When it comes to wine, age is all the rage. Dusty bottles with peeling labels are proudly displayed, library stock carefully cultivated, rare vintages bragged about and traded…
It’s no secret that old wines are a good time (unless a cruel twist of fate or cork taint has turned your prized vintage more Balsamico than Barbaresco). But what about old vines? Old vines are dotted around the world over. Santorini and the Barossa even boast some of the oldest centenarians. The only problem was, how old was “old”? While the rest of the world debated this issue, South Africa swooped in and became the first country to give old a number, creating a new category of wine. The age of seniority? 35 years old, marked with the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal announcing the year the vineyard was planted.
So what makes old vines so special? Is it merely a badge of honour? A medal of survival for evading vineyard renewal and weathering extreme conditions? Or are they sentimental attachments to our heritage? While the answer might be all of the above, science has given us something more concrete when it comes to questions of quality.
Just as our brains continue to develop well into our 30s, wisdom teeth appear long past the tooth fairy’s retirement and we begin to wear Birkenstocks without a shred of irony, vines, too, continue to develop with age. Professor Johan Burger at Stellenbosch University recently explored the genetic expressions of older vines compared to their younger selves. While the long explanation involves many science-y terms like RNA sequencing, metabolites and hormone signalling, I’ll give it to you simply: old vines take longer to ripen, resulting in berries with less sugar, more acidity and greater complexity. In other words, quality grapes with intense flavours.
Yet, when it comes to drinking old vine wine, it’s not a matter of taste, but one of texture. “Over the last few years of speaking to winemakers across the world, the consistent response on the question of why wines made from old vines taste different, is complexity, texture, mid-palate weight, a perceived brightness,” says André Morgenthal, manager of the Old Vine Project.
So while there’s value inside the bottle… what about the outside? Mark Twain pointed out that clothes make the man as naked people have little or no influence on society. Wine producers have taken this golden nugget of advice and found great worth in dressing their wine with “old vine” on the label — R103,60 for a 35-year-old vine, to be exact. Jonathan Steyn and David Priilaid, respectively from UCT’s Graduate School of Business and School of Management Studies, analysed wine labels and found that old vine cues have a serious impact on a wine’s final price. “Every year a vine has been in the ground is worth R2,96,” says Jonathan Steyn. “That’s quite a significant premium.” Considering that 82% of wines in South Africa are priced below R48, that’s significant indeed.
However, while winemakers and suppliers might consider old vine wines as worthy of a premium, there’s no research as to what actual consumers — you — think of old vine wines. How much are you willing to pay for old vine status? How persuasive is the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal on that crowded wine shelf? In an already extensive glossary of wine lingo, will vine age have an impact when it comes to choosing the perfect bottle?
Certainly, the story of old vines contains many elements: a sense of time and place; a factual telling of genetics and taste; a tale of perception. Perhaps the question we should be asking is whether the power of the old vine story is strong enough to secure a future where vine age becomes just as important as wine age or vintage? But there’s still time for that side of the story to unfold. After all, the older the vine, the longer the story.