I was lucky enough to attend an Old Vine Seminar put on by the Institute of Masters of Wine last week. It was interesting on many levels, the speakers were engaging and the 13 wines spoke volumes about the sort of complexity and intensity that one can expect from old vines. The moderator, Nancy Gilchrist MW, set criteria for inclusion as being wines made from vines 80 years of age or older. The speakers were from South Africa, Spain, California and Australia and so (with the exception of a Greek Assyrtiko) were the wines.
So, what is it about old vines that makes them produce such high quality wine? According to Rosa Kruger, viticulturist from South Africa, it is their structure rather than their root system (the thick stems and wood provide apt reserves to keep them going) and the fact that the vines produce only the amount of grapes the climate allows them to. Old vines are generally better at preserving acidity and don’t rely on irrigation much, therefore are able to thrive in dry climates such as we can see in the Barossa in Australia. Their leaves don’t wilt as easily, which is better for photosynthesis and the vines stay fresher and greener and also build more disease resistance. Although how disease resistant a vine is depends very much on the variety, also. Australian winemaker Dean Hewitson has a great example of this – his 160 year old Mourvedre is thriving in his Old Garden vineyard whilst neighbouring Shiraz vines of a similar age suffer from eutypa dieback and botrytis.
There is no doubt that old vines are capable of producing serious, dense, mineral wines but, to be honest, the budding MW in me was looking for a counterargument. It never came. The seminar was an ode to old vines. And whilst this is completely on my wavelength and I definitely worship at the altar of old vines, I can’t help but mention some examples of where ‘quality equals old vines’ does not compute. There aren’t many, but some high profile producers have differing opinions. Vega Sicilia, Spain’s most famous winery, famously rip out and replant vines once they’ve reached 60 years. This is because these older vines become more susceptible to disease and produce bad fruit. Equally, the average age of vines that comprise Chateau Lafite is 45 years. Considered a baby by Barossa standards. Much like Vega, Lafite replant vines once they’ve reached 80 years, for similar reasons. Some of the greatest and most famous wines ever produced were made from young vines. Take the example of the famous 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet which won the Judgement of Paris tasting 1976 and put Californian wine on the map. It was made from 3 year old vines. And, from what I am told, it is still going strong. I haven’t tried it though we do have the ‘74 in our cellar, which I look forward to trying soon!
Here are some interesting notes and observations I made, some you may know and some you may not:
– The oldest vineyard in the world is in Maribor, Slovenia and the vines are 400 years old
– The oldest vine still living in South Africa was planted in 1781 and produces 20 litres of wine
– Old vines don’t necessarily mean low yields – there are 80 year old Sultana vines in South Africa that yield 40 000 tonnes/hectare
– Old vines don’t respond well to shoot thinning and green harvest so this is often not necessary
– Spain, which has the highest amount of old vine Garnacha in the world, has gone from
189 000 ha in 2000 to 69 000 ha now, thanks to the EU vineyard grub up schemes.
In 1912 there were 44 varieties grown in Rioja, now there are only 7.
The wines shown at the seminar were:
1. Assyrtiko de Mylos, Domaine Hatzidakis, Santorini 2011 (here the vines are woven into a basket to protect them from the fierce winds). I prefer the 2012 vintage of this wine, sampled recently at Vinoteca with my fellow monkeys, but I do love its saline, nutty, volcanic goodness and chalky texture.
2. Soldaat Grenache, Eben Sadie, South Africa 2012 (100% whole bunch, completely unoaked and made without additions aside from a small amount of SO2). Very elegant and restrained wine with lovely red fruit expression.
3. T’Voetpad Field Blend white, Eben Sadie, South Africa 2012 (Semillon, Semillon Gris, Palomino and Chenin, 108 year vineyard). This blew my mind with its aromatic, mineral and chalkboard nose and beautiful juicy mouthfeel with a touch of maltiness and a cantaloupe melon and waxy finish.
4. Boekenhoutskloof, Marc Kent Semillon, South Africa 2004 This was quite evolved already with butterscotch and nuts, though still had the waxy lemon and lanolin texture. Probably my least favourite wine though.
5. El Puno Garnacha, Calatayud, Spain 2009 Made by the flying Scotsman and one of the speakers, Norrel Robertson MW, I liked its sweet spice and strawberry scented fruit, fresh acidity and granular tannins and the anise finish.
6. Pena El Gato Garnacha, Rioja Alta, Spain 2011 (14 m in large oak) This was cedary and savoury in the mount with a bitter chocolate tone and some fennel on the finish. Food wine for sure.
7. Flor de Silos, Cillar de Silos, Ribera del Duero, Spain 2005 I am biased as I did vintage here in 2011 but this is made by lovely people and it’s ridiculously complex and young still. There is very little evolution here showing this has miles ahead of it with its finely grained tannins and fresh ,plummy fruit.
8. Numanthia, Toro, Spain 2009 (recently bought by LVMH) This wasn’t my bag, big with with a dried fruit character, liquorice and a lot of oak evident. Concentrated though very ripe with a fig and date character and high alcohol.
9. Old Hill Zinfandel, Ravenswood, California 2008 Pleasure in a bottle. Not ashamed of itself and we all loved it for it. Quintessentially American flavours with cherry cola notes , sweet liquorice but this beautiful raspberry chocolate note that carried through to the finish and gave it freshness.
To Kalon I Block Napa Fume Blanc, Robert Mondavi, California 2010 For someone, who doesn’t like Sauvignon Blanc unless it’s oaked, this was a delight with its lemon butter and passion fruit cream flavours with a little vanilla and subtle grassy overtones.
11. Elderton Command Shiraz, Barossa, Australia 2009 Made by the lovely people from the Ashmead family from vines planted in 1894. This has vibrant acidity and a spicy, peppery profile with blackberry juice flavours and the sweetness of American oak.
12. Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre, Barossa, Australia 2010 Best vintage of Old Garden I have tasted to date and it’s the vintage we have this to thank for. This is normally very intense and black-fruited but the 2010 has beautiful, seductive perfume and a red fruit profile with a touch of Chinese five spice. Gotta put some away!
Lenka (Evil Monkey)