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Old Vine Wine

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Nearly every wine experience begins at the point of purchase, with a look at the label or a menu that carries with it text from the label meant to be descriptive. The problem, of course, with labels, is that they're difficult to decipher for the uninitiated. For me, initiation has been a long process, developed over a period of years with frequent contact. In this article, I discuss one of the terms that can be found on wine labels and what it means: Old Vine.

Wine and women have been oft likened to one another, in that the best of each get better with age. When considering age in the context of wine, most people think about time in the bottle. Others will think about time in casks before being bottled. While these will impact the quality of the glass you drink, there is another, important, issue to consider: the age of the vine.

Most wine enthusiasts will argue that the older the vine, the better the wine. This view is especially entrenched in the Old World, even being enshrined in France's Appellation Contrôlée legislation. This legislation on wine labeling typically excludes anything less than three years old—and sometimes more. (What wine produced from the younger vines in these regions is typically labeled Vin de Table.)

When vines are begun, their frameworks are established in a training period lasting from two to three years. Any bunches forming on the vine will be discarded before ripening. After the training period is over, the vine will produce its first normal crops. After the vine has reached a total age of perhaps six years, it will reach a level of maturity where it takes its allotted space above ground and its yield stabilizes.

As the vine ages beyond maturity, its environment will determine not just its yield from season to season but also its lifespan. Factors such as management, stresses, disease, and pests will play a role, and in typical commercial crops, yield will reduce after about twenty years, to the point of being uneconomical at about fifty years. Vines that are well-managed and kept free from stresses can live to become quite old, some even yielding produce for hundreds of years.

Despite the lower yield, the “older vine: better wine” rule still applies and it seems a shame to stop using them altogether. Fortunately, free markets are well-suited to dealing with situations such as this. Wine-makers can still use their old vines, producing wine that is generally higher in quality, adjusting the price upward to make the continued use of the vine economical for as long as there are buyers willing to pay the higher price for the corresponding quality.

Some French wines will sometimes have an equivalent on the label, vieilles vignes and other equivalents exist from other countries as well. There is no universal rule about what constitutes “old vine,” so each vintner can decide what's worthy of the label, even in France where apparently every letter of the label is regulated. What qualifies as old really will depend on the region. Thirty years is old in the state of Washington. Some critics will argue that thirty-five years is a minimum, but even that isn't very old in a place like France. I have seen the label most often on California Zinfandel, where my casual observation suggests that fifty years is really a threshold to be crossed before a reputable maker will apply the label.

Despite the higher price, many bottles can be had for reasonable prices from a good wine store. As with any other kind of wine, a buyer can really spend as much as he wants. However, some looking around online and my experience in local (Columbus) stores suggests that some bottles will go for as little as $20, though $30 is probably a more reasonable expectation for starting prices. That isn't likely to be something that you're going to drink every day, but it's certainly attainable for any budding wine enthusiast, and an investment that will certainly prove itself worthwhile.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2005-05-15 07:20 PM
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