Do old vines make better wines? Australia under the microscope
I love this black & white photo of pruning at Noon’s Winery Block. You might say it’s as sepia-tinted as talk about old vines. You know, that hoary old chesnut that ‘old vines make great wines. Well, in November, I chaired a seminar which gave me and my panel the chance to take a conker swipe at said hoary old chesnut.
The outcome? I think it’s fair to say that the panel discussion and 15 wines shown didn’t shatter the myth. To the contrary, they went some way to reinforcing it, especially my picks of the tasting- spectacularly intense wines of great complexity and balance.
The occasion was Wine Australia’s Old Vines seminar in November with Sue Hodder (Wynns), Dean Hewitson (Hewitson) & Dr Jamie Goode (The Wine Anorak). Producers were invited to submit wines made from vines aged 70 years old plus to showcase the country’s impressive old vine heritage. ‘Plus’, by the way, meaning plus a century for the oldest vines which, much to the surprise of a fair few tasters, were planted as long ago as the 1850s. Or in the case of a cheeky (rule-bending) Hewitson, a wine sourced from so-called ‘heritage cuttings’ from a 161 year old vine. At least it whet our whistles for the rather dry topic of definitions!
You’ll find my tasting notes on all 15 wines below. First, I summarise some of the issues which we discussed.
Old vine heritage – how come?
So how come this ‘New World’ country is home to the world’s oldest-known plantings of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre and Marsanne? Quite probably its oldest Semillon and Grenache too. Most, I might add, planted on own roots.
The answer is essentially twofold. First, South Australia (the country’s largest wine producing estate), escaped the world-wide phylloxera epidemic. Second, the country’s quarantine regulations are draconian.
Definitions – how old is old?
Doubtless because of the quality connotations, the term ‘old vines’ is widely used in Australia and elsewhere. But there is no legal definition attached to this phrase, although a couple of regional bodies have taken it upon themselves to create voluntary registries of old vines with attached criteria.
Old vine/vineyard criteria
In Australia The Barossa Old Vine Charter (2009) has a tiered classification system – the youngest category (“Barossa Old Vine”) is for vines of a minimum 35 years of age, the oldest (“Ancestor Vine”) for 125+ year old vines. The region has c. 2,500ha of vines over 35 years old, around a tenth of which (c. 250ha) were planted in 1909 or earlier.
Brian Walsh, who co-created Yalumba’s 2007 Old Vine Charter (on which the Barossa Old Vine Charter was based), explained that 35 years old was determined as ‘old’ because “[I]t was approximately a human generation. It was approximately the historic definition of the ‘commercial life’ of a vineyard. It was approximately one third of a century. It wasn’t that difficult, as I think most people accepted that 35yo vines were not young. It was reasonable aspirational age, without going to the next logical? number of say 50. Not a lot of science, but a reasonable amount of thought.”
Endorsing the approach, Hewitson observed that 35 years old “is also the number quoted by many European winemakers as the average age of their vineyards, so older than 35 is on average ‘old’. And that logically mathematically follows through to 70 years as being a good number for Antique because that is the age when the French winemakers are replanting (if 35 is average) so 70 and older is sort of making a statement.”
In California, The Historic Vineyard Society registers ‘heritage vineyards.’ Heritage vineyards must have an original planting date of no later than 1960, must currently be in production and at least a 1/3 of those producing vines must be capable of being traced back to original planting date. It’s a pragmatic definition which recognises that many old vineyards will include some younger, replacement planting material.
The impact of renewal
The Historic Vineyard Society’s phrase “traced back to planting date” raised interesting questions. Do vines grown from “heritage cuttings” like Hewitson’s The Mother Vine Shiraz (tasting notes below) or through layering of old vines or of new material grafted onto old rootstock count as old vines?
I raised this issue with Walsh prior to the tasting. In his opinion “heritage cuttings from old vines are treated the same as any other cutting. It is the planted age that is referenced, not the source material.” Agreeing, Hewitson contends it “is the roots of the vine that largely determine its capacity to produce consistent quality and quantity… the roots deep enough that the vagueries of weather are largely eliminated – the vine finds water deep in the ground; it doesn’t shut down in extreme heat conditions… I have witnessed Centenarian vineyard shut down but not a tri-centenarian right alongside … all of these things lead to a consistency in quality within the season and amongst seasons.” In his opinion, “[L]ayering might be a different situation, presuming the “new’ vine is still attached to the ‘old,”… but once severed then it is a young vine again.”
What about transplanted vines, roots and all? Applying Walsh’s rationale, the pre-1880 vines which give their name to another of the wines shown – Langmeil Orphan Bank Shiraz – retain their old vine status. Langmeil’s Paul Lindner told me it’s a tricky process. One he successfully achieved at second attempt using an adapted mature tree re-planter. Orphan Bank’s old vines were first pruned to 2-3, 2 bud spurs, then coated in vegetable oil to stop them drying out too much and moved with quite a large root ball. Apparently “within a couple of months and with some healthy watering, over 90% started shooting and have never looked back.” Follow this link for the Langmeil Orphan Block Shiraz transplant video.
Does ‘old’ depend on variety/conditions?
Conscious that Shiraz dominated the line up we discussed whether the definition of an old vine should depend on the variety and/or place? For Hodder, “some varieties are natural optimists and some natural pessimists…they do respond differently to drought, heat etc.” Although Australia lays claim to the world’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines (Penfolds Kalimna Block 42 planted c. 1888/Brothers in Arms Metala Vineyard planted in 1891), she observes there’s more old vine Shiraz and Mourvedre than Cabernet Sauvignon. Even in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon is generally replaced at 20-40 years of age.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Cabernet Sauvignon likes meaner, well-drained soils? Albeit with Shiraz and Grenache in mind, leading McLaren Viticulturist Toby Bekkers told me “under our conditions I’d observe that a 20 or 40 year old vine is ‘old’ on a very tough site (an exposed site with shallow or rocky soils) because it will naturally decline more quickly than the same vine material planted in a sheltered site with deep alluvial soils, for example. The tougher sites produce great quality but need replanting more frequently. Obviously management plays a part too…if a vine has access to fertiliser and water its useful life will be extended as opposed to a dry farmed vineyard (this being site dependent, of course).”
His comments, together with Andrew Jefford’s observation that Western Australia has the world’s oldest viticultural soils, reminded me of a discussion with Cullen Wines’ Vanya Cullen. Even by the late 90s, the dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon vines which her parents planted in 1971 were really struggling to produce. Sustaining them into the future was part of Cullen’s rationale for shifting to organic, then biodynamic cultivation.
Old -v- young vine physiology
According to Goode, who has a Phd in plant biology, there’s not a lot of scientific research on whether old vines are better than young. Reporting on a discussion with a CSIRO scientist, Hewitson said they have shown that older plants are ‘more efficient’ than younger ones. As for whether better efficiency translates into better wines, the winemaker argued “this could be extrapolated to suggest that given the same amount of energy, older vines can go further through their biochemical pathways producing the flavours/’riper’ tannins that we associate with quality.”
Goode accepts that you can extrapolate from growers’ experience and wine quality. In his opinion (and I agree), younger vines seem to produce more fruit-focused wines, while “non-vine complexity comes through with age;” “power too” added Hewitson. Going on, he outlined a few “potential reasons” why old vines might make better wines. The first comes down to common sense, not science; the bottom line even. If producers tolerate the loss of yield that comes with old vines, “the vineyards must be damn good vineyards in the first place.” Hodder agreed, pointing out one shouldn’t always conflate quality with low yields – “it can be down to bad genes.” But where low yields are wed to quality, she reckons it helps producers take the financial hit if they have a mix of young and old vines so that “it’s swings and roundabouts” vis a vis overall yields.
Hewitson agreed that it’s a challenge to keep old vines in the ground if they are not economical. In fact, in his opinion, “old vineyards remain because they are productive.” Take his old vine Mourvedre from the Old Garden vineyard, which he describes as “very, very healthy.” He contrasted it with a couple of other varieties planted in Old Garden which haven’t lasted the course – the vineyard has just one surviving Shiraz vine and two surviving Doradillo (white) vines.
The winemaker is “convinced that the symbiosis of Mourvedre in this exact location has allowed the vineyard to still survive. The Shiraz vine barely produces fruit, usually gets Botrytis (it’s thinner skinned than Mourvedre and at Rowland Flat, low in the Valley where the cool, foggy morning air sits) and has Eutypa dying arm, so if it [the original vineyard or block] was all Shiraz, it most likely would be an under-performing vineyard and likely to have been replaced. The thicker skinned Mourvedre has just the right genetics to not be bothered by any of those inflictions the Shiraz vine suffers from.”
A similar symbiosis between variety and location perhaps explains why, of 72 different (red and white) varieties planted at Turkey Flat in 1847, only the original Shiraz vines have survived. Turkey Flat’s Christie Schultz told me, “[W]e believe there were planting of vines to produce fruit best suited for the production of fortified wine. I imagine the Shiraz vines survived because of the ability to adapt to the seasons, their relatively low maintenance and resistance to disease and the suitability for numerous wines styles. Adaptability to site has also been a major factor in Shiraz’s survival in the Barossa Valley, particularly our vineyard. The following fashion/consumer trends of the late 1980’s and early 90’s finally ensured the survival of these magnificent old vines.”
Hewitson agreed that it also “comes down to fashions and fads” which varieties have survived and which have been grubbed up. Take Old Garden’s Doradillo, whose lack of suitability for fortified production might well explain why old vines planted to white varieties seem thinner on the ground (only two of the 15 wines submitted for the tasting were white). Hodder confirmed that, at Wynns, white varieties had been grafted over to red. There are just a few rows of old white vines left (Pedro Ximenez planted in 1911), pictured below, in front of the original winery.
Turning to the physiological advantages of older vines, Goode cited a number of reasons why old vines might perform better.
Bigger carbohydrate reserves
With both larger trunk girths and root systems, old vines have more carbohyrdate reserves which, Goode explained, means “the vine gets a bit of a jump start at the beginning of the season.” When I’d discussed this topic with Bekkers during my August visit he observed that vines can draw upon these reserves during times of stress later in the growing season too. For example, comparing the leaves to a solar panel and the carbohydrate reserves in the trunk/root system to a spare battery, “during cloudy periods we can draw on the battery and not rely solely on the solar panel.”
The more developed root system of an older vine is also advantageous for “soil interrogation” (water and nutrient uptake) where, said Goode, roots can extend further (though he observed it perhaps only takes 10 years to develop the root system, so it’s not a function of excessive age).
Reporting that Old Garden vine roots go down 10 metres, Hewitson believes older, deeper rooted vines naturally deal “much better” with extremes of weather, whether its cool and wet (“even light rain affects young vines more”) or hot (older vines don’t shut down which, he says, “upsets the balance, pH/acidity/flavour, of the grapes).” In consequence, Old Garden enjoys a “wonderful evenness of ripening year on year” while “young vines shallow root systems are very susceptible to soils drying out.”
Naturally balanced canopies
Another advantage of old vines is that, with less fruitfulness, canopies come back into natural balance compared with vigorous adolescent vineyards, which require more management. I’ve emphasised ‘back’ into balance because, Goode speculated, it’s because vine canopies are balanced during their first year or two of fruiting that very young vines have produced such acclaimed wines as Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port 1931 and Stags Leap S.L.V. Cabernet 1973 (winner of the Judgment of Paris).
I had an interesting discussion about balance in old versus young vine Grenache when I met with Mike Lane, viticulturist at Yangarra Estate. He told me that the estate’s old vines “can have 20-40 buds and the vines will regulate themselves seasonally, picking up on the climate conditions and shattering in a hotter year [when they cannot sustain a bigger load].” On the other hand, he said, younger vines have bigger berries and bunches and thinner skins and, until they reach 12-15 years old, “are adolescents with variability across the years.” Similarly, Mandy Jones of Jones Winery in Rutherglen told me that the vines which produce L.J. (reviewed below) “have been amazingly adaptable to the variance in climatic conditions;- they seem to “know” what the season is going to dish them up!”
Although it’s possible to bring adolescent vines back into balance through pruning, it would seem it’s not necessarily easy to replicate the natural balance of old vines. For example, Lane has found “if you prune [young vine Grenache] too hard, you get too much raisining and sugar,” while Hodder pointed out, even if you green harvest and shoot thin, “you generally have to pick at slightly higher sugar levels to get balance, which is undesirable for a number of reasons.”
Here’s Bekker’s take on the topic: “Old vines are generally better BUT if we choose the right site and carefully manage the parameters that affect vine growth (particularly crop load and availability of water) then it is possible to produce great fruit from young vines. It’s more difficult but certainly possible. Possibly it’s less reliable from year to year. In my experience things start to really settle down at around 10 years from planting.”
Most of Australia’s old vines started out as (and are still maintained as) bush vines. Goode reckons this old fashioned growing method (as opposed to trellising vines) naturally dapples light through the canopy, which has helped old vines deal with warm, hot, light climates quite efficiently.
When I attended an excellent old vine seminar at Cape Wine in 2012, Professor Deloire advanced the theory that “old vines are full of memory” and “after years and years adapted to climate, soil and people…today’s Cape wines are at home.” I reckon this holds true for Australia’s old vines too. There’s some support for this in epigenetics, which theory Goode neatly summarised for our audience. Unfortunately, I was a so focused on listening to him that I failed to take notes. However, I previously had an email exchange with Allen Jenkins – Wynn’s highly acclaimed Chief Viticulturist – on the topic. Here’s his take on it and how it might impact on viticulture.
“Put simply, epigenetics is the study of the mechanisms that initiate and maintain stable and heritable patterns of gene expression. One key mechanism is DNA methylation, the chemical modification of DNA molecules, which influence cell development, including regulation of cell differentiation, and function. Failure of DNA methylation in stressed plants for example, can result in developmental abnormalities. Too much, or too little DNA methylation can engender negative gene expression leading to crop disease.
DNA methylation levels increase with developmental age through to maturity, and can potentially activate or repress genes in response to environmental conditions, for example water stress, nutrition, or chemicals. In people, these processes can potentially lead to cancer, auto-immune disease, mental disorders, and diabetes.
Research into epigenetics will hopefully open a new window to improve our understanding of evolutionary processes influencing specific gene expression as vines age, including resilience, clonal and varietal definition, wine quality, and response to differing terroir. It would be very exciting at Wynns for example, if it were possible to fingerprint and select new clones from our older heritage vineyards that could exhibit previously undetermined or unexpressed epigenetic traits that confer improved drought and disease tolerance, or enhanced fruit and wine quality. In turn, these selections could potentially be used in propagation and breeding programmes to assist viticulture adapt to a rapidly changing environment and climate.
Given the large data sets formalised since the early 1990’s defining grapevine genotypes for many varieties, coupled with the hundreds of thousands of mutations, mainly unnoticed within any single clone, then epigenetics will potentially provide a new layer of understanding as to why some of these genes express or not.
As a grape grower, the multitude of layers and processes represented in epigenetic research appear daunting and incredibly complex, and just knowing what research questions to ask when analysing enormous data sets will very difficult. However, my optimistic view is that the potential gains in improving our understanding of ‘how’ the vine works, rather ‘what’ it is made up of, will be worthwhile.”
Incidentally, the impact of epigenetics on viticulture is being studied by Dr Cassandra Collins at Adelaide University. Jenkins understands that she is heading up new research through the Genome Research Facility, looking into epigenetic process impacts on gene expression for a single clone of Shiraz, grown in an array of Barossa Valley sub regions. This will entail complex modelling of very large data sets covering for example: soil, viticulture, vine age, quality, and epigenetic influences on specific genes, and environmental / terroir adaption. So watch this space!
Root communication systems
Finally, referencing research into mature forests, Goode advanced a “whacky but maybe plausible” explanation as to why old vines might produce better fruit/wines though, as yet “there is no evidence at all to support it.” The forestry research has shown that tree roots in mature forests communicate with each other by microbial association, transferring nutrients from tree to tree. “Wouldn’t it be interesting,” he speculated, “if vines were helping each other out a bit, so vineyard quality became more homogenous?”
Tahbilk 1927 Vines Marsanne 2005 (Nagambie Lakes, Victoria)
“Even Michel Chapoutier,who imports it, hasn’t managed to find older Marsanne!…The cuttings for the 1927 plantings came from a Victorian state owned nursery which supplied the rootlings as grafted rootlings (on AXR) and, In a nice twist of fate, it’s believed that the Marsanne vines in this nursery originally came from Tahbilk…..so it would appear that we have the same clone as was originally planted at Tahbilk in the 1860s!” Alister Purbrick, third generation owner/winemaker at Tahbilk
Our very first wine was atypical in that it was sourced from grafted vines, albeit grafted wines of great pedigree. Drew Noon would not be the first winemaker to express the view that planting vines on own roots “aids site expression.” When I compared Henri Marionett‘s ungrafted Vinifera range of Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin with grafted examples of the same grape several years ago, I certainly found that the former, adopting Goode’s phrase, showed more “non-vine complexity” over and above fruit. However, as Goode rightly pointed out, it would be a nonsense to suggest that grafted vines lack site expression when Burgundy, which produces among the world’s most famous terroir-driven and differentiated wines, comes from grafted vines.
Hewitson raised another issue – an advantage of ungrafted over grafted vines. On own roots, vines last longer. He reckons most producers start replacing grafted vines at 70 years old. So it would seem that the Tahbilk and Jones wines shown – the both from +70 year old grafted vines – are exceptionally long-lived.
Tasting note: phylloxera was found at Tahbilk in late 1900. The Marsanne cuttings were grafted onto American rootstocks planted in 1927 on very sandy soils; average yield 2.5t to 3t/acre. Like a traditional Hunter Semillon, this early-picked, low alcohol, unoaked Marsanne (this cuvee first made in 2008) is very pale and youthfully fresh, even at 10 years old. It’s a little toasty too, though truer to the variety (by which I mean examples of Rhône Marsanne I’ve tasted) it’s more nutty than toasty, with a subtly waxy, oily texture just starting to develop. The principal impression, however, is of freshness and focus. It’s still very tight and citrussy with pithy lemon and, going back to my glass after two hours, a touch of pink grapefruit. This wine still has plenty to give. Impressive. 10.5% abv UK RRP £21
Château Tanunda 150 Year Old Vines Semillon 2014 (Vine Vale, Barossa Valley, South Australia)
“These vines were planted in 1848 and the reason they are still standing is because of the Cirillo family’s stubbornness in refusing to grub them up and replant with Shiraz instead. That, and our shared desire to preserve and protect an important part of Australia’s grape growing and winemaking history.” Matthew McCulloch, General Manager at Chateau Tanunda.
The vineyard is owned by the Cirillo family who planted it in 1848 on very sandy soils; average yield 2.5t/acre. Incidentally, Cirillo produces a marvellous Old Vine Grenache from the same deep sandy vineyard. In McLaren Vale, Lane told me that old timers seemed to know that Grenache (like Yangarra Estate’s High Sands cuvee) thrived in such soils, because the roots could penetrate deep and find water and nutrients. It seems to have worked for this Semillon too!
Chateau Tanunda first made this wine in 2012, but McCulloch told me that the estate had a tradition for producing old vine Semillon. Apparently, during the 1970s and ‘80s when Kevin Sobels and Stephen John were the winemakers, the Château was the biggest buyer of Barossa Semillon. Each year more than 3,000 tonnes were made into sparkling base which was sent to Seppelt Great Western in Victoria (on which note, I understand that the fashion for sparkling wines also helped Grenache vines stay in the ground – it was used for sparkling base too). McCulloch reckons whilst they have no records showing that the Cirillo Semillon came to The Château in the past, “given the amount of Barossa Semillon made here it is more than likely that it did.”
Tasting note: while perhaps the Barossa’s best known old vine Semillon, Peter Lehmann Margaret, echoes the Hunter Style, Tanunda’s style employs oak and batonnage for a fuller-bodied style. Still, the focus is on old techniques, so the oak is seasoned (the wine was aged for seven months in 6 year old Dargaud & Jaeglé 225l barriques) and this wine was basket pressed, the must then naturally settled. It reveals pretty talc and sweet lemon curd to nose and rolling, round palate, but the overwhelming impression is of dryness and length – a real sense of old vine economy to the fruit – peel and pith as well as fruit and juice. Indeed, despite its roundness and youth, there’s not a trace puppy fat. Rather, one’s much more aware of its firm core of stoney minerality, which lends great focus, intensity and balance. Like the Tahbilk, after two hours, it’s still so fresh and persistent when I return to it – if anything, still building in the glass. Terrific length. 14.5% abv is worn very lightly. One of my picks of the tasting. UK RRP £25.00
“The first Vintage of The Absconder was 2010. As a winery Grenache is a very important part of our history and we believe that McLaren Vale produces some of the very best Grenache. We have been lucky to be able to carry on a legacy which was almost lost.” Sam Temme, International Sales Manager at Wirra Wirra
Sourced from two vineyards, with c. 80% of the Grenache coming from Warraminga 99 years old (Blewitt Springs on Maslins Sand and calcareous sandstone). The balance came from Wait Block, which was planted in the 1950s (Onkaparinga Gorge, on red brown clay loam). The average yield is 3-4 t/ha.
Tasting note: this highly contemporary, vividly youthful pretty in pink/ruby Grenache is equally vivid on nose and finely honed palate. Super-juicy red cherry and plum with a scintilla of kirsch makes for a moreish and motile mouthful – really persistent. A touch of whole bunch (5%) adds complexing Campari florals and herbal notes with a twist of white pepper. The tannins are sandpaper fine but vividly (that word again) present, reinforcing depth and length. A great example of old vines given full voice, without much interference from winemaking artefact (it was aged in seasoned French oak for 9 months). And very delicious now. 14.28% abv. UK RRP £35
Yalumba Tri-Centenary Grenache 2011 (Barossa Valley, South Australia)
“These are now big, sprawling bush vines, many of which have fallen over, cracked apart in the crown and taken root again. But what we now have is 2 ½ acres of just over 800 very individual bush vines. This results in an amazingly individual wine, that really does show vintage and site from year to year.” Kevin Glastonbury, Red Winemaker at Yalumba.
Yalumba’s Tricentenary Grenache is sourced from the Graetz vineyard, which was acquired quite recently. The Grenache was planted 1889 on deep sandy loam with red-brown clay; average yield 3-4t/acres. The wine is a deeper, darker hue than The Absconder with a jubey sweet edge and richer, rounder mid-palate of raspberry and plum (even in 2011). Campari, Imperial Leather/incense spice and orange peel notes add lift and layer. With lingering, spicy intensity and savoury, textural tannins, it put me in mind of fine Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The wine remained on skins for 35 days post-fermentation and was aged for 7 months in seasoned French oak hogshead. Drinking well now but will benefit from air and bottle age to really strut its stuff. 13.5% abv UK RRP £32
Noon Eclipse 2013 (McLaren Vale, South Australia)
“Why are these vines still here? Because they have always made good wine and because dad starting making our own wine from them in 1976, just before the vine pull of the 1980s.” Drew Noon, owner, winemaker at Noon Winery
Noon Eclipse is a varietal & old vine/young vine blend of 86% Grenache (McLaren Vale estate grown bush vines, own roots, planted in 1934 and 1943 on sandy loam over clay soil), 8% Graciano (McLaren Vale estate grown bush vines, own roots, planted 1999) and 6% Shiraz (McLaren Vale estate grown, own roots, planted 2001). Yields average 1.5-2t/acre.
Tasting note: weighing in at 16% abv, this is powerful, high impact wine with an oaky veneer. However, not as high impact as in the past thanks to the introduction of Graciano and older/big format oak (it was aged for 12 months in seasoned 300l and 600l American and French oak barrels with a further 6 months in a 4500l oak vat, c.5-10% new). The old vine Grenache swiftly pulls through from under the oak and shows its mettle in the shape of its sweet but succulent plum and damson fruit and, best of all, a chassis of sandy, very grainy tannins. Combining (the tannins) with this wine’s very persistent acidity, they push out a long finish which, after the high impact attack, deftly tapers and leavens this wine’s concentrated fruit. 16% abv. Stash it away. UK RRP £41.95
Noon’s blending of older and younger vine fruit reminded me of a discussion with Sami Odi’s Fraser McKinley, who sources Shiraz from the Hoffmann family’s Dallwitz vineyard, Ebenezer sub-region. The vines range in age from the original pre-1912 vines to cuttings from the original vines which were planted in 1927, 1960, 1995 and 1996. Always ready to pick 2-3 weeks earlier, McKinley likes the young vines “for higher acid” and the later picked older vines “for substance.” Picking up on the higher acid point, Hewitson reckons younger vine Grenache is “terrific” in a blend for its acidity and structural grip – tannins which are “out of whack” if not blended (because younger vines lack the fruit power of older vines).
Referring to her experience with Cabernet Sauvignon, Hodder believes in keeping the old vine and young vine parcels separate “for as long as possible.” Why? Because “the skinny old guys [old vine Cabernet] don’t have the exuberance of fruit from vineyards under 20 years old.” Describing wines from the former as “decidedly medium-bodied with, invariably, a good balance and low pH,” she asserted “you have to be patient and in the barrel they will blossom.”
Teusner Wines Avatar Grenache Mataro Shiraz 2012 (Barossa Valley, South Australia)
“In 2001 the big guys wanted the Riebke’s to rip this stuff out and plant Chardonnay because that was the fashion of the day. I subscribe to the view that fashions fade, style is eternal…and what comes off these vines oozes style!“ Kym Teusner, owner, winemaker Teusner Wines
Sourced from two centenarian Grenache and Mataro vineyards in Ebenezer owned by the Riebke family and a 25 year old Shiraz vineyard on deep brown sandy loams; average yield 1.5t/acre.
Tasting note: this blend of 40% Grenache, 30% Mataro and 30% Shiraz reveals buoyant red and black berry and cherry fruits with fleshy plum. Persistent acidity and sandpaper fine tannins extend the finish. A very lively, fresh GSM, which was aged for 14 months in French and American seasoned oak hogsheads and puncheons. Very open-faced and enjoyable now with the capacity for medium term ageing. 14.5% UK RRP £28.
Jones Winery & Vineyard L.J. 2004 (Rutherglen, Victoria)
“We love that fact that there have been different people making wine from this vineyard for over 100 years.. the first, German owners and our grandfather and our Uncle. We feel a real connection to it. Initially it was to have material for our new plantations. Now it is because they make great wine!” Mandy Jones, owner, winemaker Jones Winery.
Phylloxera was found in Rutherglen in 1899. The Shiraz & Grenache (the latter just 5%) were grafted onto American rootstocks which were planted around 1905. The vineyard averages 1t/acre.
Tasting note: the Shiraz and Grenache from this field blend vineyard are co-fermented in open wooden fermenting vats and aged for 18 months in 80% new, 20% 1 year old 300l French oak casks. At 11 years old, with its smoky oak, L.J. has a sturdy old school feel about it compared with the much purer fruited and supple Avatar. Still, its sweet plum is intense, very concentrated and spicy, with pronounced liquorice. Length, depth, character and, above all, balance mark its old vine credentials. For my palate, I’d prefer less oak, but at the end of the day, the fruit and spice still conquer all. 14.8% N/A UK
Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre 2012 (Barossa Valley, South Australia)
“Why are these vines still standing? They were originally a much larger vineyard but over time largely replaced with the varietal trends at the time. Only 8 rows remain on a sandy stretch… obviously the healthiest and best producing. Didn’t bear a crop in 1963 but pruned back hard and sprang back to yielding fruit. Pride!” Dean Hewitson, owner, winemaker at Hewitson.
The vineyard was planted in 1853 by the Kock family, who still own and tend it. On own roots the vines are planted in an ancient lake bed in two metres of sand over limestone. Yield averages 4.8t/ha.
Tasting note: it was love at first sip when I originally encountered this wine in 2010 (Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre 2007, reviewed here). Now 162 year’s old, the world’s oldest-known Mourvedre vines continue to sing a fantastic solo. Like the 2007 Old Garden, the 2012 shows terrific varietal savoury character. And from a better balanced year than the 2007 (a year of drought and frost), it has a bit more lift, line and juice to animate its backbone of spicy, fine tannins. Sweet, fleshy black plum fruit is layered with complexing saddle soap, liquorice, orange peel and Campari notes. Beautifully structured, balanced and long, it is a very lithe, elegant representation of Mourvedre. While the 15% whole bunch is readily (appetisingly) apparent, it’s hard to believe that this wine spent 18 months in new French oak barriques. The fruit simply mops up the oak, while the tannins are a lively, spicy presence suggestive of fruit not trees. Great balance and intensity. One of my picks of the tasting. 14.3% UK RRP £62
Hewitson The Mother Vine Shiraz 2013 (Barossa Valley, South Australia)
“The original mother vine was mixed up in the original planting of the Mourvedre [Old Garden, planted 1853] vineyard or possibly a replant of a vine that didn’t make it through its first Summer. This vine tells me a story of just how tough and hard it was in those early years not just for the vines but also for the growers.” Dean Hewitson, owner, winemaker at Hewitson.
Hewitson told us if there is fruit on that vine, it has traditionally been picked as Old Garden (i.e. co-fermented with the Mourvedre). However, in reality the Mourvedre is so late to ripen (late April/early May) – about 5 to 6 weeks after Shiraz in that locale – that by the time the Mourvedre is ready for harvest, the berries and bunches on the Shiraz vine have largely shrivelled and disappeared. Even so, he said the vine bore hardly any fruit in any case.
In 2008, Hewitson grafted cuttings from Old Garden’s Mothervine onto 19 year old roots. The first crop of Mothervine Shiraz was produced in 2010. Its quality “wasn’t too bad” says Hewitson but, by 2011, he knew “we had something special on our hands. Despite a very difficult season we managed to produce an excellent wine yet not good enough to stand alone. I was confident then that 2012 would be the vintage we could release.” He describes the wine as “really quite a different profile to other Shiraz vineyards we have.” The vineyard’s average yield is 5t/ha.
Tasting note: fermented with 15% whole bunch then aged for 18 months in new and seasoned French oak barriques (a third new), this is drier, fresher, more finely-honed in style than classic Barossa Shiraz, with pretty pot pourri floral notes and (a touch callow?) red-fruited palate with fine tannins and firm acidity. 14.5% UK RRP £33.50
Langmeil Orphan Bank Shiraz 2012 Barossa, South Australia)
“The reason why these vines are still here starts with the stubbornness and fortitude of the early farmers striving to create a new life for themselves. Then comes the element of luck. A large number of vineyards were grubbed out in the mid to late 1980’s…. That brings us to today when we’re saving history and the Barossa heritage. We’re very fortunate to have a phylloxera free state….” Paul Lindner, owner, winemaker at Langmeil.
The Orphan Bank vineyard site is quite different from the original home of the vines, as it is very close to the North Para River on richer brown river loam over red clay, limestone and ironstone. The original site, although only 100m further from the river, was much tougher with mostly shallow red clay over limestone and ironstone.
The 2012 Orphan Bank Shiraz comprises around 7% Shiraz from the Orphan Bank Vineyard itself. The balance of the fruit was sourced from six vineyards from plantings dated 1954, 1908 and 1858. There are a couple from 1930-40 plantings and Langmeil’s own Eden Valley vineyard, which has the Old Hill block from 1885-1900 and the Old Flats from 1900-10. The average age of the vines in 2012 was 88+ years; average yields sit at between 3.7-5t/ha.
Tasting note: A smooth, rich, round Shiraz, with smoky, mocha oak – this vintage spent 24 months in 300l French oak barrels (50% new). By the end of the tasting the oak is much better integrated, allowing Orphan Bank’s earth and shimmering mica crystal minerality to show. Juicy plum fruit maintains good flow and balance. 14.7% UK RRP £39.99
Calabria Family Wines The Iconic Grand Reserve Shiraz 2012 (Barossa Valley, South Australia)
“These vines are still standing because we love them. I truly believe that if something is still living at 100 years old how can you not love it. We have 12ha of these old vines and we ensure that every inch of this dirt is manicured by hand, very little machinery is used. Once the love is taken from these vines you have failed your responsibility as a custodian of such an important part of the Australian wine industry.” Elizabeth Calabria, Marketing Coordinator Calabria Wines.
The William Vineyard sits on the valley floor in the Barossa Valley, Nuriootpa and was originally planted by the Hahn family in 1914 on sandy loam over red clay with limestone. It was converted to drip irrigation nearly 10 years ago to allow for better water management in drier years. Average yield 1.2t/ha.
Tasting note: the Iconic Grand Reserve received suitably hyperbolic oak – 100% new (94% French Oak, 6% American Oak). It’s a deep hue with deep reserves of sweet plum and spice – oak and fruit (liquorice). Well integrated but very persistent acidity pushes out a long, tapering finish with cool eucalyptus undertones. An impressively balanced full bodied wine. Going back the oak seems to sit more heavily on the wine. Needs time. The (grand) reserves of fruit are there for the long haul. 14% AUS $85
Wynns Black Label Shiraz 2012 (Coonawarra, South Australia)
“Old Coonawarra Shiraz vines have survived because of good sites (soil moisture/drainage/texture), resilience (trunk reserves root systems) and quality – they would have been pulled out if quality was poor. Johnson’s is important to Wynns. The Wynns family purchased this vineyard in 1951 when they bought the property. Undoolya is a survivor from the 1800s. important to me.” Sue Hodder, Chief Winemaker at Wynns
The Undoolya Vineyard (1ha) was planted in 1894. Johnson’s Vineyard (32ha) was planted 1925. Soils are predominantly deep terra rossa over limestone, with part of the block on heavier, darker, light clays over limestone. Undoolya averages 0.8-1.92 t/ha, Johnsons averages 2.5t/acre.
Tasting note: Wynns Black Label Shiraz 2012 was aged for 15 months in French oak hogsheads and barriques (17% new). Its cooler climate credentials show in a drier profile and juicy, youthfully sappy blackberry and currant fruit. As you’d expect from Wynns, it’s a very poised wine with fine tannins and polished cedar oak – if you like, a Cabernet lover’s Shiraz. A very promising structure if a little uptight – with time, I reckon it will unfurl and reveal greater complexity and, like its sibling Black Label Cabernet, show its true worth (in fact great value) with time. A cool customer. 13.5% UK RRP £16
Tyrrell’s 4 Acres Shiraz 2011 (Hunter Valley, New South Wales)
“We started thinking that if the vines had lived that long (4 Acres was planted in 1879) then they had almost “earned” the right to be made and bottled separately – in many ways, we saw it as the ultimate expression of the single vineyard concept.” Chris Tyrrell, winemaker at Tyrrell’s
The 4 Acres vineyard was planted in 1879 by Tyrrell’s founder, Edward Tyrrell on heavy red clay over limestone. Though there are only 2.2 acres of vine, it is called 4 Acres because originally there were 4 acres of vines, but every second row was pulled out in 1964 for tractor access. Yield 2.2t/acre.
Tasting note: the Hunter Valley is one of Australia’s first planted regions and retains a significant number of old vines, dating back to 1867 (Stevens Old Hillside, which makes Tyrrell’s Old Patch Shiraz). As for 4 Acres, it’s very fine, with a perfumed nose and palate with dried roses, sweet incense spice and mineral-sluiced red cherry and blood plum fruit. Ripe but present citrussy acidity makes for a lingering, fresh finish. Very much in the medium-bodied Hunter Burgundy style. Terrific. One of my picks of the tasting. 13.2% UK RRP £55.49
Turkey Flat Shiraz 2012 (Barossa Valley, South Australia)
“The Schulz Family have been custodians of the vines since the 1860’s. They are the backbone of the Turkey Flat brand and are considered a piece of international history.” Christie Schulz, owner at Turkey Flat
The original vineyard was planted in 1847 on gravelly loam and contributed 20% of the fruit for this wine. The balance hails from two estate-owned vineyards, each planted to cuttings from the original 1847 vines. Fifty percent of the fruit came from 1990 vines at the Bethany Road site, 30% from 1997 vines at Turkey Flat’s Stonewell Rd Vineyard. Average yields – 1.5tons/acre.
I asked Schultz for her take on what the old vine and younger vine material brings to the blend (Turkey Flat also make an Ancestor Vine Shiraz from 100% 1847 vine Shiraz). Here’s her reply: “The 1847 vines are an indication of a great vintage, the fruit in these vintages is always a stand out. The younger vines survive the rigours of harder years. The flavour profiles in the younger vineyards vary immensely from block to block, sometimes row to row, soil and orientation playing a significant role. The Bethany Road site produces very elegant, pretty, lively wines, the fruit from the Stonewell Road Vineyard shows strong tannins, colour and minerality. We have identified the different characteristics of each small block, the subsequent fruit is handled to maximise its potential, fermented and barrel aged separately.”
Tasting note: though the flavour profile is decidedly dark and meaty, this is an elegant mid-weight Shiraz with an attractive riff of five spice to its juicy blood plum and ripe but sinewy tannins. Lovely persistence and balance. An unshowy, classy Shiraz which spent 20 months in French hogheads (33% new). 14.5% UK RRP £32
Schild Estate Moorooroo Limited Release Shiraz 2012 (Barossa Valley, South Australia)
“Their survival [the Moorooroo vines] has been a direct result of their consistent quality over the years which has ensured the fruit has always been in demand. This coupled with some good fortune in avoiding the vine pull in the early 1980’s when a broken down tractor we understand saved them at the eleventh hour. The historical importance is backed up more importantly by their innate ability to take whatever is thrown at them in their stride when some of our younger vines become stressed. They are in many ways the “ultimate professional” of the stable.” Scott Hazeldine, Chief Winemaker at Schild Estate
The vineyard was planted by Johan and William Jacob in 1847 between Jacob’s Creek and the North Para River in the Rowland Flat/Lyndoch sub-region in the southern end of the Barossa (Moorooroo is Aborginal for “meeting of two waters”). Just four rows of vines have survived. Soils are ancient alluvial loam and sand over limestone. The average yield is between 1.8-2t/acre.
Tasting note: a touch of greenness to nose and palate with some astringency to the oak, despite its sweet mocha. Once you get beyond the oak, the palate has the mellow, rolling, slightly mulchy vegetal (fenugreek?) and pronounced spicy liquorice character that endears me to Wendouree, Kay Brothers and S.C. Pannell’s new Koomilya DC Block Shiraz. Nice length and balance, so shame about the astringency – give it time? 14.5% UK RRP £47.50
As Hodder pointed out during the discussion, a complex matrix of factors (including genes, fashion, economics, variety and viticultural conditions) explain why old vines remain in the ground. However, I couldn’t help but notice that sandy soils were a fairly common thread for the 15 old vine wines tasted. They seem to augur well vis a vis longevity by reason of good root penetration in Australia’s warmer, drier regions (nutrient and water uptake ) and phylloxera resistence – most reassuring on the viability front. On water uptake, almost all the old vineyards were still dry-farmed in the traditional way, so good root penetration is key to survival.
As for the fruit of old vines, resulting wines seemed themselves to have a maturity. Fruit was intense rather than flamboyant. Balance was impressive in terms of good freshness/persistence, also a balanced flavour profile (beyond tutti frutti, with a healthy dose of savoury, spicy and mineral notes too). Spices ( and tannins) that didn’t just smack of oak artefact either.
Some of the wines might have benefited from less new oak but, on the other hand, probably my favourite wine of the tasting, Old Garden Mourvedre, sees 100% new oak! What’s more, I think this is a subjective, stylistic preference on my part, plus the wines were mostly quite young.
On reds, it’s also worth adding that old vines’ lower yields don’t necessarily mean dense wines. This was abundantly clear to me from my August visit in which I explored ‘pinosity’ in warm climate reds from the Barossa, McLaren Vale and the Hunter Valley. For Bekkers, “[W]e can influence berry size in old vines with irrigation very effectively but it compromises flavour and colour intensity. To my mind, managing the density of the fruit is probably better done as part of the winemaking process – a conscious decision to leave behind anything bitter or aggressively tannic that might mask the finer, prettier elements.” Or, as fellow McLaren Vale producer Steve Pannell puts it, “I wind it up and put it in the bottle and let them go when they have a tension between intensity, power and elegance.” You’ll find my report on his ‘wind up’ techniques here.
The white wines were thoroughly interesting, still unravelling two hours in, especially the Tanunda. They represented great value for such intensity and character. What a shame so many old white vines have ‘copped it.’ And what a shame no old vine Hunter Semillons (remarkable value for money) were submitted. Going back to Hewitson’s comments about the symbiosis between a grape variety and place, the Hunter and Semillon are plainly a match made in heaven in this challenging region, with its short growing season. No doubt this is why so many old Semillon vines have survived.
Looking ahead, Hewitson sees no reason why Old Garden will not continue producing healthy yields well into the future. But, when these aged vines do reach the end of their useful life, let’s hope heritage cuttings (I know Wynns, Hewitson & Tyrrell’s are planting them) will not only inherit the mothervine’s ‘survival of the fittest’ attributes, but also preserve the original vine’s very individual expression of site for future generations.
With so many natural advantages quite aside from the historic interest, it dawned on me looking at the line up that Australia/producers could make more of their old vine heritage. For example, why not make wider use the Barossa Old Vine Charter categories on labels (or print them in larger type-face)? Perhaps even extend the charter/its categories outside the Barossa? And when old vines are so special, why not shout about having the oldest known examples in the world – an authentic Victorian (era not state) sideshow at the big fairs. It’s not like Australians to be shy!