Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Historic Vineyard Society of Sonoma: Do old vines make better wine?

How many times have I asked this question, and how many different answers have I had? Sometimes a winemaker will look at you askance, as if you've voiced a heresy, but usually they treat the question seriously. 
120-year-old Tempranillo at Vega Sicilia, Ribera del Duero
Winemakers prize old vines for reasons that seem obvious but, on closer examination, are more complicated. It is assumed, for example, 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 up to five metres or more. The vine tends to produce far fewer bunches with smaller, concentrated grapes dense with flavour.

Above and below: 1891 Cabernet Sauvignon, Brothers in Arms,  Langhorne Creek, South Australia. Unusually, the vines were trained and not bush-grown, hence the contortions

So it would seem to be a given that old vines make better wine. But is that simply a question of yield, and if so, wouldn’t a 30-year-old vine, properly stressed and sparingly irrigated, produce grapes of equal intensity?

Some, like Walter Schug, who founded Sonoma’s Schug Winery in 1980, are in two minds.

‘Sometimes it’s a thing that’s praised too highly. It’s got great value in consumers’ imagination and  it increases value of the wine but it’s very rare that you can actually see the difference in the taste of the wine.’
Lytton Springs. Now irrigated
Schug’s point is that a 15-year-old vineyard with rigorously-controlled yields will produce grapes of equal quality to an ancient vineyard whose yields are controlled by age. ‘At 15 years old you can get as good a wine as at 70 years.’

An interesting perspective on the question comes from Bordeaux, where – at least in the Medoc – vines are routinely replaced at 45-50 years. Olivier Darcy, winemaker at Chateau Teyssier in Pomerol (where the oldest vines are 80-year-old Merlot), says it all depends on the roots. ‘Where the root system goes deep in search of water, the quality seems to be better.’

But, he adds, a 20-year-old vine with perfectly adapted rootstock in good terroir ‘will give a result that in a blind tasting that would be hard to distinguish from wine from an older vine.’

Crucially, Darcy says, there will be little difference between a 50-year-old vine and one twice the age. ‘The roots don’t go any deeper after 50 years.’

100+ years Zinfandel at Ridge's Lytton Springs Vineyard, Sonoma County
It’s in the New World that the oldest vines in the world can be found, and in Somoma, where vineyards date back to the 1880s, a group of wine professionals and keen amateurs formed the Historic Vineyard Society, an organisation dedicated to preserving not only Sonoma’s old plantings but old vines across California. The Society’s mission statement is simple: to ‘compile a comprehensive, fact-based and consistent directory of California’s Heritage Vineyards’. Jancis Robinson is on the board, as is David Gates, head of viticulture at Ridge.

The society has some 200 members to date. ‘They are trickling in slowly but surely,’ Gates says. The oldest are concentrated in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek and Russian River Valley. The Society lists 26 vineyards in Napa, 12 in Lodi and a handful in Paso Robles.

Old Hill Ranch, for example, was established in 1852 by William McPherson Hill, the first viticulturist to import non-Mission grapes into Sonoma. The HVS says Old Hill is ‘possibly the oldest continuously farmed vineyard in California.’

The vineyard’s page on the HVS website is a distillation of old Sonoma. The varietal composition of this 6.1ha (40 acre) parcel is 71% Zinfandel, 10% Grenache, 7% Alicante Bouchet, 2.5% Petite Sirah and Peloursin, 1.3% Grand Noir, 1.2% Tannat, 1% Mourvedre. Then, the HVS goes on, there are ‘1% various table grapes, 5 % Carignan, Syrah, Trousseau, French Columbard, Cinsaut, Charbono, Lenoir, Palomino, Chasselas, Tempranillo, Petite Bouchet, Muscat and various unknowns’.

Gates admits it can be difficult assessing  the age of a vineyard. ‘It can be really hard to tell when it was planted. If it’s over 50 years old you get a good sense, but documentation is important.’ Those vineyards that have had ‘good families’ running them are the easiest. ‘They had a lot of pride in their work and they kept records.’

The first vitis vinifera - a mix of varietals known as mission grapes, used for sacramental wine - were planted in Mexican-owned northern California by Franciscan missionaries in the 1770s. Those early vines were decimated by phylloxera, with the result that the oldest vines today date back to the replantings of the 1880s. Many of these vineyards are incredibly diverse. Zinfandel is a mainstay: early on vignerons recognized its adaptability, but, as HVS board member Mike Dildine says, ‘in the late 19th Century, vineyards were often planted as “field blends” containing a hodge-podge of grape varieties, typically including Zinfandel, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Alicante, Grand Noir, Tannat, French Colombard and many other miscellaneous and even unknown varieties.’

Vega Sicilia again
The greatest acreage of old vines is actually in the vast and fertile Lodi appellation in the Central Valley. But growers there can be resistant to signing up to a society like the HVS. ‘A grower may sell most of his grapes to a big winery, and keep a small old block to sell to others but he worries most about his contract with the bigger wineries.’

Similarly, the big wineries have little interest in their growers protecting their old plots as they are mostly interested in volume.

There is a resolution at present working its way through the California state legislature , but Gates says he prefers the ‘carrot not the stick’ approach: some sort of tax break, for example, but he admits that would be very complicated.

Whether the softly-softly approach works or not is a moot point. Even the most artisan of growers can be dismayingly cavalier, Gates says. After the 2012 vintage Andy Beckstoffer, one of Napa’s most renowned growers, pulled out a 60-year-old block of Petite Sirah in the Hayne Vineyard in Napa’s St Helena, to replace it with Cabernet Sauvignon. ‘It breaks my heart to pull those old vines out,’ he told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon BonnĂ©. ‘But we couldn't do it. On the upside, those soils will produce some outstanding Cabernet.’

1889 Genache, Tri-Centenary Vineyard, Yalumba,  Barossa Valley, South Australia
‘I would have liked to protect that,’ Gates says. ‘But it’s all about the economics.’

Then there was Trentadue in Alexander Valley, where about 350 vines of 1890s Carignane were removed ‘to square off a block. I tried to stop them, but there wasn’t much I could do.’

What the HVS tries to do is stress the viability of old vineyards. To qualify for HVS membership, a vineyard must be ‘currently producing’. Dildine clarified this: ‘Ultimately, vineyards can only be preserved if they are valued in the marketplace’. These are not museum pieces: the 200-plus listed vineyards on the registry provide grapes for some of America’s most famous wines.

Here is Monte Bello, for example, a 1.6ha (4 acre) parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon that is all that remains of a 1949 planting by a theologian from Stanford called William Short, subsequently bought by the group of families that founded Ridge Vineyards. ‘These blocks,’ the HVS says in a typical understatement,  ‘were part of the 1971 Monte Bello that showed well in the 1976 Judgment of Paris.’

Or Pagani Ranch, whose 100-year-old Zinfandel goes into Seghesio’s rich wines, or the ancient Alegria Vineyard, mainly Zinfandel but with a rainbow of other varieties – Alicante Bouschet, Negrette, Trousseau Noir, Petit Bouschet, Carignane, Petit Syrah.

The biographies accompanying each vineyard are evocative. You get a palpable sense of the pioneer grit behind these biblical lists of names and quill-pen transactions. Alegria ‘is part of the 1841 Sotoyome land grant from the Mexican governor of California to Henry Delano Fitch, an immigrant from Boston who married Josefa Carrillo, sister-in-law of General Mariano Vallejo…Summers Brumfield sold 85 acres… in 1895 to George Davis, who sold … in 1896 to Elizabeth Moes…Moes built a small winery on her property. After she died in 1924, her daughter Ernestine and son-in-law Adolph DiNucci maintained the vineyard during Prohibition and until 1943. The vineyard then passed through a series of owners…’

Old vineyards, then, are the business of the HVS, and its members’ definitive answer to the question of whether old vines make better wine can be summed up as: you don’t need old grapes to make great wine, but they can add depth, complexity and site-specifity.

There are many reasons, the HVS says, why this happens. Old vines are more resistant, less influenced by weather and fluctuations in temperature, their roots are deeper, their ability to absorb nutrients better. The grapes they produce tend to be more balanced and lower in alcohol.

Mike Officer, who makes wine from 90-year-old vines at Carlisle Vineyard, has studied the question.

‘Are old vines a prerequisite for making great wine? Obviously not. But when it comes to Zinfandel and the often associated mixed blacks, it certainly seems to help. In several of our old-vine vineyards in which we have replaced misses, we pick the replants separate from the old vines. We know the replants are in a great terroir. The replants are vigorously farmed. Yet, the juice chemistry is completely different from the old vines. Compared to the juice from the young vines, the old-vine fruit is simply much better balanced in terms of acids, sugars, potassium, and nutrients, resulting in a more complete and harmonious wine.’

He goes on, ‘The interesting question then is at what age will the replants produce wine equal to the old vines? Ten years? Twenty? Fifty? Hopefully I will find out in my lifetime.’

The answer, as with so many aspects of wine, lies in experimentation and accumulation of knowledge over generations. What is certain, in a region where the average age of a vine is 17 years, vineyards that have survived a century and more should be respected. As Walter Schug admits, there is a nobility to an old vine. ‘I walk past an ancient vineyard every day. It’s wonderful to see those old trunks.’

Tasting with David Gates at Lytton Springs
I meet David Gates on a perfect Sunday morning in February, at Ridge’s Lytton Springs vineyards in northern Sonoma. The vines up here are some of the oldest in California, with a bewildering mix of varietals: Zinfandel, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, Tinturier Grand Noir, Mataro, Grenache, Syrah, Petite Sirah and some scattered white varieties, Picpoul, Burger, Palomino. About 5% of that particular block went into Ridge’s Lytton Springs 2011. ‘It’ll make it into the 2012 as well,’ Gates says.

In the cellars at Lytton Springs we taste the 2012s in barrel, some ‘mixed blacks’ from old vines, then the Lytton Springs Zinfandel blend, a Petite Sirah, and Carignane planted in the 1940s, all in American oak. We contrast it with Zinfandel from a block they call the east bench, planted in 2000 and 2001. In another comparison, we taste Zinfandel from the Ponzo vineyard in the Russian River Valley – one barrel from a block planted in 1952, and another from ten-year-old vines.

In general, the old vines show bright dark fruit and sweet, dense, very present, lush and juicy tannins with no dryness at all. When it comes to the younger vines, the fruit is brighter and sweeter but there’s a marked contrast in the tannins, which are dryer, firmer, and chalkier than the tannins from their older cousins. I would not say either wine is superior.

‘There is less on the mid palate with younger vines,’ is Gates’s opinion. ‘The tannins show more, and the fruit is brighter and more lifted.’
Lytton Springs

This article appears in modified form in the latest Meininger's Wine Business International

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