Our upcoming French Collection has more old vine wine than any other collection we’ve sourced. Call it our “old souls” collection...

But is that a good thing?

More on that in a moment. But first… Why do wine glasses have stems?

This week, resident expert Julien Miquel explains the classic stemmed wine glass shape… from its aesthetics… to its practical benefits… and when you might want to use your wine glass for something else entirely…

A Collection of Old Souls (continued)

Winemaking is a calling best answered sooner rather than later.

Once you’ve planted your grape vines you might wait 5 years for a fruit you can harvest... then 5 more for a wine that you can drink.

Young vines, callow youths that they are, don’t always self-regulate well. They soak up too much water. The sap pumps too hard through their veins. Their grapes swell too fast. Their leaves get too big. You can sometimes tell a young vine wine; it will have a “green” taste and mouthfeel. All tannin, no depth.

Most of the wines in your local shop come from vines in the 12 to 25 year range. In that age bracket, maturation happens in a more controlled manner, producing greater complexity in flavor and more rounded tannins (even if, like a good Barolo, they can still claw your cheeks). At the age of 25 vines cease to be considered young or mature... and are simply labeled “old.”

Long-time readers (and malbec fans) know great wines come from vines that struggle – thus the preference for poor soil, little water, and extreme temperature swings. The struggle forces the vine to focus on its grapes rather than its foliage, creating dark, deep wines. As a vine reaches “old” age, a similar process takes place.

The vine’s water intake drops. The sap gets thick, moving at a glacial pace. In this state of privation, the vine learns to waste nothing. Its trunk grows thin (even as the bark itself gets gnarly). Its leaves shrink. What nutrients it does soak up are distributed gradually, carefully, among the grape bunches. As with extreme altitude wines, the juice yield will be lower, but the expression of terroir far more vibrant, and the wine more concentrated.

If many vines don’t make it past the age of 25 it is for two reasons. There is disagreement among winemakers about this, but common wisdom has it that as vines age, the yield drops substantially (less juice = fewer bottles = fewer dollars). Some studies disagree and, in fact, describe the opposite happening. The winemakers we know, and our own experience, suggest that the studies are missing something.

After yield, the second reason is simply fashion. If merlot’s out and pinot’s in... then so too are the merlot and pinot vines.

According to Guinness World Records, the world’s oldest vine is a 400 year old “zametovka” vine in Slovenia. Apparently it still produces 100 half-pint bottles a year (which Slovenian dignitaries like to give as gifts to their foreign counterparts; Bill Clinton is said to have a bottle). Some among the English maintain that the Slovenian vine lacks full documentation and that henceforth their schiava grossa vine – dubbed The Great Vine and planted in 1768 at Hampton Court Palace on the River Thames – should be the rightful possessor of the superlative. So far Guinness remains unmoved; the English must content themselves with the title of “largest vine in the world.”

Old vines aren’t terribly common in Europe’s largest wine producing regions. Long-time readers may divine why... phylloxera. The same blight that wiped out malbec in France, wiped out just about everything else. And after that came a great frost. And after that came two world wars. Hence, the world’s oldest syrah vines reside not in the Rhône Valley, but in Australia (where they are called shiraz). California has 130-year-old plots of Zinfandel and Grenache. In Argentina, particularly in the Calchaquí Valley, it’s rather common to come across centenarian vines.

To raise old vines in France one must not mind a struggle, principally against the marketplace and its demand for vast quantities and trendy varietals. As writer and importer Kermit Lynch noted during his tour of France many years ago: “fewer and fewer winemakers are willing to take the risks it requires to make wine in the traditional way... enology is replacing the artistic side of winemaking.”

But the French are, after all, the French – the same people who set fire to McDonald’s restaurants to make a point about Roquefort cheese. And so, a growing undercurrent of winemakers are opting to embrace the old over the new.

Long-time readers will know Olivier Ramé, winemaker in the Languedoc (specifically the lesser known region of Cabardès), who still weeds and harvests his 30 year old vine rows by hand. He also refuses to use chemicals or lab grown yeast, and while his wines would certainly qualify as organic, he can’t be bothered dealing with bureaucrats to get the certification. He prefers to let his wines, drawn limestone soils (the crushed shells of sea creatures from eons ago), with an inky hue and powerful fruit expressions, speak for themselves.

North of Olivier, by the banks of Bordeaux’s Garonne River, Jérome Gouin isn’t terribly concerned with labels either. He’s a farmer at his core. Working in the shadow of an old ruined tower, he and his wife handle every grape bunch by hand as their young daughter weaves among the old rows in midday games of hide and seek. His cab sauv/merlot/cab franc Bordeaux (technically Côtes de Bordeaux because his plots sit in an area designated for sweet wines – long story) is a sturdy red with a plum nose, and spicy vanilla plus cacao in the mouth. We suspect his wine has inherited the longevity of his vines with a cellar life of over ten years.

France is a country that seems to always be in the throes of an identity crisis – ever caught between a drive to exterminate (sometimes in bloody fashion) the past and a deep belief that la France… its culture… its patrimony… are precisely what make it superior to every other nation on earth.

Treading the line between these warring factions are the country’s winemakers. For our part, we’d suggest that the most innovative among them, the most forward thinking, are precisely those who dare look to the past.

A bientôt,

The Wine Explorer

Bonner Private Wine Partnership