Meeting up with an acquaintance in Germany recently, I was hosted to a tasting of wines made from 50 to 150 year-old vineyards. Suddenly it was about more than the maturation of the wine or the age of the barrel. Here we had a different element of heritage at play.
With plenty of business savvy, John Geber’s enthusiasm for the old vines of Château Tanunda can easily be seen as marketing talk, but when he presents you with a rare tasting of his Old Vine Expression series, it is clear that he finds personal joy in how the wine expresses his passion for history.
And he is not alone. Finding old vines in the South African wine industry is almost like treasure hunting. The Old Vine Project not only aims at identifying and protecting South African vineyards older than 35 years, they also present Old Vine Heritage Tours sharing a valuable opportunity to learn more about historic vines.
But does wine made from older vines actually taste better or is this whole excitement rather about saluting the survival of these vines in a way that honours history and adds a bit of romance for a story-loving world?
A good answer comes from the San Francisco Chronicle quoting winemaker Tegan Passalacqua: “I don’t know if we can say that old vines are better. But I think they’re more stable. As they age, vines learn to self-regulate. Yields come into balance, and grapes ripen more evenly. Older vines often produce smaller berries, which can lead to more structured wines; there’s a greater ratio of tannin-packed skin to juice.”
Historic vineyards are often dry-land bushvines with exceptional root depth. “Underground is where you get all these flavor complexities, all the microbial activity,” says the same article. “Because of these deep roots, older vines are just greater translators of that complexity.”
Even if the quality is exceptional, are old vine wines financially viable? I think this question is answered by the scarcity of old vines – especially in South Africa. Does old vines survive because of passion rather than profit? Perhaps. But that is also fine.
It makes sense that rather than the age of the vine, what are important to wine drinkers are the specific vintage, the time spent in barrel and the recommended maturation period. But who can blame John Gerber when he is proud to have a wine tasting note reading: “One of the oldest field blends in the world of Grenache, Mourvedre and Malbec planted in 1858. … home to classified ‘Ancestor’ vines, dry grown as bushvines on their original rootstock.”
Having a sense of history and heritage is the reason for museums and archives, history books, classic movies and folklore. It keeps us true to our roots. Old vines do the same. They keep the history of wine alive in a way that we can actually enjoy.