Old vines are not good because they are old, they are old because they make good wine, says James Lindner, owner of Langmeil Winery in Barossa, Australia. On her estate, Liberty Vineyard grows some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the region.
Like many estates in the Barossa that exploit old vineyards, Langmale is registered in the Charter of the Old Vineyards of the Barossa, an association that registers, conserves and promotes old vineyards. It determines the age of the vines by category: Older vines (35 years and over), surviving vines (70 years and over), centennial vines (100 years and over) and ancestral vines (125 years and over).
Barossa Valley Old Vineyard Charter in Australia classifies the age of vineyards and preserves and promotes old vineyards / photo courtesy of Pewsey Valley Contours
In Lindner’s experience, joining a group is a better way to sell.
I have seen that the prices for grapes from producers with exceptional old vineyards get their fair share, he says. There is often a correlation between the price of the grape and the wine made from it.
In South Africa, old vines, defined as vines aged 35 years or older, are protected and promoted under the Old Vine Project (OVP).
It is made to keep the old vines in the ground and present them to interested winemakers, explains Rosa Krueger, winemaker and founder of the OVP. Soon the winemakers started producing wine from old vines and recognized its value.
Old Vineyard Project South Africa protects vineyards with vines 35 years of age or older/Photo of Gideon Nel
Krueger believes that there are quality differences between wines from older and younger vineyards. She believes that old vines give a greater sense of place.
As a result, growers are prepared to pay more for these grapes, Krueger explains.
She quotes research from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business which shows that wines with the OVP label are perceived to be of higher quality. Consumers are willing to pay more, says Krueger.
However, the old prices for grapefruit and wine are not universal. In California, Stuart Spencer, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission (LWC), says that economic pressures such as falling Zinfandel grape prices and rising labor costs have led to the destruction of several old Zinfandel vineyards in the region. Producers replace vines with more profitable varieties or alternative crops.
Zinfandel is at a crossroads, Spencer said. We have a segment of wineries producing high quality wines, but many are in the segment of value wines ($7 to $10). We want more vineyards at higher prices.
Dr. L. Frederico Casasa, professor of oenology, studies the influence of the grape age on the quality of the grapes and wine in Cal Poly San Luis Obispo / Photo : Felipe Vallejo
The commercial group launched the Save the Old campaign, which Spencer describes as a call to action.
It was created to encourage consumers, wineries, winemakers and the wine trade – everyone involved in buying and selling wine – to choose wines whose price justifies leaving the vines in the ground, says Spencer.
LWC offers training to help farmers improve their image and promote their fruit.
Many of the vineyards are consistently run by the same family, who have never sold to more than one vineyard, Spencer explains. To succeed now, they may need to sell to a few producers and quality, niche growers willing to produce vineyard names.
Together with the LWC, the Vineyard Historical Society, based in Sonoma, a non-profit organization investigates the age and historical significance of older vineyards (defined as 50 years and older) throughout California. The approved sites are catalogued in the Group’s online register.
Of the 144 former vineyards listed by the Vineyard Historical Society, only 17 are in Lodi, and seven others are under consideration. The organisation cooperates with the CWC to approve others.
In Lodi some winegrowers have removed old vines of Lodi Zinfandel and replaced them with more profitable plants / Photo : Randy Caparoso, Lodi Vine Commission
The Vineyard Historical Society also helped finance Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo’s research project on the effects of the grape age on grape and wine quality.
Under the direction of Professor of Oenology L. Frederico Casas and in collaboration with wine professor Jean Dodson Peterson, researchers have studied the performance of young vines (10 years and younger), old vines (50 years and older) and a control group throughout the growing season. Dodson Peterson, professor of viticulture, studied the performance of young vines (10 years and younger), old vines (50 years and older) and a control group throughout the growing season.
They analyse three groups of wine production and evaluate the samples using both chemical and sensory analysis.
The concept of old vines is particularly relevant because most of these vines are open ground, which is an important aspect in terms of sustainable viticulture, explains Casassa. Thanks to their deep root structure and stable physiology, old dry vines are better adapted to their terroir and are less affected by environmental factors such as climate change.
Casassa also plans to create a three-dimensional representation of the root systems of old vines in order to map their depth and compare their architecture with that of younger roots.
These studies have both commercial and cultural value, says Casassa. Commercial, because it implies that the old vines are of better quality. Culturally, because the Zinfandel grape is an integral part of the heritage of the American wine industry.
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