Grape vines can live a very long lifespan – Australia does boast some of the world’s oldest grape vines. This is owing to disease including phylloxera that swept through Europe in the 1800′s. There are vines still producing in South Australia that were known to be planted in the 1860′s. Thus, with tender love and care, grape vines will live longer than the average human.
I like to think of Grape vines as a lot like people. In youth, we are rebellious, inconsistent. The older we are the more personality, concentration, and “flavour” we gain. We become middle-aged and we’ve hit our peak of productivity and perhaps become fuller bodied and less vigorous with better balance. Gradually as we head into old age we become fragile, and less fruitful. Lower yielding.
(Here come the abusive comments and emails from middle-aged people sledging me for my analogy.)
Of course some will argue it is not so much the age of the vines that produces a better crop. It’s the low yields. To put it simply – the same amount of flavour resides in 5 tonne of fruit, as does 25 tonne. It’s just the concentrations that reflect the quality and the richness of the finished wine. The smaller the crop, normally the higher the quality. Although from my experience, the more established the vines – the better the wine. But this theory doesn’t take into account weather conditions, terroir (geography of soil), varietal, level of pruning, winemaker, and many other factors.
Although the Hunter Valley has been credited as Australia’s first wine region, the original “Hunter Valley” vines were planted somewhere near the side of Gresford (up to 40 minutes away in the hinterland) and no longer exist. The Hunter Valley as we know it today was only really starting in around the 1860′s and only really started being mass planted between 1900 and 1970′s.
South Australia would be somewhere that I identify with some of the oldest producing vines in Australia. This is being threatened by the “Big Boys” of the wine industry. Because, as I stated the older the vines, the lower yielding. It is becoming ever tempting for contract growers to rip out established aged vines in order to replant fashionable varieties that will produce copious amounts more with improved trellising and better irrigation. As they are selling their crops – often for use in export or supermarket wines, and they are paid by the tonne – the more fruit they can produce the more economically viable their monoculture is.
So should we pay more for old vine wines? Well yes. I believe on the most part, wines made from older vines’ fruit are often made in “Reserve” styles. What does this mean? Well they cost more to produce than your average wine. New oak, barriques versus oak chips, different techniques, super yeasts, expensive packaging… the list goes on. And thus for most of us $40> wines are not everyday quaffers!
If there is an ongoing Market for the Back Blocks, the Old Blocks, the Graveyards, and the Hill of Grace, “styles” of wines, less aged vines will be uplifted for fickle market trends such as Sauvignon Blanc (here she upsets the masses again!)
I believe part of Australia’s credibility on the world wine market also comes from our ability to produce wines of this calibre and it is important to protect our industry.
But of course my only rule of wine is to drink what you like. If you like Sauvignon Blanc – by all means drink Australian. If you have a special occasion and you love aged vine Shiraz, by all means spend your hard-earned cash and savour every mouthfeel.