Wine Words: Old Vines

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Old Vines is a term you often see on a wine label. In French it is called Vieilles Vignes, in German it is Alte Reben, in Portuguese it is Vinhas Velhas and in Spanish it is Viñas Viejas, etc. So, what exactly is an 'Old Vine'? Is it a legally defined term? And, most importantly, does it impact wine quality?

The Life Expectancy Of a Grape Vine
Grape vines are capable of growing for 120 years and longer. However, most don't. They either die from disease or are grubbed up and replaced when they are no longer deemed commercially viable. In its first four to six years of life the grapevine does not produce a lot of wine. Yields are relatively low. In fact, most winegrowers do not make wine from their vines until they are at least three to four years old. Between 6 and 15 years the vine gets going and yields per vine significantly increase. Then between 15 and 20 years the vine starts to reach a plateau in terms of yield. From then on the amount of wine the vine can produce starts to decrease.

The Link to Quality
With this decrease comes concentration, hence old vines have a reputation for making better quality (i.e. more concentrated) wine. Unfortunately, determining wine quality is not so simple an equation, as there are so many other factors that combine to influence the eventual quality of any given wine. So, now back to Old Vines!

No Legal Definition
There is no agreed or legal definition anywhere on the world on what constitutes an Old Vine. For some it is 30 to 40 years, while for others it is 50 years and above. And in certain part of the wine-growing world such as Australia's Barossa Valley, the term Old Vines mean gnarly, Shiraz bush vines of 100-120 years. Similarly, in California, the term is often used to refer to pockets of 100+-year-old Zinfandel vines.

Old Vines and Quality - A Marketing Tool
Because of the supposed link between Old Vines and better quality via lower yields, the term Old Vines is essentially used for marketing purposes, to infer a higher quality and differentiate a wine from its competitors. But as I have highlighted above, the wine word Old Vines has no legal standing, and the determinants of wine quality are much more complex than a linear association with vine age.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.

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