What are old vines for you?
I’ve been meaning to write about old vines for quite some time now. What they are? How old they should be? Are common questions that I usually get asked in my wine courses.
You’ve certainly seen on several wine bottle labels the words - Vinhas Velhas (old vines in Portuguese). And perhaps in your own way you might have imagined low vines with a wide and crooked trunk and a few bunches of grapes hanging from them.
Old vines are not as common. They have typically been replaced by young and more productive vines that produce a higher quantity of grapes per year. There are also incentives in place by the European Community to provide monetary support in the tearing down of old vines to plant new ones.
Recently there was an online conference completely dedicated to the subject. I heard from winegrowers and winemakers from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Lebanon, South Africa, and the US who shared their knowledge and approach to old vines. And I became even more excited about the theme.
The Old Vine Conference Limited is a non-profit company. The purpose is to bring together the wine industry and wine lovers because there is a need to build a global wine category for Old Vine wines, they inform on their website.
“The claim of ‘old vine’ on wine labels is still dismissed by some wine communicators as unsubstantiated fluff. Our own qualitative research indicated that even highly engaged wine enthusiasts, and many wine professionals, are unaware of the value of and threat to old vines. (source: The Old Vine Conference)”
The speakers defended new agricultural practices in the vineyard intending to regenerate old vineyards and the potential of a young vineyard becoming more senior.
The importance of winter pruning with small cuts to regenerate the vine in the next cycle in terms of new wood, respecting the flow of the sap, and making it more energetic and productive, even if it's “old.”
Remember that the grapevine is a wild plant and if the winegrower wants to tame it, similar to a wild animal in a circus, it will lose its personality, probably produce little fruit or stop producing (old vine). That’s why it is necessary to interpret each vine and not the vineyard as a whole to understand where it wants to grow to become a healthy adult or a “happy old lady in the eyes of the man.”
The objective of the conference was, as I mentioned before, to alert you to the fact that old vines are not visible or recognized in the eyes of the consumer and it is necessary to change that.
“The structure of the global wine industry stacks the odds against the regenerative commercial viability of old vines. As a result, healthy old vineyards of cultural resonance and unique qualitative potential are lost because they can’t be made to pay.” (source: The Old Vine Conference).
Why should you and I care?
Old vineyards are a heritage that must be preserved. There is a rich variety of grapes and indigenous yeasts that promote smooth fermentation.
The winemakers at the conference also said that they (an old vine) are easy grapes to vinify, that the
wines taste genuinely different, and that they have big character.
You might also ask - are old vine wines more expensive than other wines? Most of the time yes, but much less than what you might be thinking. Old vine wines are usually more expensive than other wine types because many of those vines produce fewer grapes and the cost of labor is also higher (pruning, manual harvesting, etc.).
At the conference, some winemakers stated that they only increased the price of their old vines wines by 30%.
For us not to lose all of this forever, it is necessary to identify the old vines and protect them, which involves identifying the wines and then promoting them. These wines can even raise the name of a producer or region and be the differentiating factor.
In the end, no conclusion was reached at what age a vineyard becomes old.
If you ask the question, you will receive several answers, and each grape producer, winegrower, or winemaker will give an answer based on their region and professional experience.
However, let me say that we Portuguese should be proud of the fact that the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP) took the first steps in December 2020, in the creation of the quality designation of old vines, Vinhas Velhas, for wines of Denomination of Controlled Origin (DOC) Douro, Douro Regional and Port Wine.
The vines must have some characteristics for the wine to pass the certification of the chamber of tasters and be able to bear this new designation on the label.
Over 40 years of age
5 thousand grapevines per hectare
A minimum of four varieties
It’s a big step towards organizing and enhancing Portuguese wine heritage.
Have you had any old vine wine (Vinhas Velhas)? What was it and from what region? Let me know in the comments below.
Photo: old vine at Herdade Barranco do Vale (Algarve).