In this series on wine myths, Darren Smith sets out to debunk some commonly held assumptions about wine and its production
The root, so to speak, of the old-vine phenomenon can be accurately traced. In 1969, on the advice of English wine writer Cyril Ray, Champagne Bollinger introduced a new cuvée using three small plots of pre-phylloxera Pinot Noir. They called this blanc de noirs ‘Vieilles Vignes Francaises’ and it became the iconic champagne of the Bollinger house.
Since the success of this cuvée, vieilles vignes (alte reben in Germany, vinhas velhas in Portugal and so on) has become a common sight on wine bottles from Old World regions. The problem is that there is absolutely no legislation or even agreement on what counts as old?
Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises 2007
Vines were propagated by the traditional ‘layering’ system; following harvest, canes which have borne fruit are bent over and buried in the ground where they root and thus generate a new vine.
This interpretation is a vintage Champagne with extended time on lees made from two pre-phylloxera, walled grand cru Pinot Noir plots in Aÿ.
Henri Jayer once said it’s only when vines reach 40 that they become interesting. Rosa Kruger’s Old Vine project in South Africa defines old as ‘any vine of 35 years or over’. In Alsace, Olivier Humbrecht MW of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht notes that winemakers have settled on 25 years and over. ‘For me it is more a behaviour,’ he says. ‘Sometimes vines can ‘behave’ like old ones at 20 and some other are still crazy at 50 years old.’
The awkward reality is that there is no agreement and no regulation of the term ‘old vine’ which would differentiate 20-year-old vines from centenarian ones. The result is that vieilles vignes is more often than not pure marketing sleight-of-hand.
Even if there is agreement on whether the vines are old, for some wines, it does not even matter. Rhône winemaker Eric Texier notes that old vines are not always necessary, and certainly not sufficient, for making good wine. He claims that for some varieties, like Grenache for example, old vines are preferable; for others, like Roussanne, it makes no difference. What’s more important than vine age is good massal selection.
It would be foolhardy to deny that older vines – with their associated lower yields and more concentrated fruit – tend to make more interesting wines, but our appreciation must be qualified by understanding. A very recent study from the German Geisenheim University raises some fundamental questions on the subject.
Researcher Khalil Bou Nader and head of viticulture Dr Manfred Stoll, who conducted the study*, planted an experimental Riesling vineyard in the Rheingau. Then they evaluated the impact of vine age on plant and fruit development, compared identical planting material planted at three different times: 1971, 1995 and 2012.
One of the findings was that for individual vines around 20 and 40 years old, the physiological behaviour, productivity and berry composition was around the same, and that declining yield had more to do with trunk diseases than anything else during this age range.
This is not to say vieilles vignes is a completely spurious concept. Undoubtedly, the tendency is for older vines to have deeper, denser root systems, to be more resistant to drought and frost, and to produce smaller yields of more concentrated fruit and better wines. But the vieilles vignes label can be misleading. Moreover, it’s also possible that, between a certain age range, the age of the vine may make no difference at all.
*While this specific study only looked at one vintage, Nader has conducted a more in-depth study looking at three consecutive vintages (2014-2017). At the time of writing, the findings were awaiting publication in the European Journal of Agronomy.