I just got back from a month in Oldvinelandia, and therefore I know more about old vine wines than anybody else in the contiguous solar system.
What do I know about old vines? For starters, I know there’s no such thing. You’re only as old as you feel. No standard exists for old vine wines that’s sanctioned by either the law or popular consensus; ‘old’ is merely a state of vine. People who have hundred twenty year old vines scoff at the Century Club. And the Century Club sniggers and point at those whose ‘old’ vines are only seventy-five. Those folks turn their nose up at the Golden Anniversary vines, and these people say that vines under fifty years old aren’t old vines at all, while nearly everybody with vines over thirty years old slaps ‘Old Vine’ on their labels.
I had this near-genius idea in Lodi, which I am hereby donating to the Lodi Wine Commission, free of charge: When a block of vines at Soucie Vineyard turns a hundred this year, I suggest somebody in PR haul old Willard Scott out of pasture and do a photo op where he wishes them a happy hundredth birthday. I mean, how much could the dude command for a gig these days? Fifty bucks and a box of Quick Oats?
In theory, the older the vine gets, the better the wine it can produce. As the argument goes, the deeper the root structure of a vine, the more happy little Bob Ross minerals it scavenges along the downward trajectory. In a perfect universe, the business end of the plant produces fewer and smaller berries which contain concentrated levels of all those alpha-numerical, multi-lettered compounds that end with ‘zine’ or ‘tyl’ and make Chardonnay taste like mango.
Not all vines are willing to cooperate, of course, and ‘The Great Vine’ at Hampton Court Palace in England (variety Shiva Grossa), transplanted under the direction of Lancelot Capability Brown to its current site in 1769, produced the largest crop in its history in 2001. More compliant is the a Žametovka vine in Maribor, Slovenia, which makes The Great Vine look like a spring chicken: It’s four hundred years old and produces about a hundred pounds of grapes a year, which are made into wine and sold in tiny, souvenir bottles.
In Lodi, the lion’s share of the ‘old vines’ are Zinfandel, but if you look hard, you can find Cinsaut at Bechthold Vineyards that is 127 years old, 107-year-old Carignan tended by Jean Rauser at Rauser Vineyard and octogenarian Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet at Steve Borra’s Church Block vineyard.
The extra time the venerable vines bring to the fermenting vat seems to offer intense perfume—not odor, not aroma, but a sort of ‘roided redolence that is explosive and appealing and sets the tone for deep, sappy fruit-centered sweetness in the body. Old vine wines are often identifiable by the concentration of succulence, the focus of flamboyance. And know who agrees with me? The very capable Turley Wine Cellars winemaker Tegan Passalacqua, who says of Old Vine Cinsault:
“It makes a red wine that is not heavy, not high in alcohol, but rather, light and refreshing. Some say, as a grape, Cinsault makes a simple wine, but we do whole cluster fermentation, which adds a lot of complexity. It reminds me of crus Beaujolais in some ways – it has structure, but also high drinkability, and its aromatics are intoxicating, extremely perfumed.”
And that got me thinking. You rarely see ‘Vieilles Vignes’—meaning ‘old vines’ attached to Beaujolais; it’s usually stuck on labels from further south—Languedoc, the Rhône, Provence. But, by chance, a few days after my Lodi layabout, somebody turned me on to Charly Thévenet, wunderkind of Régnié, son of ‘Gang of Four’ Morgon producer Jean-Paul Thévenet.
Thévenet Jr. is also a son of the ‘natural viniculture’ movement that enjoyed a renaissance in Beaujolais during the 1980s, when a handful of vintners returned to traditional winemaking techniques, refusing to use synthetic herbicides or pesticides, trying to avoid both sulfur dioxide and chaptalization. Older vines were key to the movement, and it also is the source for Charly Thévenet’s Grain & Granit, Régnié, 2014 ($26)—Gamay vines that are more than eighty years old.
Régnié is minute—only a single square mile high up the mountains, where vineyards (old or young) balance precipitously on slopes a thousand feet above sea level. Like the wine, the granite of these slopes is pinkish and laden with minerals.
The 2014 vintage was wet and windy through the summer, but at the end, shaped up beautifully; Beaujolais experienced a stellar harvest with controlled acidity and extremely ripe fruit. The wine is a lavish extravaganza, and how much of it is due solely to the age of the vines, I can’t say.
I can say that I do not recall having nosed a Beaujolais that rang the rafters quite as resoundingly. Not saying that I absolutely fell in love with the experience (just as well—only 500 cases were made), but I will say that the level of exaggeration is unheard of in the appellation—the perfume was near bath-oil in concentration; it could have been hanging as a grape-shaped deodorizer from a rearview mirror. The mouth was velvet flowers; grapey raised to the power of three, but juicy with auxiliaries like red licorice, spring berries—strawberry and raspberries, bright acid and a pleasant dose of grape tannin at the end.
My Beaujolais boner (perhaps prejudicially) is for the slightly less melodramatic wines from vines with less gravitas. For the Gang of Four’s gang of heirs, however, a cult is built around Vieilles Vignes; a faith, a credo, a winemaker’s Weltanschauung…
“Gimme dat ol’ vine religion, gimme dat ol’ vine religion—it was good enough for Foillard, it was good enough for Chauvet, it was good enough for Breton, and it’s good enough for me.” ♫