Age Matters

Everyone refers to “old vines” reverentially. The precise definition of ‘old’ varies enormously–legitimately depending on the varietal (Zinfandel and Pinot Noir do not have the same lifespan)–and more subjectively depending on whether you are speaking to a winemaker/viticulturist or someone in the marketing department. I have heard some in the public relations field refer to ten year-old Chardonnay vines as “old,” while some winemakers think those same vines are barely suitable for making wine.

Why Do Old Vines Produce Better Wines?

Most everyone agrees that old vines produce better wines. But why? Why do old vines produce better fruit and hence, more complex wines? Explanations abound. But in medicine, when there are competing explanations or treatments, the reality is that no one really knows. I suspect the same is true with this topic.

I’ve heard the following plausible explanations: the roots go deeper and extract more from the soil. The roots go deeper and find a stable and consistent water table. Older vines are naturally low yielding and hence the grapes have more concentrated flavors.

I’ve heard the following philosophical explanations: Older vines, like older people, have learned to adapt over time. (I know many people who have become more rigid with age). Older vines, like older people, are wiser. (How that translates into better fruit escapes me).

Perhaps the best explanation came from an insightful observation from Doug Frost, MW, several years ago as we were standing among hundred year-old vines in Priorat. Maybe, he surmised, it has nothing to do with the vines themselves; maybe their age–and their ability to live so long–is just a marker for a perfect match between vine, soil and climate. Vines that lived for a hundred years were planted in the perfect place and hence, produced the finest fruit. It’s an explanation that makes sense.

Taste the Difference

It’s rare to have a chance to taste for yourself that old vines do make a dramatic difference. After all, how do you know that what you taste is solely the result of vine age? Maybe the difference is due to the winemaker or just the quality of the site. That’s why a pair of wines served recently at a dinner at Blantyre, the Relais and Chateaux resort in Lenox, Massachusetts was so illuminating.

The guest was Pierre Morey, owner and winemaker at his domaine in Meursault, as well as his négociant house (Morey Blanc, also located in Meursault), and, until this year, winemaker at Domaine Leflaive, perhaps the greatest white wine domaine in Burgundy. At dinner, there was an enlightening comparison of Leflaive’s 1996 Bienvenues Bâtard Montrachet with their 1989 Chevalier Montrachet. Both were riveting wines. The ’89 showed the alluring complexity in white Burgundy that comes with age while maintaining extraordinary freshness. The ’96, whose flavors were buttressed by the impressive acidity of that year, was just starting to turn the corner from young to mature–at 12 years of age.

But to me, the pairing of the evening was a 2004 Domaine Leflaive Meursault 1er Cru, Sous le Dos D’Ane and a 2004 Domaine Pierre Morey Meursault Les Tessons, a village wine. Although the 1er cru should have been a better wine because it came from a more exalted site, it paled in comparison to Morey’s village Meursault. Morey explained that his vines in the Les Tessons vineyard averaged 35 years of age, while the ones in the 1er Cru vineyard were only 7 years old, having recently been replanted with Chardonnay replacing the Pinot Noir that Leflaive had grown there for decades. (Leflaive would have grafted the Chardonnay onto the existed Pinot Noir rootstock, but believed that, at 55 years of age, they were too old. Hence, they opted to replant the vineyard).

Leflaive’s Sous le Dos D’Ane (literally, ‘under the donkey’s back’) bottling, made from a site which Morey himself agreed was superior to Les Tessons, is more expensive than Morey’s Les Tessons because of its pedigree. At this stage, however, it lacked the incredible complexity, definition and length of the Les Tessons. Morey, one of Burgundy’s great winemakers, made both wines, so the difference cannot be attributed to differences in the talents of different winemakers.

The superiority of Morey’s Les Tessons lies in the age of the vines. Morey believes that Chardonnay vines in Burgundy need a minimum of 15 years of age before they produce quality wine. When I asked him why old vines made better wines, he gave the unique Gallic shrug–as if to say that’s one of the many unknowns about wine. He acknowledged that in another decade or so, Leflaive’s Sous le Dos D’Ane would surpass his Tessons as the vines in that 1er Cru vineyard matured.

No ‘One Right Way’

As with most things about wine, it’s just not that simple. Michael Silacci, winemaker at Opus One, reminded me that Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon that shocked the French–and showed the world that California could make world-class wine– when it came in first at the 1976 Paris tasting was made from three year old vines. And although I have not tasted this wine for decades, reliable assessments from recent tastings confirm that it has aged beautifully.

The 1985 Ornellaia, the winery’s first vintage, is another example of a great wine made from young vines (Ludivico Antinori started planting his estate in 1982). Acclaimed and glorious to drink upon release, the 1985 Ornellaia showed magnificently at a tasting a few years ago, confirming that young vines can produce wines that develop beautifully. Clearly, great wine doesn’t have to come from old vines. The variation in vine age of the ’85 Ornellaia and Morey’s 2004 Meursault Les Tessons reinforces the general principle that there’s no ‘one right way’ to make an exceptional wine.

Other winemakers have told me that although young vines can produce high-quality fruit and make outstanding wines–as the ’73 Stag’s Leap Cabernet and ’85 Ornellaia demonstrated–they don’t produce exceptional grapes year after year. When asked why, one started to speak of the inconsistencies of adolescence. When talking about vine age, I think Morey’s Gallic shrug says it all.

May 5, 2009