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What’s an Old Vine?

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By Dan Clarke

“Old Vine Zinfandel” is seen on more than just a few bottles these days.  Obviously, wine marketers figure the phrase resonates with consumers. But what does it mean?

There is no official definition of the age a vine must be to qualify as an “old vine,” but 50 years would seem a fair standard for joining the club.

Dry Creek 2018 OldVineZin label Picmonkey

Why don’t we hear of “Old Vine Cabernet” or old vine examples of other varieties? Well, Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and other currently popular varieties existed in the California of yore, but not much vineyard acreage was devoted to them.  Cabernet was a long way from the popular, top-of-the-pyramid wine it is today. There were some great ones though. An opportunity to experience old, very old, examples of Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon at a tasting and dinner hosted a few years ago by Francis Ford Coppola made for an unforgettable evening. Tasting the 1933 and 1935 vintages put to rest that “California wines don’t age well” comment I’d heard from some Francophiles.

While Cabernet Sauvignon was a rarity in California during the 19th and early 20th Century, Zinfandel was ubiquitous. It was the “workhorse” of the wine industry. A century ago, the grape had established itself as a favorite among growers in such locations as the Sierra Foothills, Lodi and the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County—areas still known for great quality Zinfandel in our current era.  

The productive life of a vineyard begins to wane after a few decades and current viticultural practice is to pull vines out and replant when they reach 30 or 40 years of age. We suspect that grape growers in years past tended not to do such replanting, figuring that economic losses due to slightly diminished production over the years were preferable to bearing the cost of replanting all at one time. Also, we’ve talked to growers who’ve spoken of how much their fathers and grandfathers liked the quality of the wines made from the fruit they were getting from their long-established vineyards.

A Fine Example of an Old Vine Zin

Whatever the reasons, today’s Zin fans are the beneficiaries of those growers who left their vines well enough alone.  Five such vineyards are sources of the fruit in the 2018 Old Vine Zinfandel from Dry Creek Vineyard. These vineyards have not been replanted. They average over 100-years old.

The ancient vines are pruned in a method often called “head trained” and grow in a gnarled, bushy shape which doesn’t lend itself to the efficiencies of modern pruning and harvesting techniques (see photo of one Dry Creek Old Vine vineyards above). They do, however, produce exceptional fruit, albeit not very much of it. These venerable properties yield just one to two tons of grapes per acre, way less than what would be viable production for contemporary Zinfandel vineyards.

Dry Creek Vineyard’s 2018 Old Vine Zinfandel is comprised of 80% Zinfandel, 20% Petite Sirah and 1% Carignane. These latter two grape varieties are often blended with Zinfandel. Whether they were vinified separately or crushed with the Zinfandel, we don’t know. (Years ago, it was popular to plant more than one variety in a vineyard in what was called a “field blend.” All of the grapes would be harvested and crushed together, producing the desired flavor characteristics, went the theory.)

Priced at a suggested retail of $38, the wine isn’t cheap, but it is special. With the 2018 Old Vine Zinfandel from Dry Creek Vineyard, you’re drinking history. At 14.5% alcohol it’s powerful enough, but not so big as to be in that over-the-top style so popular a few years ago. The nose shows predominately blackberry aromas, backed by some cocoa and spice notes. On the palate there is more of that blackberry quality, along with what the winemaker calls “brambly layers of black cherry.” Nuance is what gives a wine complexity--you tend to identify different aspects of its personality with each sip. We like the subtle background of nutmeg and pepper—white pepper, to be more specific—that backs up the berry-like main flavor theme. It feels full and round in the mouth and exhibits an evolved and easy-drinking personality.

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