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Mark McKenna
March 30, 2016 | Mark McKenna

Do Old Vines Make Better Wine?

The one universal truth in wine is that there are no universal truths about wine. That is one of the reasons it’s such a maddening and magical pursuit. Recently I read yet another article on the subject of whether “old” vines make better wine. That simple question immediately brings up at least three central disputes that deepen the discussion.

What is “old”?
What is “better”?
Did the vine’s age make the wine?

In addressing the first question, we must rehash a debate (or deception) that’s been going on since Zinfandel’s resurgence in the late 1970’s and up to this day. The phrase “old vine”, much like “artisanal”, “hand crafted”, “small lot”, “Reserve”, or “natural wine”, has no legal definition.  Which is funny, seeing as how there are so many rules about commercially fermenting grapes in the United States that we have an Entire Government Agency enforcing them. Yet some of the most common, most used (and misused), and deceptive terms in the industry can simply be used with no context or accuracy. My rule of thumb is that if I would not describe a person as old at a certain age, I would not describe a vineyard that way either. 30? No way! 40, 50? Not even close.  147 (like the Original Grandpére Vineyard here in Amador County), you bet!!

Better is even a more subjective question because we all desire something different from a glass of wine depending on when we are drinking it, where we are, and how our tastes vary. It’s fair to say that old vines tend to produce more intense wines, richer on the palate, possessing more layers of complexity, and expressing a spicier, weightier mid palate than wine from young vines.  But does that make the wine “better”? On a warm summer afternoon, I’ll take a cold bottle of Rosè over a 100-year-old red Zinfandel every time. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that old vines produce a unique category of wine.

So back to the main question – Is the age of the vine the reason these old vineyards are so esteemed? There is one school of thought that says as a vine ages it deepens its root structure and moderates its productivity creating an availability of resources and a balance that makes for great wine. There is, however, another possibility. Perhaps the vineyard is old because it was great to begin with. Over time most vineyards are eventually replanted to respond to the needs for new or different varietals or because the vineyard is failing in some way. But if year in and year out a vineyard is producing great wine, why tear it out? So perhaps it’s not that the these vineyards are great because they are old, but they are old because they are great!

We'll let you be the judge. Try our Original Grandpére Zinfandel and let us know what you think.


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