The Virtues (and challenges) of Older Vines
When we planted Dyer Vineyard 25 years ago, the hot topics were row direction, vine spacing, varieties, clones, and rootstock. Since then we’ve overseen the vineyard transition from head trained to cordon. We’ve reduced the varieties from all 5 Bordeaux varieties to the 3 most successful in our Diamond Mountain Vineyard (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot). We’ve gradually backed away from irrigation to the point where we almost dry farm- watering only one or two times during the growing season. All these changes were driven by our desire to optimize wine quality in our Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and resulted from multiple years of observation. Now, 25 years later, we find ourselves in the enviable position of making wine from mature vines- their roots exploring deep into our rocky volcanic soils contributing to the rich minerality and texture of Dyer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. 25 years is now longer than the average life of a vineyard in Napa Valley but far short of its oldest vines. Most experts agree that somewhere between 20 and 30 years of age productivity drops off and the economics of farming come into play. We’re lucky that we’re truly “wine growers”- growing grapes to make wine and not farming a commodity so maintaining the vineyard to a ripe old age has now becomes a focus for us.
The secret to an old vine vineyard is in the plant’s metabolism. Young vines, though productive, deliver variable quality from year to year. When the sun shines, they explode with foliage, which can leave the grapes with green underdeveloped tannins. When it rains, they bloat with water. You’ve got to prune like the dickens to curb vigour and encourage ripening. By contrast, old vines are constant, their reduced sap flow naturally yielding smaller berries with a higher ratio of solids to liquid. Deep roots tap moisture in drought conditions.
Now our challenge is to keep it going, pruning for longevity and developing a system for replanting individual vines within the vineyard. It’s a challenge worth taking because bottom line it’s a difference you can taste. Old-vine wines deliver textural richness and layered flavours that build rather than trail off after the up-front fruit fades away. It’s analogous to the warm, rich tone of an old violin versus the brighter timbre of new wood.