From time to time, you see the words ‘old vines’ on your wine labels, but what does it mean? Is the wine any better? And why the higher price? We did a little experiment to find out more.
Have you ever looked along the rows of bottles in the wine shop and wondered what all the hype is about ‘old vines’?
For a long time, Christina and I thought it was just marketing—or maybe a bit of hubris from the winery.
And fair enough.
Australia has some of the oldest grapevines in the world.
Back in the 1800s, a plague of aphid-like phylloxera insects swept through Europe, killing the roots of almost all ‘noble variety’ grapevines.
Thanks to its isolation and strict quarantine rules, Australia remained all but untouched by this infestation, and vineyards here—especially in places like the Barossa Valley—have the oldest Shiraz and Cabernet vines in the world.
Not a bad USP for the marketers. But what does that mean for us, the drinkers?
The pros and cons of old vines
Pro: From a grower’s perspective, old vines are great because they run so deep (up to six metres!) that they’re less vulnerable to things like drought, floods and frost.
Con: For a harvester, they’re a nightmare because they’re old plants and therefore quite delicate; you have to hand-pick the grapes.
Pro & Con From a winemaker’s point of view, there’s good and bad in old vines. They provide amazing consistency vintage to vintage because of their deep roots, but they don’t give up as much as younger vines. Yields gradually decrease as years go by, and less fruit means less wine to sell.
Most Importantly But for us ‘end users’, old-vine wine and all the extra effort it takes to make it should only be a positive.
Because of the low yield of old vines, the intensity of flavour increases within each grape. It’s thought that all the plant’s energy going into a small amount of fruit really amps things up.
Also, because of the longer root systems and because the vines have been growing in the same soils for decades or even centuries, wine buffs suggest the terroir of the wine is more clearly displayed.
These vines have had lots of time to develop a deep connection with the soil and the surrounding environment. This allows them to express the unique terroir of their vineyard in a way that younger vines simply can’t match.
Intensity, complexity, structure, history—these are all things we look for in great wine, but also wine that will age well when you cellar it.
Let’s put it to the test—Chateau Tanunda’s Old Vine Expressions Range
To look at the difference between old and young Shiraz and Cabernet grapes, we set two of Chateau Tanunda’s ranges against each other.
To give you perspective, vines will start producing fruit in about three years and are considered ‘adult’ by about age seven. Grapevines reach maturity after 12-15 years and achieve ‘old vine’ status after 35.
So 50’s pretty old.
Both the young Grand Barossa and the Old Vine Expressions Shiraz from Chateau Tanunda are great examples of the region’s most famous variety.
Both display the characteristic big berry, dark fruit and chocolate characters, and both have that luxuriant texture and length. But what the Old Vine Shiraz shows is something a little bit extra.
Better structure and signs of balanced acidity, more intensity in the flavours and a resonant savoury complex that holds those fruit notes up higher.
However, there’s also an extra dimension to this wine; a genteel flavour profile that mutes the big bold flavours we look for in a Barossa Shiraz. It allows you to taste the vanilla of the barrel and the light spice from the soil–elements that are often drowned in the jam and sweetness of less sophisticated wines.
As with the Shiraz, both of these Chateau Tanunda Cabernets have all the iconic stamps of the variety and region.
While the younger vines for the Grand Barossa give this wine plenty of blackberry and blackcurrant notes, fine tannins and a sharp acid line that balances the mild sweetness, the Old Vine version is a different story.
As well as the lifted berry notes you’d expect, this wine has pepper, spice, dark chocolate and firm, structured tannins that elevate it beyond the normal. There’s a savoury softness and sophistication to this wine—a subtlety and nuance that’s hard to pin down.
So is buying ‘old vine’ wine really worth it?
Answering this question isn’t a simple yes or no, just as something like ‘are old vine wines better than young vine wines?’ Isn’t an easy question. After all, using old-vine grapes doesn’t guarantee the best wine; it still has to have good quality fruit and great technique at the heart of it.
I suppose whether you invest in old vine really depends on what you want from a wine. On one hand, these Grand Barossa wines are superb quality—especially for their $25 price point.
But if you want wine that has that extra something, that difficult-to-place quality that old vine wine brings, the extra $55 spend is absolutely worth it. These wines will keep improving in the cellar for many years too.
You say ‘old vines’ but how old are we talking?
In recent years, the Barossa Valley wine region has instituted the Barossa Old Vine Charter—the only one of its kind—to classify age groups of vines:
– Barossa Old Vine: 35 years old and older
– Barossa Survivor Vine: 70 years old and older
– Barossa Centenarian Vine: 100 years old and older
– Barossa Ancestor Vine: 125 years old and older
And there are other wine regions around the world that have old vines; some that are older than ours.
Chile and Cyprus were unaffected by the phylloxera plague, and parts of Portugal, Germany and islands in Greece also dodged the bullet.
Lodi in California and Languedoc in France still have old vines too, but the oldest grape-producing vine is, surprisingly, in Slovenia. Known as ‘Stara Trta’ (creatively ‘Old Vine’) this ancient creature grows across the wall of a house in Maribor and is an astonishing 400 years old.
It still produces a small amount of Žametovka grapes each year, which are made into a wine that sounds fairly unappealing. But the vine itself is in the Guinness Book of World Records.