Better With Age … Not Quite
The terms “Vielles Vignes” or “old vines” have become to the wine industry what buzzwords like “superfood”, “natural” and “organic” are to products on the supermarket shelves; terms that sound impressive to the consumers and get the cash registers ringing, but beyond enabling a price premium to be achieved, does it really make any discernible difference to the quality of the offering?
Now I should declare my cynicism towards marketing hoo-ha at the outset. On the scoffer spectrum I probably lie somewhere between conspiracy theorist and garden-variety skeptic, but having sampled any number of rather ordinary wines made from fruit born of golden oldie vines, I began to wonder if the “Vielles Vignes” tag was more marketing hocus-pocus than maturity in focus?
So just how old do vines need to be in order to claim the “old vine” tag? Well, the answer is a pineapple. Because as far as I can tell, there aren’t really any hard and fast rules that apply with any degree of uniformity. Although the claim is occasionally disputed, Australia’s Barossa Valley is home to some of the oldest (if not the oldest) vines in the world. After phylloxera wiped out most of the Old World’s root-stock in the late 1800’s, the vines planted by early settler viticulturalists in the Barossa valley in the 1840’s became, by default, the most senior vines on the planet. And to their credit, the Barossa Valley winemakers have at least attempted to impose on themselves some regulation around the use of claims to the age of their vineyards.
The Barossa Grape and Wine Association had the good sense to establish a so-called “Old Vine Charter” which requires vines to be over 35 years of age in order to use the old vine mantle, while vines that are over 125 years of age are entitled to be referred to as “Ancestor Vines”. And buried in the detail of the manuscript is the concession that sceptics like me will cling to in order to support the ideology of our prejudice. According to the Barossarian charter, “We would like to note here that whilst vine age may often be used as an indicator of potential quality, it is not a prerequisite for quality, just as variety, region or maker does not, by itself, create a superior wine. What is generally accepted is that Old Vines go through the ripening process more effectively”. Ah-ha! No wonder some of the young reds I’ve seen out of the region are just as good as those from the sun hardened gnarly ancestors in the back paddocks!
Grape vines generally have low fruit yields and less canopy (leaf growth) in their youth and through their life cycle, this state of affairs returns as vines age when despite their well established root system, the balance of leaf and low fruit returns. Maybe this happy co-incidence explains why some young wines are just as enjoyable as their ancestors?
Torbreck Woodcutters Shiraz 2017
One of the best value Barossa reds that I’m enjoying at the moment is the Torbreck Woodcutters Shiraz 2017. While the Torbreck viticulturalists have been entrusted with some of the oldest vineyards in the Valley, their entry level shiraz is made from their less mature vines but is drinking exceptionally well for a product that hits the shelves at less than $25 a bottle. There’s a touch of the Rhone is the texture and complexity of the 2017 iteration Torbreck’s entry level shiraz offering. On the palate, rich blackberry and liquorice flavours embrace a crushed sea-shell edge as it drives through a lingering seasoned oak laced finale.
Not a word on the label about old vines, ancestors or vielles vignes, yet it’s drinking just as well as many of the more expensive Barossa shiraz that have the fingerprints of marketing and sales consultants emblazoned across their labels! My advice; old vines can produce great wines, but so too can the youngsters, and normally without the premium price tag!