Old vines have a strange effect on winemakers. They exert an emotional pull close to enchantment – a kind of sylvan magic that becomes more powerfully bewitching the older the vine is. You notice it most keenly when you’re with a winegrower in their vineyard. You see the affection as they pat the trunks of the oldest plants, the wistful misting over of the eyes as they proudly reel off the vines’ age. The relationship may be emotional, but it’s not irrational, even if the science on the subject is somewhat sketchy and undeveloped.
Vine age is not a guarantee of quality in wine: many very bad wines are made from very old vines, and many good ones are made from relatively youthful plants. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of winemakers agree: an unusually high proportion of the world’s most beautiful wines are the product of vines between 50 and 100 plus years old.
Indeed, the hunt for a neglected plot of old vines – the more remote, the better – has become a rite of passage for ambitious winemakers. Their discoveries, from Spain’s Sierra de Gredos mountains to South Africa’s Swartland and California’s Santa Cruz mountains, have transformed the received wisdom about where it’s possible to produce great wine.
Of course, for an old vineyard to be rediscovered it first has to be neglected. So, why, if old vines are so special, do many of them end up either abandoned or ripped up and replaced by younger plants? And why is that process actively encouraged…