Editors note: This is the first in a series of articles by Enrique del Barco, PhD, the academic director at Winedos, a new Central Florida wine delivery business. Del Barco, who earned his doctorate from the University of Barcelona, is professor of physics and associate dean of sciences at UCF. He is an educator at heart, and the driving force behind Winedos’ mission is to not just sell wine but to teach about each bottle through videos, interviews and articles, like this one.
If you like wine, you may have heard about old vines. It is a term that applies to grape vines older than 30 years of age that in some wine producing areas is a strictly regulated designation that winemakers can display on their labels. Indeed, wines from old vines are considered premium and often carry higher price tags.
We don’t think of the age of the plant when buying our dessert grapes at the grocery store, so why is the age of a vine important when it comes to the wine that you drink? Interestingly, when grapes come from old vines they come with a handful of treats under the stems.
As all living things, vines grow and age with time. Approximately above 30 years of age, their wood becomes very thick, hard and less conductive of the nutrients and fluids necessary to maintain the vigor of the plant. As a result, the fruit production decays significantly over time. In average, a healthy young vineyard can produce up to 10,000 kilograms of grapes per hectare, which may translate into 8,000 bottles of wine or more. The yields decrease drastically for old vines, falling even to merely 1,000 kilograms for centenary-old vines. It is for this reason that most viticulturists pull out and replace their 30-year old wood by new vines.
So, what are the treats? Why do some winemakers decide to continue working with old vines in spite of their lower productivity? The reasons are varied and powerful, even justifying some winemakers investing tremendous efforts into recovering abandoned vineyards of more than a century of age and ridiculous yield levels.
First, roots also grow with time, and this usually becomes advantageous, particularly in areas with low rainfall levels, as the roots can dig down to large depths (more than 30 feet) in search of humidity and water stored in the subsoil. This makes then substantially more resistant to drought. This can be easily seen in many vineyards during the dry season, where leaves from old vines shine on a vivid green color while their suffering young pals fade in a struggling yellowish color instead. Deeper, more-spread-out roots also bring more nutrients and soil qualities, nurturing a perfect representation of a particular terroir (so valued in the wine world), as the plant achieves a complete symbiosis with the environment.
When it comes to the glass of wine, the decrease in productivity means that fewer grapes will grow on the vine, concentrating sugars, phenolics and other ingredients responsible for color, texture, body and taste in the remaining grapes. This leads to richer and more complex wines with higher potential to improve with further aging in the bottle. It is for this reason that wines from old vines are considered premium and sought after by many wine lovers.
Incidentally, vineyards a century or more old come with additional treats. The main one is that such vineyards were usually planted with vines of different varietal clones of a grape and many times with different grapes, what is known as natural coupage, including blends of red and white varieties. This increases the natural biodiversity in the vineyard, making it more resistance to diseases and pests, that guarantee a minimum production in times of need. It also provides authenticity, making these wines distinct from those coming from younger modern vineyards planted with the same exact grape clone, leading to wines that may taste the same across several producers.
In summary, if you have not tried an old vine wine, I strongly suggest that you do it. If you can, try one made from a century-old vineyard. You will not be drinking a wine alone; you will be enjoying 100 years of tradition and at least three generations of winemakers in your glass. And remember, wine is all about the experience!
At Winedos, we offer a great selection of wines from centenary-old vineyards accompanied by videos of the producers explaining the philosophy behind their elaboration. Indeed, one of these producers, Estela Lecea, from Bodegas Lecea of Rioja Alta, Spain, will visit us in Orlando on August 22, and we have prepared an event in Winter Park where she will present her recently published book about her exchange trip to a winery in Casablanca, Chile. She will discuss her experience and guide the tasting of three of her wines. Organic pizza and a glorious sparkling cava will also be offered to attendees, and a jazz quartet will entertain the evening. Ticket information here.