A Look at the Idea of Vine Age
The morning at In Pursuit of Balance began with a fascinating seminar on Vine Age, facilitated by Alder Yarrow. The panel proved particularly special for its participants, and their wealth of experience both in winemaking, and with vineyards that have helped define the possibilities for California terroir, including the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir vineyard in the state. The panelists included Michael McNeill of Hanzell, Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson, Adam Tolmach of Ojai, and Pax Mahle of Wind Gap.
The center piece of the discussion came in distinguishing between three general age ranges of vines.
Young vines have yet to adjust to their site, and as such show a lot of exuberance in their growth and crop production but not a lot of balance with the conditions offered by the particular site. As Matthiasson explained, with young vine vineyards a lot of work is done to mimic appropriate adjustment to the site — reducing crop size, dealing with canopy growth, removing excessive shoots, etc. Matthiasson likes to say because these younger vines haven’t gone through multiple vintages yet, it’s as if they don’t have memory of various climatic conditions effects on their growth, and thus how to respond to them. In the panel, he compared young vines to a teenager — they have a ton of exuberance but not a lot of self-control. By ten years these vines tend to have reigned in their excessive growth somewhat and as a result express some innate responsiveness to the place in which they are growing.
Matthiasson elucidated the issues with young vines pointing out that by definition they have shallower roots. As a result, they have less physical potential for handling stress in their environment. As a result, Matthiasson said, “you can really hurt a vine letting it do what it wants when it’s young.” From a viticultural point of view, then, a lot of work goes into maintaining young vine vineyards. Looking at it from the wine side, there are also flavoral differences. The panel agreed that younger vines tend to be more fruit focused in their flavor expression.
Most of the panel overtly prefered old vines for the complexity and completeness they show in the final wine. In considering the differences, Mahle described wine from old vines, compared to young, as “less overtly fruity with more umami, more broad and expansive.” He went on to clarify that when comparing the two really “the picture is completely different. It’s fascinating to me. It makes wines more interesting. [Old vines wines are] more reserved, and broad, less extroverted.”
Tolmach, however, emphasized that there is value to be found in wine from young vines as well. He distinguished the expression of the two vine ages. In Tolmach’s view, wine from young vines tend to give “a little more linearity and freshness” while older vines offer “a little more breadth.” He stated too though that he believed farming adjustments could be made to help young vines mimic the qualities of old vines. Tolmach also said that it is not only the farming that needs to differ between old and young vines. Picking times must also be adjusted. More recently he has also begun to treat the two differently in the cellar.
Mature vines, on the other hand, have adjusted to their site and hemmed in their vigor to a more reasonable balance with what they can support thanks to the nutritive conditions of their environment. After ten years, vines have become more steady. However, the panel agreed that the move from young to mature vines doesn’t simply happen guaranteed at the ten year mark, and in fact is likely older.
Tolmach emphasized that when a vine moves into a new “age group” depends largely on the particular vineyard. That is, the overall health of the vines, the climate and soil conditions of the place in which it is grown, and the farming all factor into the overall development of a vineyard. Maturity happens when a kind of stasis occurs in the vines — their growth and crop development have come into balance with the nutritive conditions of the site. To put it another way, mature vines express healthy opportunity for that sites production levels. They are no longer overly exuberant to the point of damaging themselves, and they are not yet hampered by disease or excessive impediment.
The advantage of mature vines is that they are more self-regulating. As McNeill emphasized, however, the important point in these discussions comes with distinguishing mature vines from old vines. There is a tendency in the California wine industry to begin to pull vines a little after the twenty year mark. However, one of the implications in the panel discussion was that twenty years would not be adequate to claiming “old vine” status for a vineyard. The simple reality, then, is that there are few old vine vineyards in the state simply due to current farming practices. Further, because of the AXR rootstock disaster of the 1990s, most vineyards that could potentially have slipped by now into old vine status were pulled and replanted to new rootstock. (Interestingly, Mahle works with still healthy AXR vineyards for some of his wines.)
When considering when we can begin to count a vineyard old, Mahle clarified that the question proves site specific as well. Building on Tolmach’s point about stasis in mature vines, Mahle added that “when vines hit that stasis they are also very site dependent.” That is, the kind of balance seen in mature vines shows their healthy understanding of what the site can offer them for growing potential but that same balance also indicates that the vines’ growth has become dependent on the particular conditions of that site. In other words, how vines grow in one set of growing conditions differs from how it would grow in another. What counts as the balance of a vine is site dependent. As a result, what counts as old vine proves site dependent as well. Thus, a particular age number is not adequate to claiming a site to be old vine.
Thanks to the complexity of old vine wines, there is an easy fetishization that occurs for old vine vineyards. However, such sites tend to be rather peculiar in their growth patterns and as a result demand mostly hand farming, and more specific attention. McNeill stated that vine care in old vine vineyards is best left with highly knowledgeable crew with not only ample experience, but experience with those particular vines.
With this in mind, Matthiasson pointed out that health is what distinguishes old from mature vines. He clarified that by the time vines are moving from mature into old vine status “they tend to have a lot of problems.” Contrary to the shallow root conditions of young vines, old vines tend to have incredibly deep roots, which, to put it simply, means a huge distance from the bottom of the roots to the top of the vine. While we tend to talk about deep roots as an asset, at the same time such distance means genuine vulnerability. Matthiasson points out how much can happen underground to damage or pinch off such roots.
Along with root issues, old vines have also been getting pruned annually for much longer. Matthiasson states that those pruning cuts act as scars that impede water flow through the vine. Older vines have more impediments. Pruning sores also open the vine to virus and disease. “Old vines are just eeking along dealing with being old,” Matthiasson says.
However, these conditions are precisely what support the complexity found in old vine wines. Matthiasson states, “We already know that vines need struggle to develop complexity.” By the time a vineyard is old, each vine has become not only deeply expressive of its site — it has enough of what Matthiasson calls vintage memory to know how to respond to varying climate and soil conditions — it has also become utterly unique compared to its neighboring vine.
McNeill agreed with Matthiasson’s account while emphasizing what has gone well with old vine vineyards. “By virtue of having old vines, there is something there. The thing about old vines is that someone got it right, whether by luck or by brilliance.” If the vineyard is intact and healthy, someone “got good budwood that grows well, and survives.”
To watch portions of the discussion (technical difficulty lost part of it):
Thank you to Alder Yarrow, Michael McNeill, Steve Matthiasson, Adam Tolmach, and Pax Mahle.
Thank you to Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr.
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