You may have seen the term “old vine” or “vieille vignes” on your wine label and wondered why it matters. Though there’s no legal definition, it usually means the vines are older than 25 years, but preferably over 50 or even 100.
These wines are rarer because the older a vine gets, the less fruit it produces. Farmers often rip up their older vines to plant new, young ones, which will produce more grapes, leading to more wine and more income. But the fact the term is highlighted in marketing means that, despite the reduced output, the wine is felt to embody superior characteristics.
“Old vines make great wine,” says Sarah Abbot, Master of Wine and co-founder of the Old Vine Conference.
“This is partly because the balance, intensity and complexity of the grapes, and therefore the wine, from old vines can be so much better. It’s also partly because these heritage vineyards attract the greatest talents in wine. These ancient vineyards are like muses to winemakers”.
Abbot co-founded the Old Vine Conference, which ran in London last week, alongside Alun Griffiths MW and Leo Austin with the aim of creating a new category for wine from heritage vineyards as well as supporting farmers and producers who nurture older vines.
“It’s tempting for wine geeks to assume that viticulture is too technical to be interesting to normal human,” she says. “But part of the value of old vines is that they embody the stories of nature, families and makers in a way that is living, and relatable.
“Heritage and culture have become more precious after the fractured time of the pandemic: we value our roots. The mark that we make on our land as we live our lives and grow our food concerns so many people”.
Old Vine wines can range from the premium price points of Bodega Numanthia, Termanthia 2012 (£250, Great Wine Company) to the more affordable. One of my favourite wines to get a party started is Ken Forrester’s Sparklehorse (£26.50, Great Wine Company), a sparkling Chenin Blanc making use of South Africa’s old vines left over from their brandy days, and the excellent Catena Zapata, Malbec Argentino 2018 (£76, Harvey Nichols).
Those passionate about old vines feel they represent the future of wine, because they contain genetic material that can help combat climate change, ensure resilience and protect biodiversity.
The IWSC Foundation (the charitable arm of the International Wine & Spirit Competition) has awarded a grant to the Heritage Vines of Turkey to help it recuperate some of its more geriatric vineyards, while South Africa and Chile have already seen successful initiatives to market wines with a designated ‘heritage vineyard’ category.
“All old vine wine projects benefit the farmers who tend these vineyards using traditional techniques that would otherwise die out,” says Abbott. “So there’s a sense of doing good, while drinking good”.
• Go to oldvines.org for more info
Wines of the week
Domaine des Tourelles Old Vines Carignan 2019, £18, Flagship Wines
Too often Lebanese wine flies under the radar but these 70 year old, organically farmed, old Carignan vines create a structured, sophisticated and slightly austere wine of cranberries, figs and liquorice. Deliciously grown up.
Storm Pinot Noir, Ridge, 2019, £29, Justerini & Brooks
South Africa’s Hemel en Aarde produces many exceptionally elegant wines, but Storm Wine’s Ridge is a particularly special site. This complex Pinot Noir is an unfolding pleasure from start to finish.
Palmer & Co, Grand Terroirs 2015, £74, The Finest Bubble
I feel like Champagne Palmer & Co can do no wrong at the moment. This latest release is another silky, creamy treat with delicate citrus notes dancing over warm brioche and refined, effervescent bubbles.
Journey’s End Destination Chardonnay 2019, £25.50, Noble Green Wines
Only produced in the best years, this lovely rich, rounded white wine takes me back to sunnier months with its ripe peaches, orange blossoms and whispers of vanilla spice. Take a sip, close your eyes and be whisked off to sun-warmed South African vineyards.
Domaine Bousquet Cameleón Organic Malbec 2021, £15.99, Majestic
Argentina makes great Malbec and it’s crowd-pleasing for a reason. This sumptuous red is organic and slips down a treat with its ripe red fruits and spice. A perfect winter warmer for those chilly evenings.