special, do many of them end up either abandoned or ripped up and replaced by younger plants? And why is that process actively encouraged – in the form of grants and other incentives – by institutions such as the EU and national and local governments?

These are some of the questions that a new initiative, The Old Vine Conference, grappled with in its inaugural event, which earlier this year brought together an international cast of the wine trade’s most committed old vine enthusiasts via Zoom.

The answers can be boiled down to competing ideas of how to make a living from wine and how best to balance quality and quantity. Old vines are all about the former: the grapes they produce provide natural balance and depth. Compared to young vines, they’re expensive to work since you can’t mechanise an old vineyard, meaning everything must be done by hand. And they’re nothing like as productive: a 70-year-old vineyard might yield 4,000kg of grapes per hectare; a 10-year-old would be more in the 50,000kg per hectare range.

The purpose of the conference is to find ways to protect and raise awareness of the value of old vines. In part that value is environmental: old vines tend to require far fewer treatments and thrive without irrigation. It’s also about conservation: the age of the vines make them an important part of the wine world’s heritage, worth preserving for that reason alone. Most valuable of all, however, are the spellbinding wines that they make.

Arnaud Aucoeur Vieilles Vignes Blanc
Beaujolais-Villages 2018
(£12.75, yapp.co.uk)
It’s rare to find a white beaujolais, but, thanks to the quality of both winemaker and vines, this is a lovely alternative to pricier burgundy, all bright and focused in chablis-esque fashion, with a pristine Cox’s apple crispness.

Kloof St Old Vine Chenin Blanc
Swartland, South Africa 2020
(from £13.95, vinvm.co.uk; etonvintners.com; honestgrapes.co.uk)
South Africa’s plentiful stocks of old vine chenin blanc have led to the creation of a genuine modern classic wine style, characterised, as here, with verve, real depth of apple and peachy fruit and a pithy, lip smacking quality.

Gini La Froscà Soave Classico
Italy 2016
(£18.88, justerinis.com)
If you thought soave was all about refreshing-bordering-on-neutral dry whites, then here’s a wine that shows the region’s true potential and the value of 90-year-old vines. There are hints of blossom and thyme, and a wonderful rounded, resonant palate.

Grant Burge Filsell Old Vine Shiraz
Barossa, Australia 2015
(from £20, winedirect.co.uk; noblegrape.co.uk)
South Australia’s Barossa Valley has led the way in cataloguing and protecting its fabulous old-vine heritage, responsible for characteristically deep but balanced and nuanced rich reds such as this nourishing shiraz. It’s from a vineyard planted in the 1920s.

Bodegas y Viñedos Alnardo PSI
Ribera del Duero, Spain 2018 (£27.95, corneyandbarrow.com)
Peter Sisseck is the star winemaker behind this typically stylish, polished but gloriously deep and resonant, mulberry-scented red. He calls the PSI label his “save the whale project”, set up to use and protect the old-vine heritage of Ribera del Duero.

Birichino Besson Vineyard Grenache
Santa Cruz, California, USA 2018
(£28.99, or £21.99 as part of a mixed six, majestic.co.uk)
Californian wine might be thought of as a modern phenomenon but here’s a taste of its deeper history. Made from a plot of 100-year-old grenache, this shows the variety’s evocatively herb-flecked, red-fruited, aromatic and slinky side to gorgeous effect.