Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Mature 35-year-old vines in S.L.V. Block 4.
Does Vine Age Matter?
If you read wine labels, one of the terms you’re bound to come across eventually is old vines. The implication, of course, is that old vines make better wines, but is this really true, or is it simply a romantic notion? Like many issues in the world of wine, it depends on who you ask.
“Vine age is often considered a factor affecting wine quality,” says Kirk Grace, Vineyard Manager at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. “Winemakers who wax poetic about wines from a new vineyard hope the qualities they see early on will continue throughout that vineyard’s life. Others believe that the truest expression of a vineyard comes when it has endured the test of time. I believe both viewpoints may be correct.”
It takes about three years from the time a vine is planted for it to bear fruit that can be used in wine. Up to this time any grapes the vine produces are discarded. But it’s not until the vine is about five years old that it produces what may be considered a full crop level. From this point until the vine is about 25 years old – barring any diseases or pests – the vine is in full production mode. After about 25 years, however, the vine slows down and progressively yields less and less fruit. Although vines can live to be over 100 years old, it’s rare to see them reach that age because for most producers, the yield is so small that it isn’t economically viable. Many wineries replace vines as they decline rather than replanting an entire vineyard, so it’s common for one vineyard to have vines and blocks of varying ages.
But at what point is the quality of the vine – and the fruit – at its peak? Here’s where the differing opinions come in. Some like the flavors they believe come from young vines. They extol the virtues of wines with forward fruit flavors that are lush, pure and bright in the mouth. Others, however, prefer wines made from older vines. They admire what they describe as a certain richness and depth, a concentration of flavor they feel comes from the vines’ naturally lower yields. Indeed, in France, wines from older vines are so favored that some appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) laws specify that wines can only be made from vines at or above a certain age.
If there’s an answer to all of this, it may lie in the word “balance.” “Vines that are in balance with their environment will always produce to their highest potential,” says Kirk, who also notes that the ratio of canopy – the vine’s leaves – to fruit is crucial. “Dense, shaded canopies cause unattractive pale, thin, and acidic herbal wines, but by the same token, sparse, overexposed canopies produce cooked, prune-like, astringent flavors.”
So the key, no matter what the age of the vine, is in the cultural practices that are used, including careful vine and canopy management as well as proper irrigation. In fact some viticulturists say that dry farming or deficit irrigation, the practice of withholding water from the vine at certain points during the growing season, actually mimics what happens naturally in an older vine with deep roots that don’t soak up water as readily.
According to Kirk, it’s not a vine’s age in and of itself that determines wine quality. It’s really the combination of site, or terroir, and the farming techniques you employ. “No matter its age, a vineyard is always an expression of the place and the farmer. And even though some of the old European AOC laws favor mature vines, the core principal behind the appellation concept is that of site specificity,” he says. “Vines are kind of like people; our minds and bodies change as we get older, but our personality remains the same.”
At Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, we believe that the qualities and characteristics of both old vine and young vine fruit are desirable. Our estate vineyards in the Napa Valley have blocks that range in age from 3 to 35 years. It makes for some intensive farming, because each block is treated individually, with different and distinct viticultural techniques for winemaking. It also means that when it comes time for blending, our winemaking team has an array of wines with distinct characteristics from which to choose.
Winemaker Nicki Pruss agrees and adds, “We harvest, vinify and age vineyard lots separately to learn their characteristics and watch their evolution, but we never discriminate based on vine age. I know the wine style we’re shooting for and which elements in the cellar will build that wine. I may use wine from our oldest vines, our youngest vines, or both, with the ultimate goal to make the best wine possible.”
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