The mystique of the old vines – by Myriam Fargeot “Wine Besty” Sommelier& wine consultant

The grandfather plants the vine, his son makes the wine. His grandson will know why. (Anonymous).

The vine, aka Vitis vinifera in Europe, is a perennial creeper. This implies the notion of age of the vines, considered by many as a factor of quality … Xavier Bagnoud, Swiss oenologist, wrote in a debate on the Valais wines, about the correlation between the age of vines and the quality of wines, considering the even the greatest specialists are not unanimous in this area. Otherwise, for sure the Maribor Strata Trta – oldest vine in the world by the Guiness Book ( a single 400- years old Žametovka vine situated in Maribor, Slovenia) would give the finest wine.

Photo credit – public space

What is the quality of the wines? How can this be driven from the age of the vines? Although the quality of the wines has a part of subjectivity, it is systematically based on balance, length, intensity and identifiable character, complexity, and concentration. Let’s try to see if there can be any correlation between old vines and quality wines… For this, one must understand what an old vine is, despite the abstract nature of the concept.

What is an old vine? We often find the name “vieilles vignes” on bottles (or old vines, vigna vecchia, vinhas velhas, vinas viejas, vie veche etc.), but when is it considered “old” and what would it bring to the wine in this case? Vines would generally be considered old when they reach more than 40 years old. Is this the case everywhere? For example, in Châteauneuf du Pape we are generally talking about old vines as they turn 25 years. The Barossa Old Vines Charter in Australia considers an “old vine” to be any plant over 35 years old, just like the South African charters.  This remains anecdotal when comparing with vines classified as “historical monuments” because they have reached more than 150 years! It was the case in the village of Sarragachies, in the Gers where a vineyard has just been registered in the inventory of historical monuments on June 18, 2012. It is the same for the vines classified as “survivor” in the Barossa, more than 125 years old and for some pre-dating phylloxera.

However, there is no control governing the appellation “old vines”. In Europe, the only regulations concern a minimum age of entry into production: 7th leaf for Bandol PDO according to INAO, 5th for Port according to IVDP.

Winegrowers often use this appellation to designate the oldest vines on their estate. This marketing nevertheless requires a quality standard on the resulting vintages, and this is not automatic. As for marketing, a price effect can be significant, so these cuvées are often aimed at a clientele able to pay this price. Their yield is lower, their roots are wider and much deeper, they produce fewer clusters, which are more aerated. Their exposure is often ideal, in the best micro-climate. This encourages the consumer be confident and sure of his purchase without fear of being disappointed.

Now take the case of Bordeaux 1961 – a vintage considered exceptional. These wines are mostly sourced from young vines because most plantations were destroyed by devastating frost in 1955-1956. The pivotal thing is to think in terms of canopy balance. An old vine is less vigorous. But if you prune a young vine well and you have a good rootstock not too vigorous, it gives good results! There is also the control of yields. Many good examples of young vines with small yields, ideal pruning and controlled vigour exist in which case they can give good wines…

Let us return to the above-mentioned example of a plot of 0.4 hectares planted with ungrafted vines containing 600 vines spread over twelve rows. This was simply a “premièere” in France. The regional commission of heritage and sites has finally decided for the registration, as historical monument, of a parcel of vine located on the territory of the municipality of Sarragachies, a terroir with deep sands of the Saint-Mont appellation. As a result, Olivier Bourdet-Pees CEO of Producteurs Plaimont exults. “Until now, this kind of classification was reserved for old stones. This is the first time that plant material has been protected! ».

What does this plot have to deserve so much respect? “It is simply exceptional,” enthuses the boss of Plaimont before going into detail about all the singularities of this plot of land held by Jean-Pascal Pédebernade’s family (vinegrowers in Sarragachi) for eight generations: “First there is the age of the vine, 200 years on average! It was planted between 1800 and 1810. But there is also the staggering number of grape varieties (29, editor’s note) and especially seven completely unknown grape varieties, which exist nowhere else on the planet, and which have completely disappeared. We don’t even know their names!

To conclude, an old vine above all is an age of reason, it allows a compromise between a lower quantity but so much richer quality, more balanced more able to express the terroir that nourishes it.

Jean-Pascal Pédebernade Photo credit – public space