Margaret Rand reveals everything you ever wanted to know about so-called old vines in her bid to discover whether the wines they make are really any better than those from younger plantings

There is a terrible temptation to anthropomorphize vines, as in, Make life difficult for them and they'll work harder; or, They don't like to get their feet wet; and, relevant to this piece, When they're old, they have less energy but more wisdom.

You know it's gone too far when you start speaking louder and slower in the presence of ancient vines. Centenarian humans are admired for the mere fact of still breathing. Centenarian vines are-gosh!-100 years old! And-gosh!-they're so twisted and gnarled! They look so old! And they produce, you know, tiny crops, but the wine is so concentrated...

Is the parallel with human life relevant? Are old vines remarkable in themselves, or are they actually better, more efficient, more reliable? When do they reach their peak? One hundred years is not extreme for a vine. The oldest living grapevine in the world, it is said, is to be found in the Slovenian town of Maribor; it's a Žametovka vine, and in 1972 a Paris laboratory tested it and said it was at least 400 years old then. The Black Hamburg growing at Hampton Court is a mere youngster at 244 years. If vines aren't uprooted, they're most likely to die of wood diseases, often brought to them via pruning cuts. Otherwise they go on living.

They also go on producing grapes-and not in tiny quantities, either. Fewer grapes, but not a tiny amount. Paul Draper of Ridge reckons to get between 1.5 and 3 tons per acre 0.4ha), from vines planted 8ft x 8ft (2.4m x 2.4m), or 10ft x 10ft (3m x 3m), or as his Geyserville planting of 11ft 6in x 5ft (3.5m x 1.5m). Matías Calleja, winemaker at Bodegas Beronia in Rioja, reckons that a 40-year-old vine will produce 20 percent less than a 20-year-old, and then in the next 40 years the yield will drop another 15 percent. At 4,000 vines to the hectare (2.47 acres), he still reckons to get 3,500kg per hectare, even from 80-year-olds. After that age, he says, the yield maintains itself, except on poorer soils on hillsides, where it will continue to fall, maybe to 2,500kg/ha.

And the difference in the wines? Forty-year-olds, he says, give wines with "more concentration and structure. The acidity is more balanced, and the wine is more complete overall." From 80-year-olds it can be "spectacular."

Nevertheless, we've all had the pleasant surprise of tasting remarkable wines that were made from very young vines. Which brings us to another much-quoted "fact": The 1961 clarets-wines not lacking in depth or complexity-were made after the 1956 frost killed large parts of the vineyard; they were made, one might infer, from infant vines barely old enough to scrape through the AC regulations.

So, are old vines better or merely older? And if they are better, why? Christian Seely, managing director of AXA Millésimes, says of the old vines at Domaine de l'Arlot, "The wines taste different, distinctly different. They have profondeur, depth, complexity- that's in one parcel, seen over a number of years. At Pichon [Longueville], we have a combination of great terroir and vines of 50-plus. The heart of Pichon's grand vin is from the plateau overlooking Château Latour. It has deep beds of gravel, and the roots go down 7-8 meters [23-26ft]. It makes the grand vin of Pichon what it is."

As for how old is old, in Champagne, 30-35 years is old-and there are more "old vines" there now than ever before. ("For me," says Dominique Demarville, chef de cave of Veuve Clicquot, "15 is young, 20 is interesting.") At Domaine de l'Arlot, the vines of less than 30 years old in Clos des Forêts go into the second wine, and only vines older than that make the grand vin. At Lafite, the oldest vines are around 90. In the Douro, Vinhas Velhas are mixed vineyards that predate the 1970s block-planting of five selected varieties. California has its Sonoma Historic Vineyard Society to identify and protect old plantings. In the Barossa, old vines are 35 years or more, survivor vines are 70 or more, centenarian vines are what you'd expect, and ancestor vines are 125 years or more. The Barossa not only takes its old vines very seriously, and has an Old Vine Charter to protect and promote them (it was started originally by Yalumba as a way of preventing a repeat of the vine-pull scheme of the 1980s) but also has a research project with the University of Adelaide to try to establish exactly why old vines are different.

Place and time

In other words, there's no agreement. So, over to David Guimaraens, chief winemaker for the Fladgate Partnership (Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca Guimaraens, Croft, and Delaforce): "A vine has the same life cycle as a human being. You need to look after everything at first, like a young baby. You have to water it and establish it; it's hard work for the first few years. At three to four and 12 to 14 years, a vine concentrates on growing, as a child does. It focuses all its attention on establishing its root system and its permanent structure of wood. It grows a lot of greenery. In this period, its grapes are not that interesting in quality. It's forming its character, but it doesn't produce a lot. Then it has its teenage years, from 13 to 19. It's a teenager, and it will behave like a teenager. Some years it will make excellent wine, some years bloody awful wine. If, during its teenage years, its roots are still exploring virgin soil, a non-irrigated vineyard will give a true expression of terroir. Its roots are finding their balance with nature. If you irrigate a vineyard, you're messing up the balance of nature, and it can't express its terroir.

"In its teenage years, the vine has to find a balance between its roots and its structure above ground. Like a teenage child, it's still finding its place in society. Sometimes it's balanced, and sometimes it messes up. In its first 12 years a vine will never produce a great wine. It may be good, but it will never be great. From 12 to 19 years it can produce exceptional wines, but to do that it must work with nature. It can make great wines in years when nature is in balance and the vine is not pushed to its limits. You won't get consistency, though.

"From 20 until 40 or 50, the vine is at its peak of contribution. Its quality and consistency are both good. It's the same with humans. We get older, we don't produce as much, but we have wisdom and balance. That's the beauty of an old vineyard." All this throws up several more questions. One is the matter of terroir. Says Christian Seely, "If a great terroir is planted with the right vines, you can get better results from young vines than from much older vines that are not the right varieties and not planted in the right way. I'm not a worshipper of the notion of old vines for their own sake. They can give something great. But terroir is more important than the age of the vine."

Matías Calleja has an example. Beronia has some vines of about 130 years old (it is rare to know exactly when very old vineyards were planted), near the banks of the Ebro River; the river rises in winter and floods, which kills any phylloxera- useful, seeing that these vines are ungrafted. They're on sandy soil, and there aren't many of them-less than half a hectare. "The quality of grapes is good, but it's a very humid environment and the grapes get a bit big; they have plenty of water. The yield is about 2-3 kilos per vine, which is quite generous, because of the water. They're good grapes; not the very best, but good. They're not as good as they would be on a hillside. They're good both because they're pre-phylloxera and because they're very old. But if they were on poorer soils, they'd be much better quality." His next oldest vines are 70-80 years. They're grafted, and there are quite a lot of them: 20-30ha (50-75 acres). Their quality is better than those of the older, ungrafted vines, because they're in a much better spot.

Those 130-year-olds at Beronia are survivors of earlier plantings; but aren't all ancient vines just chance survivors? Whether they're on good terroir is as much a matter of chance as their survival, surely?

Louisa Rose of Yalumba makes the point that "old vines are usually there because they've been very good over many years." Draper says in California, "if vines were planted in the wrong place, they would not have survived Prohibition. Only the best vines that made the best wines survived. People could legally make four barrels of wine per household during Prohibition. Those who were interested made legal wine right through. So in California any truly old vines from the 1880s, 1900, were in the right place. Anything that survived after Prohibition was also in the right place."

If vine age makes a difference to wine flavor, it must, presumably, be because of the root structure and/or the structure above ground. Sugar for ripening grapes, Dominique Demarville points out, "comes from two things: from the leaves or from the wood. Old vines are bigger, so they have more reserves." But it's deep roots that most people focus on: deep roots that reach lower layers of soil and rock; deep roots that can find nourishment and water whatever the weather throws at the vine above ground. But of course you can't know how deep the roots are until you dig down. And actually, they may not have deep roots at all-it all depends what's underneath them. When Beronia dug up some 86-year-old vines because they were dying, it found huge discrepancies in root depth. Some went down 13-16ft (4-5m) or more, but if a vine happened to hit solid rock, it might have roots only 24in (60cm) deep.

Cut and dry

This brings us to irrigation. Can irrigation, by discouraging deep roots, destroy the advantages of age? It could do, says David Gates, vineyard manager of Ridge. He reckons that if you installed drip irrigation on an old vineyard and gave it the conventional light but almost continuous irrigation, the vine would simply concentrate on its surface roots. Gradually there would be more of those-and the deep roots would die back. At that point, the only difference between an old vine and a young one would be the extra wood above ground.

Compare and contrast California and the Barossa. Draper says that the usual method of establishing a California vine in the past was to dig a basin around each vine and hand-water it for about five years. Once established, the vines had 100 or more unirrigated years, and the roots went very deep. "These vines would not have survived if they did not have deep roots, if there was [solid] rock underneath. We get no rain from May to October... We rely on spring rains a lot, because that water gradually drops through the growing season. If we don't get spring rains, the water table may fall too low even for deeprooted vines." Have the old vines in California always been dry farmed? "Yes, unless in modern times somebody has put drip on them to increase yields."

Life is equally dry in the Barossa-just 20in (500mm) of rain a year, which is a deficit of 4in (100mm). Says Prue Henschke of Henschke, "In winter, the soil fills up and the vines start their growth with the reserves in the soil, and then there's nothing until their Christmas drink in December." Soil structures are part of the current research. The Barossa has different topsoils and different subsoil structures, and they all hold moisture differently. "That's often the answer," she says. "An old patch of vines is often in a good pocket. There was very little irrigation until the 1970s. Vines were generally dry grown, and if they needed water there was flood irrigation where water was available. Some old vines could have been flood-irrigated. It's generally deeper soil where old vines survive: Mataro and Grenache, sitting on sands but with clay layers for water, and the roots go down to the clay layers." She describes Henschke's Ebenezer block as "a clay base, really deep, with tertiary sands topsoil. The root system fills up from vine to vine, 2-3 meters [6.5-10ft] across, 1-1.5 meters [3-5ft] deep-enormous. On Mount Edelstone, which is rocky, the roots spread out like a great net on top of the red clay, right out into the mid-row; they make a complete circle."

The old vines of the Barossa tend to be in small patches. Every area has them: a bit of Riesling here, Shiraz there, or Semillon, or Grenache; and they're not on rootstocks. The research project involves planting new ungrafted blocks next to the old, and comparing. "The differences are due to the old vines surviving the extremes of the seasons better, greater expression of flavor, and better tannin development," she says. Louisa Rose points to tannins, too: "It's a more consistent tannic structure [in old-vine wines]; not necessarily bigger, but a beautiful line of tannins. It's not easy to measure." "It builds complexity on the palate," says Prue Henschke. "There's more extract; it's hard to define. It's umami. We're trying to find out if it can be defined. There are so many flavor compounds that we can taste but that can't be measured." The Barossa project is accordingly looking at what tasters find subjectively and then trying to find that objectively, by analysis. It involves measuring everything, to try to find out whether it's about the balance of leaves and fruit, how the fruit matures, or what. It's somewhat complicated.

Could the old-vine effect also be to do with whether vines are grafted or not, and whether they're clones or massal selections? These are all part of the equation, surely. At Zarate in Rías Baixas, Eulogio Pomares Zarate prefers his ungrafted vines planted in 1850 or thereabouts (mostly, but not all, Albariño), because his newer, grafted vines give bunches that are three or four times the size: big inflated balloons compared to the delicate, amber translucency of the ungrafted grapes, each ungrafted cluster only just too big to wear as an earring, should one want to do that. He also finds that his ungrafted vines give more mineral, tighter wines and that the vines themselves mature more slowly-but maybe it's a question of choice of rootstock, too.

Ancient wisdom

All David Guimaraens's vinhas velhas are grafted; the exception in the Douro is Quinta da Noval's Nacional vines, which are up to 70 years old and are replaced individually if they die. It seems clear from what Guimaraens says that having mixed plantings, as in those old plots, is also a factor; it's not just age. "The selection of varieties was considered random for many years, but the more I work with our vinhas velhas in Quinta do Junco, Quinta da Eira Velha, and Quinta da Vargellas, all planted in the first 30 years of the 20th century, the more I understand. There are three or four grape varieties that make up 60-80 percent of the vinhas velhas blocks of the Douro. It's anything but random. In every old vineyard it's the same. Then there are another five to ten varieties in smaller proportions, and these vary according to different factors, including who planted them. "The core varieties are Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barocca, and Amarela. For the others, tintorera varieties were brought in by the British to replace [illegal but colorful] elderberry. They used Alicante Bouschet and Grand Noir. The British planted Tinta de Barca, too. The Portuguese planted Rufete, among others.

"Over the years, with António [Magalhães, viticulturist], I've relearned the empirical knowledge on which the 1970s turned their back, like co-fermentation. We're reintroducing grapes we threw out in the 1970s. What we now replicate in viticulture and winemaking is what they've taught us."

You can almost hear Draper saying, "Hear, hear!" "When Zinfandel arrived in 1850-60 from the East Coast, and there from Vienna, it was so superior that it became the dominant red variety very fast. Other vines from the south of France were introduced to complement it. Our Old Patch has 23 different varieties, some of them just in one tenth of one percent; Zinfandel always dominates. Petite Sirah, Carignan, and Mataro were more: 3-5 percent, maybe. Cinsault came later than Zinfandel and gave bright fruit and acidity, which Zinfandel can always use. Petite Sirah gave color, and more tannin than Zinfandel. With these, it made more complex wines. We discovered that by working with old, mixed Zinfandel vineyards. We discovered that if we planted pure Zinfandel it took ten years and half the crop to get good enough wine for Lytton or Geyserville. But if we planted mixed vineyards, it took six to seven years, and the wine was more complex; it could all go into the main wine. Now we always interplant, and we co-ferment." One could make a case for massal selections, too. At Château d'Angles in the Languedoc, Eric Fabre has 70-year-old Bourboulenc and 60-year-old Grenache, and only these old massal selections make it to his best wine. But for him, it's about genetic diversity; he doesn't claim for a minute that his old vines are better merely because they're old.

Fabre was technical director of Château Lafite for eight years. He was a child at the time of the 1956 frost but does mention that a lot of vines survived. He reckons that the 1961 came mostly from the old survivors, and Hugh Johnson confirms that few vines at Latour were lost in the frosts: "They said that a few meters of elevation (and of course the river nearby) made all the difference. Of course it was much worse on the Right Bank, but according to the great Latour book [La Seigneurie et Le Vignoble de Château Latour, ed. Higounet, 1974], les grands crus, notamment Latour, sortirent à peu près indemnes de l'épreuve ('the grands crus, notably Latour, survived almost intact')."

It would be interesting to hear from Right Bank proprietors on this point. But this piece is already too long. And length, like age, is not an end in itself.