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Are Old Vines Special?

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Gnarled, "head-trained" Zinfandel vines that have been producing winegrapes in the Dry Creek Valley for over a century. Gnarled, "head-trained" Zinfandel vines that have been producing winegrapes in the Dry Creek Valley for over a century.

By Dan Clarke

We tasted Dry Creek Vineyard’s 2016 Old Vine Zinfandel recently.

Dry Creek Vnyd 2016 Zinfandel OldVine label Picmonkey

We liked it and thought it a good candidate for Taste California Travel’s Wine Pick of the Week feature.

In writing about these “Wine Picks” over the years, we’ve tried to bring you a little background about each wine, not just our opinion of its worth or the usual litany of descriptors wine writers apply to wines. We’ll save you from reading those here. Besides, we’re tired of reading (and, sometimes writing) about wines that are jammy, fully of blackberries (raspberries, too), brambly or even finish with a hint of pepper. At least for today, we’re retiring from spewing that kind of drivel.

However, we can give you some brief details about this wine. Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley has been producing Zinfandel grapes for well over 100 years. The similarly-named Dry Creek Vineyard is a winery within that Dry Creek Valley appellation and has been making excellent Zin for decades. At present, they produce eight different bottlings of this grape varietal, one of these being their “Old Vine Zinfandel” definition. As far as we know, this winery was the first to use the phrase “old vine” when labeling a Zinfandel. Though there is no official definition of the term, grapes crushed for this Dry Creek Vineyard bottling average 95 years old—that’s old, even by the standards of your correspondent. The wine is predominantly Zinfandel (78%), with the inclusion of some Petite Sirah (19%) and a little Carignane (3%). The suggested retail is $35.

Maybe another voice would be helpful here. We contacted Tim Bell, Dry Creek Vineyard’s winemaker, to get his take on what makes the wine made from old Zinfandel vines so unusual. He responded as follows:

“Many old vine vineyards have a unique and spicy character not always found in newer plantings. I can’t help but believe it’s a combination of the vineyard site, age, and—perhaps most importantly—the mix of varieties that comes with these old field blend vineyards. Each vineyard’s blend of varieties gives each vineyard a unique character.

Tim Bell DCV 2 Picmonkey"I feel a certain sense of reverence. . . "    --Tim Bell

 

“I feel a certain sense of reverence and a wonderful connection to generations past whenever I’m in old vine vineyards. I once worked with a vineyard manager who said of an old vineyard we worked on together, ‘Years ago people were working this vineyard with horses and plows! Now we’re in here with tractors.’ He was so excited and energized by that sense of history that it was infectious. It’s also fun to see what different red grapes they chose to intersperse with the Zinfandel. I like to see if I can pick out what plants are something other than Zin. I wonder why they planted this particular variety here? Was it just chance? Why did this odd white grape get planted, and in this particular place? I like to think about what the wines they made in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s tasted like, how they might have been different from what we make today. I’ve never forgotten how good it feels to keep tending these old plants year-to-year.

“The best old vine vineyards have naturally lower yields and don’t need as much fruit thinning. We get wines that are just a little bit more concentrated and powerful. Along with the wonderful fruit flavors and aromas, there are often some other unique underlying characters: white pepper, cardamom, rose petal, earthiness, leather—it’s really wonderful.”

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