What is Old Vine wine?
You may have noticed the term ‘old vine’ on a wine label, but what does this mean exactly, and how does it translate to the wine itself? Age is a relative term, and definitions of what constitutes old vines vary across regions. Vines can live for over 100 years, but in places like Margaret River – where vines were first planted in the 1970s – what’s considered old may look a bit different.
We are fortunate to have access to many exceptional old vines in Australia. There is a concentration of old vines in the Barossa Valley, but they can be found in regions across the country. In fact, some of the oldest vines in Australia can be found here in the Hunter Valley. Families like Tyrrells, Tulloch, Wilkinson and Drayton, along with the well-known Dr Henry Lindeman, pioneered vineyards across the region – and many from the original James Busby collection.
Let’s take a moment to find out why wine made from old vines is so special.
The Life Cycle of a Grapevine
Newly planted grapevines may produce fruit after a year or two, but they are usually pruned back prior to ripening so the vine can focus on growing a good solid trunk, developing its roots system and storing up nutrients. On average, it takes three years for a vine to yield a proper harvest for winemaking.
By five to eight years, grapevines start to come into their own. They produce annual harvests and will continue to mature over the next two decades. Once the vine reaches 20 to 25 years of age, their vigour begins to decrease significantly (sometimes as much as 50%) and by the time they reach 40, their total yield tends to plateau.
While definitions vary, in general, old vines tend to be around 35 years old. In younger regions, like Margaret River, this may be slightly younger, while in older regions the average age can be up to 50 years. Grapevines often live for 125 years, though there are examples of even older vines all over the world.
Quality Over Quantity
Old vines are often regarded as producing high quality wines. Winemakers tend to agree that what sets them apart is complexity, depth, and the concentration of fruit on the palate. This is often what the term ‘old vine’ is conveying when it is added to a wine label.
How do old vines differ from young vines? First, old vines tend to be more stable than young vines. This is because old vines have had time to establish their root system. In young vines, the developing roots are still close to the surface, whereas the roots of old vines grow deep into the earth. This is where they access valuable nutrients and moisture, which makes them somewhat more drought resistant.
The grape clusters of old vines also tend to ripen more consistently, rather than the dreaded hen and chicken (clusters of both small and large grapes) of young vines. In contrast to the images of grapevines with lots of leafy foliage and large grape clusters, old vines are gnarled, with a thick trunk, thin canopy, and smaller bunches of fruit. However, the drawback of old vines is that smaller yields mean lower production levels. Therefore, viticulturalists may rip out old vines for economic viability.
While old vines are uniquely positioned to produce superior fruit, this does not always mean better quality wine. Old vines still need to be well cared for and, like all wine, diligence is required from the winemaker in the winery. Conversely, this does not mean wine from young vines is always inferior, rather, they serve different purposes. There is a special quality about wines made from old vines, described as a kind of je ne sais quoi by Huon Hooke in The Real Review.
Australian Old Vine wine
Australia is uniquely placed for this discussion. In 2009, The Barossa Grape & Wine Association (BGWA) established the Barossa Old Vine Charter to categorise vine age. This is the only charter of its kind in the world. The Charter distinguishes four age groups for old vines:
Old Vine: 35+ years
Survivor Vine: 70+ years
Centenarian Vine: 100+ years
Ancestor Vine: 125+ years
David Hook Old Vine Wines
This is a classic old world Hunter Valley Shiraz sourced from an exceptional vintage. Rich and earthy aromas showing black berry fruits, leather, vanilla, spice, chocolate and pepper. The palate is concentrated and textural with great tannin structure and a long finish. Perfect with a fine cut of steak.
The Belford vines are old and low yielding. The grapes for this wine are hand-picked and hand plunged in traditional open fermenters prior to being basket pressed. Matured in French oak for 12 months. Drinking beautifully now, though it will also reward long term cellaring (10+ years).
93 points – Huon Hooke, The Real Review
Online Price $58.50
This wine has wonderful aromas of spice and leather. The palate is rich with red and black berry fruits, dried herbs and spices. Matured in French oak for 12 months prior to bottling, this is an earthy wine with fine tannin structure and soft acidity. This wine is produced from grapes grown at our Pothana Vineyard. The vines are 35 years old and low yielding, producing less than two tonnes per acre annually.
Online Price $28.50