This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Sep. 17, 2007 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20070917.php.
How old are old vines?
It is one of the generally accepted truths of wine appreciation that grapes grown on very old vines - gnarled and thick-trunked and deeply rooted - make exceptional wine.
It might surprise you to learn, though, that there's no legal definition of the term. Producers are free to publish "old vines" on the label of any wine, with no penalty other than perhaps the scorn of consumers who catch on to cases of abuse.
In general, many producers voluntarily limit the term to vines with at least 35 years of age, although this is by no means hard and fast. In California, where "old vines" most often attaches to truly ancient Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and other old classic varieties, it's not uncommon to see vine ages of 80 to 100 years or even older. In Australia, the Tahbilk winery still makes a Shiraz from vines planted in 1860; and Champagne's house of Bollinger boasts a tiny plot of pre-phylloxera vines dating back to the 1800s.
At the other end of the time spectrum, the fruit from very young wines isn't considered ideal for top-notch wine, and in France and other European wine regions, wine laws typically forbid the use of grapes from vines before their third to fifth year. For the next two or three decades, vines are thought of as "adult" and their fruit may be used freely, although even then, many producers use only their older wines for the property's top wines, reserving the fruit of the young vines for less pricey "second labels."
After 40 or 50 years, though, grape vines - like people, perhaps - start to slow down physically even as their "wisdom" grows. Very old vines produce relatively little fruit, to the point where growers - particularly corporate owners focused on the balance sheet - consider ripping out the under-performing old vines and replacing them with younger, more vigorous plants that will make more wine.
What's more, the experts don't even fully agree on what mechanism enhances old-vines fruit. One widely accepted hypothesis holds that the roots of ancient vines have reached so deep (sometimes 30 feet or more) that they are unusually effective at contributing trace elements of terroir - the minerality of the soil - to the wine.
Others suggest that the declining vitality of older vines simply reduces the yield of grapes, concentrating the vine's efforts into relatively few grapes of commensurately great flavor and intensity.
And, as in almost every debate on any topic, you'll find a few nay-sayers who insist that old vines don't make better wine at all, warning that vigorous young plants naturally produce more fruity, flavorful beverage than sickly, leafless geriatric vines. (In fairness, it should be noted that old-vines wines tend to be mineral-driven, earthy wines, intense but not fruit-forward, so those who love "fruit bombs" may want to steer clear.)
Today's featured wine, Gnekow 2004 "Campus Oaks" Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel from Gnekow Family Winery, offers a fine, affordable example of the genre. The back label speaks of 88-year-old vines; the winery Website indicates that it's sourced from four vineyards that average 90 years in age. Either way, they're certifiably ancient, and I'd rate the wine as a fine example of the old-vines style and a very good value. My tasting report is below.
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Gnekow 2004 "Campus Oaks" Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel
Very dark reddish-purple with a clear garnet edge. Good, classic Zin bramble fruit, blackberries and raspberries, full but stops short of "jamminess," with subtle brown spices on the nose and palate that accentuate the fruit. Ripe, juicy berries, so much fruit that the first taste gives the impression of sweetness, but good structural acidity and 14.1 percent alcohol, appropriate for a Zin, come together in a dry, well-balanced finish. Very good Zin, intense but not over-the-top, a fine example of the classic style. (Sept. 16, 2007)
FOOD MATCH: Zin is always fine with steaks or burgers, particularly from the grill. Its forward fruit made it a fine match, too, with a meatless alternative, a hearty bowl of homemade macaroni and cheese with plenty of sharp Cheddar and a touch of Parmigiano Reggiano.
VALUE: Mine came as a monthly club offering from California Wine Club, a longtime associate that consistently wins my applause for value from small, quality California producers. At retail prices in the low to middle teens, Gnekow Family Cellars wines in general, and Campus Oaks in particular, deliver good value.
WHEN TO DRINK: Wine enthusiasts continue an ongoing debate about whether to enjoy Zin young and fresh or to cellar it for years and watch it mature into more subtle, Claret-like character. I'm in the "drink it young" camp, but that being said, there's still plenty of life left in this 2004.
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