We all know that wines made from old vines are likely to taste differently from those made from young vines, so much that the “Old vines” indication is often put on a wine label and worn like a kind of medal.
Recently I have come to try wines from old vines in two different occasions: the first has been during a seminar held at my school by South African winemaker Rosa Kreuger (together with speakers Cathy Van Zyl MW and Kenichi Ohashi MW), 2 very interesting hours accompanied by a tasting of 8 wines.
Old vines, as you may already know, have 30% more roots than younger vines, which allows them to be more resilient against extreme weather. They are said to reflect the terroir better also because the difference in crop volume between a dry and a rainy year is pretty wide and much higher than young vines, which, like teenagers, just “want” to reproduce and so yield a lot in any type of weather.
The fruit from these old vines is also more concentrated, sweeter, for a precise reason: these vines feel that they are going to die soon and the sweeter fruit is a way to “enhance attraction” towards the animals (birds, small mammals) instrumental in the process of reproduction.
As a result a wine made from old vines tends to be different (“Not necessarily better” as Rosa specified) than one made from younger vines: the former will show more weight on the palate, a smoother and more integrated texture and in general it will tend to showcase the terroir of the vineyard, the latter, though good, will be more flamboyant and reflective of the variety making it.
However these are concepts that you can find in countless wine books, better explained than what I am doing here.
No, what I did not know and I found very interesting is this: you may know that there is no precise law defining “old vines”, in any country. The expression, I must say, is not so widely used in Italy, but you find plenty of wines in France, Australia and the US bearing the “Vieilles Vignes” or “Old vines” words on the label. The problem is that, without rules, these words may end up being used as a marketing ploy: when does a vine becomes old? After 20 years? 25 years? 30? Basically it is left to the producer’s discretion.
In South Africa this is no more a problem, thanks to Rosa Kreuger: in 2016 she founded the Old Vines Association which since 2018 is allowed to bestow a seal to wines made from vineyards 35 years old or older. The age of the vineyard is certified by data from SAWIS, the
South Africa Wine Industry Information & Systems, which also contains lots of interesting statistics.
When I asked Rosa why 35 years, why not choosing 30 or 40, she answered that by looking at the vines and tasting the wines, the difference was perceivable in those form 35 years old vines.
Anyway finally consumers have a reliable way to understand what “Old vines” mean. Will other Countries follow this example?
The second occasion where I come to hear about old vines was at the Tenute Rubino wine tasting in Ebisu, Tokyo.
Tenute Rubino is a producer based in Brindisi, northern Salento. Other than the usual Negroamaro, Primitivo and Malvasia Bianca, Tenute Rubino also makes Susumaniello, in fact it is one of the main focus. Susumaniello is a red grape variety whose name comes from “somarello”, donkey, because yields are so high that you needed a donkey to carry all the grapes. However export manager Francesco de Mauri explained me that as it ages the yields of Susumaniello follow dramatically: at just 15 years of age the production volume of a plant can diminish so much that in the past Susumaniello was often replanted.
Now many producers are trying to enhance the image of Apulian wine, so low yields are less of a problem, and Susumaniello is ready to be revived. The wines are good and can be pretty intense, but balanced by a lively acidity, like Torre Testa from the aforementioned Tenute Rubino, which drinks very well even at 16% abv.
Sure the name “Susumaniello” is not really easy to pronounce outside Italy and its etymology may be not ideal from a marketing point of view. Is there any chances to see it renamed like what happened to Catarratto, now Lucido? Who knows, but it may be a good idea.