Saturday, July 20, 2013

Old Vines, Fine Wines, My Vines

A single bunch this year.

I live on a lovely street in West Los Angeles, where the 50+ year-old Chinese Elm trees provide a beautiful canopy that adds to the charm of our neighborhood.  Sadly, these trees are reaching the end of their life, and many of them are simply falling down, as their aging roots can no longer support their hefty weight. Fortunately, my local government is replacing them with young, strong trees that should grow and produce lovely shade for the next 50 years.

This circle of life, if you will, is similar to that of a vineyard. Grape vines also reach old age at around 50 years (up to 100 years in rare cases), by which time they generally stop producing enough fruit to be commercially viable. Viticulturists often choose to pull out the old vines and replant young, strong ones.

In the wine industry, the term “old vines” is used to market wines to a discerning audience, and generally refers to wines produced from vines aged 20 to 50 years. For a variety of reasons, these vines may not be at their peak in terms of production quantity, but their production quality is such that they can produce some of the finest and priciest wines in the world. 

The term “old vine” is subjective, says Los Olivos, Calif.-based Larry Schaffer, owner and winemaker of award-winning Tercero Wines (  He says that in California and elsewhere in the world, old vines are those that are close to 100 years old. But in Santa Barbara County [where Tercero is based] the oldest are only 50 years old, and most are 20-30 years old, or younger. “In general, the older the vine, the less fruit it produces, and the conventional wisdom is that these make more concentrated and complex wines. I’m not sure if that is the case or not,” Schaffer admits.

Not everyone concurs that older vines make better wines. There are those who believe a vineyard’s best wines are produced in the first or second year of production when, similar to old vines, yields are still quite low.

About three to six years after planting a vineyard will begin producing its highest yields and reach a stabilization period. As long as pests, disease, water (too little or too much), minerals, and other contributing factors are managed properly, the vineyard can be maintained for quite a long time. It’s rare, however, to have any crop ever untouched by pests or other maladies in its lifespan. Vineyard management is a high-stakes business.

Trader Joe's "Old Vine" Offerings
I wasn’t thinking about this a few years ago when I purchased two grape vines from a winery in Paso Robles, Calif. I just wanted to grow grapes and live my dream of being a vintner, albeit on a teeny tiny scale. So I planted the vines in my back yard, and thus far, over three years, the vines have produced as follows: Year 1, a few bunches on each vine; Year 2, zero bunches on each vine (sad, so I pruned back the vines thinking this would help); Year 3 (now), one bunch is going strong (see photo at top). This year’s grapes have just begun to ripen, turning purple (known as véraison in viticulture-speak), and I should be able to squeeze out one half glass of wine (varietal unknown) this fall!

In the meantime, I’ve been pondering the “Old Vine” designation. Schaffer advises to try a bunch of old vine wines and compare them with same vintage/same vineyard/newer vines to make your own determination. That’s my plan and I’m going to stick to it!

A quick perusal at Trader Joe’s turned up a couple old vine wines: Old Moon Old Vine Zinfandel 2011 and Ravens Wood Old Vine Zinfandel Vintners Blend 2010, at just $5.99 and $7.99, respectively. I’ll be tasting a few dozen French and Spanish wines this weekend at a Wine House ( tasting, and hope to sample some old vines there.

Until next time, Cheers!

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