Old Vines – What’s It All About?

Harry Lambourne
25th March 2024

As you dive deeper into the wine world, you may come across the term ‘Old Vines’. However, this is a loosely defined term and could easily be overlooked. So, we’re here to teach you a little bit more on the topic.

Old vines carry no ‘objective definition’, yet they’re highly prized among winemakers and wine lovers alike. This article will introduce you to the term, as well as the concept of vine age generally. Then, we will run through some of the characteristics of old vines that make them so desirable. Finally, we will round it out by introducing you to some wine regions which are renowned for wines from old vines.

So, let’s dive into the topic further and introduce you to the world of Old Vine wine.

What Constitutes An Old Vine?

We’ve mentioned that ‘old vines’ is not a legally defined term with strict rules and guidelines. Rather, it is a concept among winemakers.

The life-cycle of a vine is long and every year they go through a process of flowering, producing fruit, dormancy and then it starts up again. However, it actually takes a vine around three years to produce its first crop.

A vine is then considered fully grown at around 7 to 8 years, before reaching maturity from around 12 years onwards with yields beginning to decrease after around 20 years.

However, we are here to talk about the old vines. Most tend to take ‘old vines’ to mean vines which are at least 25 years of age. These are the youngest of the old, as vines can continue to produce fruit for many years after. The oldest vine which still produces wine can be found in Slovenia and is over 450 years old, (more on that later).

Oldest Vine in the World
The Oldest Vine in the World

What Is So Special About Old Vines Wine?

Now, we can move onto the issue of why these wines are sought after. It may seem odd that an older source of fruit is what people seek out, especially when it is not a term that means the same thing from one vineyard to the next. However, there are some clear characteristics of old vines which winemakers and oenophiles point to as a point of difference.

The first is that old vines will have smaller yields than more youthful vines. Generally, higher yields are often associated with lacklustre wines. Pinot Grigio in Veneto, Chianti in Tuscany, Montepulciano in Abruzzo and Gamay in Beaujolais are just some of the examples of wine regions which have found issues when leaning into high yields.

Brouilly Wine Region
Brouilly Wine Region – Beaujolais (Where Yields Matter)

Conversely, lower yields are often associated with wines which have a greater concentration and intensity of flavour. So, the old vines have lose productivity with their old age but with this comes a smaller bunches of deeply flavourful grapes. This leads to powerful wines with intensely concentrated wines. So, it is clear why more flavourful wines would be desired by consumers.

Another point regarding old vines relates more to the winemaker. This is that producers have tended to note that old vines achieve more consistent ripeness among the fruit. 

The next point can be seen as a positive to both consumer and winemaker alike. This is the fact that old vines tend to have roots which run much deeper. This means that water and nutrients are pulled from further below the surface. This soil is far less prone to changes due to climate and weather which means that vintage variation has little impact. It also means they’re more resistant to both droughts and floods.

So, for the consumer, as vintage variation is less of a factor, consumers can have greater assurances as to what they’re purchasing year on year. Then, winemakers clearly benefit from having these older vines with deeper roots which are better equipped to potentially disastrous weather.

Examples Of Old Vines Wine

Let’s kick this off with the world’s oldest vines. As we’ve mentioned, they’re from Slovenia and date back more than 450 years. They come from the rare red Slovenian red grape variety called Žametovka. This vine still produces wines today, but as you can imagine the yields are tiny.

Another region which has become particularly famous for old vines is the Lodi region of California. This was a key wine-producing region in the late 1800s when Californian wine was really starting to initially take shape. A number of Zinfandel vines from this time have survived to this day and create truly heady concoctions.

Vineyards in Lodi California
Vineyards in Lodi California

If we focus on the old-world, (but by contrast some slightly younger vines), then the Languedoc region of France has developed a real reputation for old-vine Carignan. During the second half of the 20th century, a great deal of high-yielding Carignan was produced here which meant many farmers and winemakers abandoned the grape altogether. However, what remained were Carignan grapes from old vines and these quickly became a staple of the region.

Last on our quick tour of old vine wine destinations is the Barossa Valley in Australia. This region has their own ‘Old Vine Charter’ which delineates old vines into a few different camps. ‘Old Vine’ means over 35 years old. ‘Survivor Vine’ means over 70 years old. ‘Centurion Vine’ means over 100 years old. Then, finally ‘Ancestor Vine’ means over 125 years old!

The oldest vines from here actually pre-date phylloxera as they were never infected by the pests. It is worth mentioning that you can also see ‘pre-phylloxera’ vines crop up in small areas across Europe, which managed to survive the epidemic that struck vineyards towards the end of the 19th century. These are also certainly old vines.

So, that’s the overview on all things old vines. While it remains a term without an objective definition, winemakers and many collectors place importance on the term. This could give you a heads up that it is something which you should be looking out for. Pick up something produced from old vines!

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