Mature? Yes. Old? Maybe Not.
Here in the Barossa, every producer, new and old, loves to talk old vines until the cows come home. It seems to be the easiest way to validate one’s price and to conjure romantic notions in the angel-eyed consumer. And yes, I too am susceptible to the old vine story – but buried deep amid the idealized notions are some complicated realities worth exploring.
My view is that the most important aspect of any vineyard is maturity, but by this I don’t mean vine age. Instead, my focus is on the health and balance of the vine. Ideally, the vine’s growing shoots are well formed and consistent throughout the canopy; the bunches and berry sizes are uniform; the amount of leaf (to ripen the fruit) and bunches (to be ripened) are in good balance; and the growth is uniform across the whole vineyard. Though not “old,” this is the definition of a good, mature vineyard.
Over the years, Two Hands has made plenty of our best Shiraz wine from 10-20 year old vineyards. We have also made a number of batches from old vine material with ages between 75 and 110 years. What we have found is that we have preferred the wine made from younger mature vines, as it is much more consistent from vintage to vintage and holds a finer tannin structure.
We attribute this to the fact that the younger vineyards were planted with far great attention and care. A particular clone was chosen, the site and soil was analyzed, a trellising system was selected, irrigation was used to help early root development, a certain pruning technique was employed, the site was prepared by deep ripping before planting and more effort was made in getting the vineyard established.
In contrast, the old vineyards were planted in a very different time. There was little ripping and everything was done with horse and cart. Cuttings were taken from another block at random with little or knowledge. Rainfall was the only form of irrigation in the vineyards, most of which were planted as bush vines and pruned accordingly. Examine photos from the ’20s and ’30s and you’ll see what appear to fruit trees, not vines. (One great picture from McLaren Vale shows that the kids from the local school were employed to get the grapes from the top of the vines! They were that big.)
An old vine holds its fruit under a large canopy, with little or no exposure to the sun or air movement. Hence the flavour development and timing and potential alcohols are on a completely different plane. The modern trellised vine, meanwhile, is open and thus has much greater air movement, high exposure to direct sunlight and flicking of light inside the canopy.
In the end, the biggest drawback to old vines, in our eyes, is that with them there is very little a grower or winemaker can do to alter the quality. They give you what they give you.