Do old vines make better wines?

From left, Henschke Hill of Grace, d'Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz and Yalumba The Octavius Old Vine Barossa Shiraz.
From left, Henschke Hill of Grace, d'Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz and Yalumba The Octavius Old Vine Barossa Shiraz.

How old is old and does it make a difference?

I was amused to read the other day that a smart new range of single vineyard wines are the result of the maker's 26 years crafting pinot noir, an exceptional vintage, and the age of the vines that produced the grapes to make them.

The unashamed plug for what are, admittedly, some excellent wines, was right on the first two counts. But on the third, which suggests that the vines have been planted for quite some time and supports the widely held belief that older vines produce better wines ... Sorry. Yet, to my knowledge these vines were planted only in 1998, which does not make them old, not even by New Zealand standards where anything over 25 years is considered to be getting on a bit.

This is difficult to reconcile with stories like the one about the famous Italian winemaker who will not use nebbiolo to make his Barolo, a uniquely delicious red, unless the vines are at least 25 years old. He believes 40-year-old vines, which have developed a deep rooting system and produce characterful fruit at reasonable levels, are the ideal.

However, nebbiolo is not pinot noir or any of the other many grape varieties grown in different climates and soils around the world.

None of which gets us any closer to discovering whether older vines really do produce better wines, and, if so, why?

The most intelligent explanation I have heard comes from my favourite American wine writer, Matt Kramer, whose appearance at Pinot Noir 2013 in Wellington in January will, alone, be worth the price of admission.

As he says, young vines can careen from vintage to vintage – with extremes of production and unpredictable ratios of sugar levels and chemical compounds depending on the weather. Old vines are steady. Their grapes are rarely unbalanced or unripe.

Old vines also provide options unavailable with young vines.

But the deep roots of old vines are their greatest asset.

"In a rainy harvest," says Kramer, "a young vine's shallow root system sucks up surface water, bloating the grapes and diluting the juice. Yet old vines are often surprisingly unaffected, as their deeper roots are untouched by a passing rainstorm.

"And in drought conditions those same deep roots can tap into water reserves in the subsoil unreachable by younger vines."

As for the wines that are made from these gnarled old tree-like old vines. The difference is in the taste as it unfolds on the palate and is mostly the result of lower yields of fruit. In time, these wines will also develop a more layered complexity than wines made from younger vines and this will become more apparent the longer the wines are in the bottle, which probably means 10 years plus.

It is obvious then we are talking about some pretty special wines. But to find them we have to look no further than South Australia, which has a collection of aging vines classified into three different groups: Old (35 years or older), Survivor (75 years or older) or Centurion (100 years or older).

Here are three which tell the rest of the story:

Henschke Hill of Grace
Produced from vines first planted in the 1860s. Fragrant and rich, with complex fruit flavours overlaying the truffles, cedar, spice. Considered second only to Penfolds' Grange as Australia's finest wine. The 2006 sells at $599.

d'Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz
Named for a disease that attacks the truncated 19th century vines on which the small bunches of highly flavoured grapes are grown. Most aptly described as pretty and powerful. Lashed with licorice, spice. The 2007 sells at $67-$80.

Yalumba The Octavius Old Vine Barossa Shiraz
Fruit grown in century-old Barossa Valley vineyards and the only wine in the world to be aged in such small (100-litre) barrels – called octaves. The 2005 is an opulent, silken mouthful with intense fruit flavours and sells at $109.

The Southland Times