We’ve all seen Vieilles Vignes or Viñas Viejas on the bottle – but what does it really mean, asks Margaret Rand
The oldest vines in the world are often to be found in the New World. Australia’s Barossa Valley has 125 year-old (and older) vines, now classified as ‘Ancestor’ vines. Over in Victoria, Chateau Tahbilk’s 1860 Vines Shiraz is just that, wine made from Shiraz vines planted over 150 years ago.
Very old vines are rare: most wine vines in Europe and the New World were killed by the phylloxera epidemic which started in the late 19th century.
Concentrated, dense flavour
Winemakers prize old vines. Many consider that the older the vine, the better the wine. The root system on a 100-year-old vine, depending on the type of soil, can be extraordinarily deep; in loose soils, gravel or loam, they can go down five metres or more. The vine tends to produce far fewer bunches with smaller, concentrated grapes dense with flavour.
The downside is that they give fewer grapes as they age – which is why commercial vineyards across the world tend to uproot and replant once vines hit 25 or 30. Those that have survived have generally done so because fashion passed them by.
That’s what happened in the surviving old vineyards of Spain’s Ribera del Duero, for example: they were planted for family use only, and nobody bothered much about them. In the Barossa a government-sponsored vine-pull scheme was efficiently getting rid of old vines before somebody pushed the ‘stop’ button just in time.
Saving historic vines
Now the Barossa has an Old Vine Charter for protecting its oldest inhabitants (they start qualifying at 35 years), and California’s Sonoma Valley has the Sonoma Historic Vineyard Society to do the same job. But each region has to decide its own parameters, because there is no generally accepted definition of ‘old’, and you might see the phrase ‘Vieilles Vignes’ or ‘Viñas Viejas’ on the labels of wines made from 30-year-old vines – which might be stretching a point.
South Africa, proud of its old vine heritage, has just introduced its own Old Vine Project; a logo will appear on bottles from 2018 (the criterion here is 35 years plus). Many of the old vineyards identified so far are in remote, isolated spots in Swartland, Olifants River, Paarl, Stellenbosch and the Northern Cape where, again, they were just one crop among many, and have survived through neglect. So far 2,640 hectares have been identified, with 38 different varieties – mostly ones that are storming back into fashion: chenin blanc, semillon, cinsault and grenache.
And the oldest vine in the world? That’s in Slovenia, in the town of Maribor, where a zametovka vine was proved in 1972 to be at least 375 years old. It’s in the Guinness Book of Records, and its grapes make wine every year.
Five old-vine wines
1860 Shiraz 2006, Chateau Tahbilk ,Victoria, Australia A brooding, powerful mouthful of supple, layered fruit and spice. Plenty of tannins, and plenty of finesse too. Keep it for venison. £110 av
Kindred Cinsault 2014, Boutinot South Africa, Stellenbosch, South Africa From 70-year-old vines; a rich, deep, earthy, red-fruited wine of great precision and detail. £10.79 av
Geyserville 2014, Ridge Vineyards, Alexander Valley, California The Old Patch block of the Geyserville vineyard is over 130 years, and Geyserville is a mixed planting of Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah and Mourvedre – the popular vines of their day. It has intense blackberry and cherry fruit, far more complex and grown-up than most Zins. (FMV) £31 av
Sei Solo 2014, Ribera del Duero, Spain Javier Zaccagnini selects old parcels of Tempranillo for this and ages it in old oak, for elegance and concentration without the flashiness of so much Ribera del Duero but with notes of wild herbs and flowers. £22 av
Semillon 2005, Boekenhoutskloof, Franschhoek, South Africa From two blocks, one of 63 years and one of 103 years. A glorious quince-and-herbs white, tight and powerful, mineral and silky. £24 av
Wines available from Armit, Boutinot, FMV, Justerini & Brooks, New Generation McKinley