Sunday, July 08, 2018

Old Vine Vs. Old Wine: A Modern-Day Dilemma

In today’s hyper-rarefied clime in which the world’s wine elite bask, for most folks the access to ancient and great old wine can often seem unreachable. If you peruse the many impressive sights, whether it be on Instagram, blogs, paywall-protected wine websites, or pertinent Uniform Resource Locator’s on your phone, tablet or laptop, you might think the world is one giant wine library of Alexandria, waiting for the next abecedarian to enter.

I rather think there are more old wines out there than you might imagine. Recently I have been giving chase to an ancient cache of Langhe reds that sit in a cellar in northern Italy. It seems when the old guys die, their wives often don’t care as much about their collection as their husbands did. Fair enough. The departed langhetti left their widows with a liquid retirement account, only to be swooped up a discerning (and discreet) chandler.

In reality, I’ve had more than my fair share of historical wine from all over the world. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Port, Napa Valley, Piedmont, Tuscany, Basilicata, Sicily and so on. So much that I’ve come up with a view of old wine that, from the perspective of my age now, has changed from 20 or 30 years ago. I’ve written about this from time to time, and those who read this weekly missive know of my thoughts on this.

But something a long-time friend and colleague told me the other day struck a chord. He, like myself, is a veteran of the wine business, and has tasted and, most likely, amassed a collection of wine that is ageing, like us. When I mentioned to him that he should come over and we should open some older wine to enjoy, he breviloquently countered with, “I’d rather have a young wine that tastes fresh than a tired old wine.” Fair enough, I know where he’s coming from.

I too, have encountered more than my share of senile, crawling to the finish line, and often, D.O.A. vinous cadavers in my life. I’ve also found some intriguing and perplexing challenges to what I think a great old wine should taste like. The 1968 Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon that I had recently was a textbook example of a wine that I did not imagine how it would fare after a life of 50 years. And, indeed, it dazzled me with its array of aromas and flavors. It was a wine like I had never had before. But those kinds of experiences are rare.

And with the rarities of the world, wines like Chateau Lafite or Latour, DRC, Conterno’s Monfortino, Giacosa’s Barolo Rocche del Falletto, to taste these kinds of wines in their youth, let alone from 40 or 50 years ago, has become increasingly rarer to find, afford and experience.

I’ve come up with an alternate universe in which access, to the many who are not ensconced in some high tower of the wine world, might be more than a wish and a hope. And that is a world with a preponderance of wines available today which are not old, but made from old vines. Found on the shelves of fine wine retail stores, on wine lists and maybe even already on some shelf or closet in your home.

The term old vine has been bandied about by wine marketers for as long as I can remember. In my travels, on the wine trail in Italy, I’ve encountered ancient vines on Mt. Etna, in Piedmont, in the Valtellina, in Tuscany. Almost anywhere there are vines in Italy, there are old people and old vines. They often go together, with the human telling the story of the vine, as though he or she were talking about their grandmother or grandfather.

On Etna and in Piedmont I’ve seen ancient un-grafted vines (pre-phylloxera) which their caretakers say can be up to 150 years old.

A few words about old vines and old humans. In my experience, when a human gets old, he or she often resembles an old wine, more than an old vine. For some reason (and not in all cases) the two expressions have their better moments, their peaks, their valleys and a life span that has an evolution and a conclusion. For many old wines, like old people, it can lead to a state of senility.

But old vines, as I see it, find their latitude in other ways. For one, they are stationary, and subject to whatever comes their way in terms of weather, the hand of humankind, and geological change. A human or a bottle can be moved around, jostled from place to place, and exposed to any number or variables which could affect their health and life span.

A vine moves through the universe like a passenger on a spaceship. The seat has been bought and paid for and there they sit. And whatever comes their way, they must adapt and survive. Their options are limited. And in that sense, simplified. But they must develop (or have in their DNA) this resilience that allow for a long and, hopefully, productive life.

Looking recently at 100-year-old vines in Valdobbiadene near the grand cru Cartizze site, I mused over the life of those vines. They weathered two world wars, and in a locale that saw heavy fighting, rough, cruel, bombardments, pummeled mercilessly. As I walked a particularly old row, I saw younger vines planted nearby, in the place of an older vine that had died. It wasn’t an old-folks home kind of vineyard, in which everything had been planted eons ago. Some lived longer than others, just like in humankind. And the young and the old lived together, much of which humankind did until modern times changed that and we went to a mono-culture of sorts, shuttling the elders off to assisted living homes. I think the older vines got the better end of the deal. They are still breathing the air they grew up in and they have common environs in which they have learned to survive and adapt. Yes, they must compete for water and other nutrients form the earth with their younger counterparts. And yes, they must be resilient enough to balance it all out and still produce fruit at harvest time. How much more of a recommendation for drinking a wine than for the simple act of a bottle, no matter how well it was made and from whatever praiseworthy vineyard it came from, to have survived time? Not to minimize that, and the evolution a wine can undergo in 30-40-50 years, sitting silently, coolly and peacefully in a cellar. But that old vine, outside, under the volcano, with the punishing Sirocco winds from Africa, the frigid winter at high altitude, and with predators on the ground and flittering about. Not to mention global climate change. And still, those 100+-year-old vines in Vignabosco, right now are putting out fruit for the next harvest. I find that characteristic very compelling, and as a wine-lover that’s a wine that pulls me towards it, probably much more than the elusive (and most likely unobtainable) Unicorn from Cannubi.

It's something many of us can still access and enjoy, and there’s a great story to boot. Young vines, planted in 1868 (or 1900 or 1930), somewhere on earth, living out their life, season after season. Sometimes abandoned, sometimes in the fog of battle and warfare. Sometimes around humans and sometimes left alone, for 20-40-60 years. But still true to their nature, every year dropping fruit. Maybe in some years, wine was made. Maybe the birds or the deer or the wild boar gets them. But never giving up, never letting go. Holding on. In the thick of their life. And doing what they have been put on this earth to do. I don’t know how one cannot find this inspirational. It energizes me. It makes me want to be stronger, healthier, a better person. And what did those old vines do to sway me so?

They persisted. They held true to their calling. They survived, even when they were utterly forsaken. And they still produce this gift of wine from their deepest core of being, in unison with Mother Earth.

Think about that, the next time you encounter that modern-day dilemma of what to drink tonight. How about inviting an old friend, and the wine from their grapes?

 written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Ole Udsen said...


Old vines are really something else, and something to which I am increasingly drawn. The wines from old vines tend to have an inner core of intensity and strength that lends a different aspect, something at the edge of palpable.

For me, the heartland of old vines in Italy these days is Irpinia. Several producers do wines from vines that are exceedingly old. My friend Raffaele Guastaferro (whose wines I now import to Denmark, so beware of bias), for instance, makes his Taurasi Primum and Primum Riserva from aglianico vines of 150-200 years of age. They have amazing ferocity, character and expressivity, coupled with an aristocratic/austere demeanour that lends elegance.

Keep up the good work!


Αγγελική Τσιώλη said...

I am a Greek oenologist from Germany and discovered recently your blog. I read this post attracted by its title and enjoyed the dilemma and its description. Also read your Greek Paradox, very true!

There is a point I wanted to add for contemplation, though. Old vines have another big enemy to fight for their survival: the wood diseases, like esca and co. It's a big issue all over the world and requires attention, this is why I am making this point here, under your article about old vines. It seems that some very old almost abandoned vines have better survived this kind of diseases thanks to the lack of pruning, one of the reasons for the dissemination of the responsible pathogens.

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