Better with Age: The Importance of Old Vines
In wine and in people, age is an incredibly valuable asset. In wines, a greater age is often considered a great boon, allowing the flavors to develop, smooth, and richen. In people, just as Mike has said, age brings wisdom only attainable through lived experience. Vines are very similar to human beings in that regard! Still, many people have questions about this ‘old vine’ phenomenon, and we’re here to answer them.
What Makes a Vine ‘Old’?
While there is no real definition as to what constitutes an ‘old vine,’ there are some standards that are generally accepted. Most viticulturists agree that a vineyard fifty years old or more has earned the title of ‘Old Vine.’ Though, as there is no certifying body that regulates the use of this term, it is not uncommon to find ‘old vine’ wines that come from vines 30-40 years of age.
It’s usually pretty easy to see the difference between an old and young vine as well. Take a look at the pair of pictures to the right, one of vines around 20 years old, and the other a single vine over 60 years old. Gnarled, thick wood, like the one on the right exhibits, is a surefire way to spot an old vine among the young’uns.
What are the Benefits of Old Vines?
It is widely agreed in the world of wine that older plants produce grapes of unmatched depth of flavor, complexity, and concentration when compared to their younger counterparts. However, this can be a double-edged sword – the vines are producing those enhanced, concentrated flavors because they are producing fewer grape clusters overall.
Returning to the analogy of vines and people, consider the amount of care one has to give to a young child or teenager, compared to a fully-grown adult. Vines are similar in that they need quite a bit of babying when they’re younger! Protection against drought, pests, herbivores, and other common threats is a necessity in those first couple decades, before the vines have established themselves.
Old vines, on the other hand, are far more resilient and independent. Decades of care and growth can lead to root systems that extend up to 30 feet under the ground, allowing them to access deep reserves of water even when faced with a drought. A more robust frame and thicker bark make them more resistant to damage from pests and grazing.
Why are Old Vines Rare?
The simple answer is profit. In the Napa Valley especially, you would be hard-pressed to locate a vine that is older than 30 years, because most winemakers choose to rip out and replant after a vine starts reaching those more advanced ages. This is because around that time in a vine’s life, they will start to decline in their production, eventually plateauing at a yield that is far lower than they would produce in their younger years.
Thus, many believe it makes more fiscal sense to replant frequently. A smaller harvest means less money, right? However, this is not a sentiment we share. We allow all of our vines to grow as long as possible, not only for the improvement in the quality of the grapes being produced, but also for the vigor and independence they exhibit. We are almost totally hands-off in the growing of these vines – just the way nature intended!
Does Grgich Hills Own Any Old Vine Vineyards?
We do! Two of our five estate vineyards contain sections of vines planted more than fifty years ago. The first of these is our Yountville vineyard, of which 25 acres are old Cabernet Sauvignon vines used to produce our Yountville Selection Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon. We also own 9 acres of old vine Zinfandel, which is exclusively used in the production of our Miljenko’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel.
The Origins of Our Old Vines
The Paradise Block
In Mike’s first year in America, he often took a bus that trundled up and down the still underdeveloped Napa Valley. As he passed through the small town of Yountville, a particular vineyard caught his eye. It grew less than a mile from where George Yount planted the first vines in the region and created the inaugural vintage of Napa Valley wine. The location seemed perfect to Mike for the growing of Cabernet Sauvignon specifically, so it was with great anguish when he noticed one day that those old vines were being ripped from the earth in order to accommodate for the rerouting of a highway.
Thankfully, they were replanted the year after, in 1959, and Mike was able to purchase them for his own winery many years later. Those vines, which planted their roots in the Napa Valley at around the same time as Mike, have continued to hold a special place in his heart. He moved into a house located amidst the vines not long after the purchase and named those rows of aged vines his ‘Paradise Block.’ To him, this location in the heart of the Napa Valley, where he’d found success and fulfillment in so many ways, was nothing short of a paradise on Earth.
Through fires, floods, and even American Prohibition, the ancient Zinfandel vines of our Calistoga vineyard have persisted. The lore of these vines is a bit murky- even Mike Grgich himself is unsure of who exactly planted them, only that they did so around 1889. Research has led us to believe that they were planted by missionaries back in the day, to serve as communion wine for their patrons. This is actually why they were able to sneak through the Prohibition Era, when many vineyards throughout Napa Valley were ripped out!
Mike had known about this vineyard since his tenure at Chateau Montelena and considered the Zinfandel it produced to be the best he’d ever tasted. When he purchased it in 1997, he built his dream home on the hill that looked down upon those century-old vines. Perhaps it was his close proximity to enduring organisms such as these that have allowed him to reach the grand age of 100 years himself.
The best way to experience the difference an Old Vine can make is to taste it for yourself- do a little side-by-side tasting comparing your favorite varietal in older and younger vine iterations! The two old vine wines that we offer, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, are a perfect reflection of the quality that only comes with a bit of age. Find them here