Yield versus Quality, Part 7

Vine Age

One of the key differences between young and old vines is the root system. With young vines, the shallower root system means they will suffer from drought and from excess rain. Young vines suffer from water stress more acutely because of a shallower root system. Lafon recounts his experience in the 1997 vintage, “We had a drought in Burgundy this summer (1997). While it was not long—July and August—when you are dealing with very poor soils as we have, it can be pretty dry.” To cope with water stress, a vine switches from photosynthesis to respiration, which consumes malic acid, a problem in some young vine cuvees in ‘97 according to Roumier, “It’s true that last year some people had to re-acidify their cuvees. And above all again, in young vines because they had burned the acidity.” Dehydration is another consequence of water stress. Roumier explains, “Because it was also quite warm last September, it may have slowed down the process of feeding and induced a kind of overripeness in the young vines.”

Young vines often have a good balance between foliage and fruit which in California, without stress from excess drought or rainfall can produce excellent wine. This commonly recognized fact among California winemakers doesn’t make it into the press. Winemakers are reluctant to admit to the wine writer that the Cabernet Sauvignon that just floored him came from 3-year-old vines because it contradicts conventional wisdom.

Moueix, with 30 years experience in Bordeaux and more recently, 15 years in California, contrasts California with Bordeaux: “Sixteen years ago, I remember asking Joe Heitz how old the vines need to be to produce a good wine, he told me two years. I thought he was laughing at me, but he has proved to be right. We definitely can produce very good wine from young vines—don’t ask me why. In Bordeaux, there is no way to produce great wine with young wines. To produce a great wine, the vines need to be at least 10-15 years old. Except sometimes in the third or fourth year when by accident, with very severe crop thinning, we will produce let’s say, a good wine, not a great wine.”

Dokoozlian speculates as to why young vines can produce good wine in California and rarely in France, “In California you are giving young vines all the water they need, you are manipulating the system to compensate for the fact that they are small, young vines. In France, if vines experience a drought in their third or fourth season and they don’t have a fully expanded root system, they are in trouble.” As for old vines, Dokoozlian points out that they do not always produce lower yields, “When old vines start producing less it’s because they have some type of pest or disease pressure which limits vine capacity- eutypa, nematodes or phylloxera chewing on their roots. So the vines don’t just poop out on their own. We have some very old vines, 30-40 years old that if they are not stressed, produce normal, more than adequate yields.” Nonetheless, by the time a vine is 40-50 years old, its energy level is compromised resulting in smaller berries, smaller clusters and less berries per cluster. Color and aroma compounds are located in the skins, so particularly for red wines, smaller berries mean a higher ratio of skin to juice resulting wines of deeper color and greater concentration.

Rochioli is a believer in old vines, “The vineyard I make my Reserve Sauvignon Blanc from was planted in 1959. The combination of an old clone and old vines produce low yields and fruit intensity not typical of what we are used to seeing today. The vines are full of fan-leaf virus and who knows what else. Old vines have trouble setting a crop, which is why the grapes from these vines are irregularly sized— ‘peas and pumpkins’. The vines have not yet been affected by phylloxera. I’m dealing with very special vineyards and I’d hate to lose them.” Lemon believes the importance of old vines is related to climate: “In marginal climates there are some clear reasons why old vines can produce better quality fruit. They do have greater root systems, so if you are in a drought year or you can’t irrigate—as in France—these vines are going to have an ability to keep going and avoid dehydrating the fruit. In areas where you can irrigate, you could make the argument that you don’t need old vines. My personal feeling is that you need mature vines—10 years or older.”

Pontallier offers his experience at Margaux: “Vine age is one of the other important factors of quality in our conditions. It is something we know for centuries that only the old vines can make very deep, profound and dense wines. How old is it necessary to be depends on all the other conditions. Because, once again, all of these factors are interrelated. We consider young vines to be under 15 years old. In most conditions, there is no chance at Margaux, for the vines to make the first blend. They normally enter the second blend (Pavillon Rouge). But we have two or three plots which have extremely good soils, are extremely well situated and which can make wonderful wine after 8 or 9 years.”

Grivot comments on vine age, “It is possible to obtain perfect fruit after 15–20 years. It is always dangerous to produce wine with old vines because one day it will become a new vineyard. I suppose that the life of a vineyard is about 50 years so I try each year to replant 1/50th of the vineyard, to maintain a good average in young and old vines.”

Aside from their affect on wine quality, the old vines or vieilles vignes designation is a powerful marketing tool, as the outspoken Meyer pointed out, “When people say that old vines produce better vines, you can be sure of one thing: they have old vines.” Lafon is adamantly opposed to the practice of writing old vines on the bottle. He says, “I would never do it. There is no law which specifies how old the vines have to be; you can have a 25 year old vineyard and call it old vines.” Draper agrees, “Because there are no agreed upon standards, there is a potential for consumer deception in allowing the phrase “old vines” a prominent place on wine labels.”