Erik Neilson on February 20, 2017 0 Comments Anyone who shops for wine on even a semi-regular basis has no doubt encountered the term “old vine” at one point or another. It’s commonly associated with Zinfandel (especially Zins from California), but the terminology gets utilized in a number of different circumstances — and not always accurately. Understandably, some have come to associate wines that feature the term “old vines” with higher quality, but is that really the case? Whether you’re new to the term or you’ve been buying old vine wines for years, it’s helpful to clarify a few things before the next time you find yourself in the wine aisle. Defining “Old Vines” As a blanket term, “old vine” describes exactly what it sounds like. When vines are planted, it takes approximately three years before grapes populate that are adequate for production. You’ve likely noticed that no wineries advertise young vines on their labels. This is in large part due to the fact that older, seasoned wineries tend to be respected more thoroughly than those who are new to the industry, and advertising old vines or even the date that the vines were planted right on the bottle can actually go a long way. Here, however, is where it can be difficult to determine whether the vines behind a bottle of wine are truly “old” or if there’s simply a great deal of marketing at play. As of today, there is no legal definition of “old” when it comes to using the term to describe vines. A winery could easily say that their vines are “old” because they’ve surpassed a decade in age, for example, in which case they would be describing something quite different from a winery that planted its vines 50 or 60 years ago. As stated earlier, it bodes well for a winery to market itself as being old, classic and established. Thus, the terminology used on a bottle may be more of an advertising technique than it is a reliable signpost of quality. Only if the actual date that the vines were planted finds itself on the label can you expect to know whether or not you’re truly getting a bottle of “old vine” wine. What Characterizes Wine from Old Vines? It’s one thing to purchase a bottle of wine because the age of the vines is an indicator of an established winery, but does age actually make a difference in terms of taste and smell? In many cases, the answer to this question is “yes.” Take a moment to consider the differences in length between old and young vines. Typically, new vines grow from roots that are approximately six feet in length. Old vines, however, can feature roots as long as 25 feet, which means they’re digging much deeper into the soil than newer vines. As one might expect, deep roots can actually come along with a number of positive connotations. Take moisture levels, for example. Many wine lovers are familiar with vintages that were wet to the point of ruining any chances of quality wine production, which typically is more of an issue for newer vines than older varietals. Why? The shallow roots of new vines tend to soak up water much faster and more efficiently than old vines, as rain water doesn’t make it down to the deeper roots found in old vine vineyards. The same concept actually applies during excessively dry years, when younger vines don’t typically get the moisture they need in order to thrive. Old vines are capable of tapping into buried moisture supplies, which is why they’re often considered to be “smarter” than young vines. Another reason why old vines are often considered even by experts to be preferable to new vines is in relation to complexity, much of which has to do with terroir. When a vine has matured to the point of having roots as long as 25 feet, it will travel through many different layers of soil. Each new layer breached by these vines adds its own level of subtle complexities, which simply don’t get picked up by shorter, younger vines. In this way, young vine wines are often monophonic in character, while old vine wines can be enjoyed in stereo. Finally, the age of a vine can have a significant impact on its fruit bearing capabilities. In general, younger vines tend to produce large clusters of grapes, which certainly isn’t a bad thing but can impact the intensity of the fruit’s flavor. Old vines, on the other hand, tend to produce far smaller clusters of grapes, and they tend to be more concentrated in flavor. Note that the age of the vines and the term “old vine” has nothing to do with over-ripening the grapes as a method of increasing flavor concentrations, which results in a very different type of wine. Is Old Vine Wine Better? With so many wineries moving in the direction of adding “old vine” and similar terms to their labels, it makes sense to think that wine produced from old vines is verifiably better than that produced from young vines. In some cases (particularly with Zinfandel), this may actually be true. What’s important to realize, though, is that “old vine” in and of itself is not a true signpost for quality. There are plenty of exceptionally well made wines that come from vines which have just recently been established, and the fruit-forward characteristics of young wine can actually be more in line with some people’s’ interests than the dark, complex character of old vines. If you’ve never purchased a bottle of “old vine” wine, choose one that features the actual date the vines were planted, which is often listed on the back of the label. This will help to ensure that your first experience with old vine wine isn’t just a factor of marketing and that you’re actually getting the real thing. If possible, do a side-by-side comparison of two wines produced from the same grape — one old vine, one new vine. Chances are, you’re going to notice a marked difference between the two.