Are “old vines” really old?

Chances are, you’ve bought a wine with the term “old vines”, or “vieilles vignes“, on the label. But when can a vineyard really be considered “old”?

Old vines imageA vine is not unlike a human being. When it is young, between four and eight years old, it has the charms of childhood and the wines are usually mild and full of freshness. Between eight and 14, it reaches adolescence: it grows in all directions and is difficult to control. The viticulturist needs to tame the vineyard to prevent it from producing weak grapes without personality.

After this phase, the vine enters maturity and becomes an adult. As it ages, the roots grow deeper into the soil in search of the nutrients it needs, producing concentrated and flavoursome fruit, with a balanced acid and sugar (and therefore alcohol) potential. This effect is enhanced by the natural decline in yield of an ageing vineyard, which explains why some growers who are obsessed with high returns will easily sacrifice their “old” vineyards for profitability.

The term “old vines” is a real symbol of quality, but it is not protected and some winemakers abuse it. However, the age of a vine is a relative concept and like any human being, some will age faster than others… To complicate matters, this also depends on the grape variety and wine region.

When a winemaker uses the term “old vines” on a label, it may simply mean that the wine is produced from the oldest vines (or not so young) on their property. New producers may believe that the first block that was planted 25 years ago, deserves to be recognised. But this will make the Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers laugh, with vines older than 60 or 80 years (some even over 100 years) commonly found in many parts of the area.

The way in which we treat a vine also influences its longevity. A vineyard that is required to produce big yields every year will tire faster than one yielding a reasonable load. A vineyard harvested by machine (harshly shaken every year) also “wrinkles” faster than one harvested by hand.

When buying wine, do not hesitate to ask a winemaker the age of the vineyard when there is mention of “old vines” on the label. And remember, no matter the region, a vineyard under 25 years cannot reasonably be considered “old”. While the term may be used from 30 to 40 years, beyond 40 or 50 years a vineyard finally enters the world of real “old vines”, with the subsequent increase in quality.


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