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World of Wine: ‘Old vine’ vs. ‘young vine’

On a recent windy and rainy night, my lovely wife served my favorite comfort food for dinner: spaghetti and meatballs.

Going through my “wine cellar” collection, I came upon an “old vine” zinfandel to complement the meal. The winery was Ravenswood, 2011 vintage, from Sonoma County, Calif.

But what is the difference between “old” vine and “young” vine?

I’m unquestionably old at the south end of my 70s, but what do wineries consider old? In checking their website, I find the vines that resulted in this delicious wine were into their 35th year. For a grape vine, the old designation begins at this point – with their normal life expectancy being about 70 years.

So how does a current-vintage grape get to be considered old when it was just produced this growing season on new vine growth? According to those in the know, it’s the roots and their long migration and mining of the soil. Extensive roots will follow the paths of least resistance, hitting pockets of minerals in lower or greater concentrations that are used in growth and producing fruit.

Expect to pay more for an old vine varietal than one not labeled as such. The reason being, the older a vine gets, the more its production slows. Wines made from old vines are typically more intense, complex and concentrated than those from younger vines in their prime of production.

Generally, the young, highly productive vines will yield a wine that has a recognizable immaturity about it. Most beginning wineries producing their own grapes will inform their customers that the wine in the bottle is from a young vineyard. This would alert the savvy customer to expect a very drinkable wine that can only improve as the vines continue to age. A freshly planted vineyard will not produce grapes of any quantity for the following three years.

What’s a vineyard to do with old vines producing fewer, but more cherished grapes? The larger estates will have a mix of vines of various ages, and many will mix the young grape wines with the older ones to make a slightly less expensive but very delicious wine.

Old vines are expressed in their country’s language as well: “vigna vechia” (Italian), or “vielle vignes” (French), “alte reben” (German), and vinas viejas” (Spanish).

Expect to pay more for bottles labeled as such, and less for bulk-produced wines where production is high and grapes are not selective.

European and older American vineyards are getting around to more varietal blending to reach a wider spectrum of the potential market. High-priced wine does not always translate into the best-tasting wine, although that would be a normal expectation. For most of us who love to drink wine with our food, the wines priced in the $15-$20 range (or less!) can bring us plenty of enjoyment.