The list of acclaimed wines made from old vines in Australia are many and would include, to name a few, such renowned names as Henschke Hill of Grace, Rockford Basket Press Shiraz, Torbreck RunRig, Wendouree Shiraz, Chris Ringland Shiraz, Clarendon Hill AstralisD’Arengberg The Dead Arm and Yalumba The Octavius Barossa Old Vine Shiraz.

So what makes old vine wine so special? Matt Kramer of the Wine Spectator addressed this very question in his article If it Says “Old Vine,” Will You Buy?: The benefits of old vines are debatable, particularly to those who don’t have them, 15 June 2010.  “Of all the many ambiguities of wine”, Kramer said, ” ‘old vines’ seems to be one of the more troublesome. Every grower I’ve met, everywhere in the world, who has old vines insists that older vines are better. Yet I’ve met a fair number of growers who suggest that “old-vine admiration” is, if not bunk, then certainly overstated and overrated. Not coincidentally, these same scoffers are not in possession of old vines.”

Before launching into a discussion about the merits of older vines over their younger counterparts, here’s a few points about old vines that are beyond dispute.

Old Vines are Fairly Unique

Wine-making is thousands of years old but surprisingly old vines, or at least the really old vines of 60 to 100+ years, are in fact not that common. Their scarcity is due to a number of factors, but most importantly is a consequence of the damage caused by the vine destroying Phylloxera louse, which at the turn of the 20th century wiped out vine stocks throughout Europe and especially in the wine-making centre of France.

Fortunately, Australia was spared the full force of the Phylloxera curse. Phylloxera hit Victoria and New South Wales, but South Australia was effectively quarantined. Indeed the oldest and most prized old vine shiraz is found in the Barossa, McLaren Vale and Clare Valley regions of South Australia.

Old vines have not always been valued

In the mid 1980s Rockford winemaker Robert O’Callaghan paid his growers more than twice the going rate for their old vine fruit. This was at a time when, as Kramer notes, the South Australian government was offering growers financial incentives to pull out their old vines and ‘modernise’ their vineyards. Influential winemakers like Dave Powell of Torbreck, who had worked with O’Callaghan, initiated a share-farming scheme with local growers to improve neglected or badly managed old vine vineyards. The practice, which involves paying the owner a percentage of the market rate for his grapes in return for totally managing the vineyard, gave Powell access to grapes from some of the best old vine vineyards in the Barossa.

Old vine grapes reflect less vintage variation

Kramer notes that “Where young vines can careen from vintage to vintage—with extremes of production and unpredictable ratios of sugar levels and phenolic compounds depending on the weather—old vines are steady. Their grapes are rarely unbalanced. And they’re rarely unripe, either.”

The reasons for the predictability of grape production from old vines are multiple. Firstly, their deep roots make them less susceptible to variations in the moisture quality of the top soil. In Australia most of the best old vine vineyards are dry-farmed, and consequently the roots are forced to dig deep to find water. This makes the vines virtually drought proof in the drier years. Secondly, the fruit is less likely to be affected by climatic stresses like excessive rain, which can cause the grapes to bloat on younger vines. Thirdly, old vines have reasonable carbohydrate storage or starch in their roots and trunks, which also provide a buffer against the elements and more effectively allow the vine to carry out the task of grape-ripening.

The yields of old vine vineyards are typically low and the grapes are smaller

As mature plants, the yields on old vines are typically lower than yields of younger vines. The berries are also smaller and the high skin to juice ratio creates a grape of more concentrated flavour.

Now, getting back to the all important question about whether old vines produce better quality wines?

Kramer argues that old vines impart a layered complexity that becomes more apparent as the wine ages and the bright fruitiness of youth diminishes. In his opinion, the depth and intensity of the wine on the mid-palate (which may not fully come to the fore until the wine is at least a decade old) is what distinguishes old vine wines from their younger counterparts.

Discussing a tasting of Wendouree old vine wines, British wine critic Sarah Ahmed made the following comments: “It seems to me that these idiosyncratic wines (a breed apart from other Clare Valley or Australian equivalents), owe their formidable structure and savoury, mineral and earth profile to relatively early picked old vine fruit, high in seeds and skin, which is vinified traditionally with no additions.” (Wendouree: a tasting bonanza, seventeen wines, Sarah Ahmed The Wine Detective, 23 November 2010)

Yalumba’s Director of Wine Brian Walsh, who developed The Barossa Old Vine Charter to identify and classify Australia’s old vine stock, echoes both Kramer’s and Ahmed’s assessments of the benefits of old vines: “Old Vines appear to have an advantage in their consistent ability to make wines of great structure, concentration and power – with minimal intervention. At least that’s our experience in the Barossa. The balance of the vine (vegetative growth in relation to fruit load), its naturally reduced cropping level and its ancient root system seem to hold the key. Add to this the noble appearance of these gnarled survivors in an age of rapid redundancy, and there seems good cause to celebrate.” (The Barossa Old Vine Charter, Yalumba)

Obviously, other elements including variety, region, vintage, and the winemaker are just as important as vine age in assessing the potential quality of wine. But I think Kramer is on to something when he says “All other things being equal (which they rarely are, I know) I’ll buy an old-vine wine every time. It’s a kind of insurance policy, wouldn’t you say?” His article and the very informative readers’ comments are well worth reading.

Photo Credit: Yalumba 100 year old vines