Sunday, March 07, 2010

Old Vine

(h/t Jim V.)

Vine reader Ned D. shot me an email recently asking me about an "Old Vine" Zinfandel since he'd had one and enjoyed it recently. He asked, "So, is Old Vine Zinfandel better than regular Zinfandel?" A good question -- one that I hadn't really considered on more than a superficial level. I mean, if there's "old vine" wine, why isn't there "young vine" wine?

Might as well find out, no?

Like winemaking itself, the growth process of grapes is a long-term endeavor. Once planted, a grape vine needs a couple of years to get itself established and get its roots down a ways in the hopefully poor soil in which it's planted. Yes, I said, "poor." Grapes grow best in bad soil. The best grape producing vines need to struggle for sustenance. So, once a vine is at a point where it's getting steady water and nutrition, it starts producing fruit. A grapevine starts producing fruit within 2-4 years.

So, after a couple of years -- you've got fruit. Well, even if a vine's producing grapes, it can take a couple more years for the vine to persistently produce grapes with a high enough sugar level so the juice can be sustainably fermented. Winemakers often do a "green harvest" (cutting some unripened clusters) on young vines to reduce the overall grape production, allowing the remaining grapes to store more sugar and juice. Even with these methods, a grape vine can take up to around 10 years to start really producing quality grapes. A vine's "production wheelhouse" is usually between 10-25 years of age.

However, some particularly hardy vines chug along for decades, but produce smaller and smaller yields as time passes. After 40 years or so, the vine produces a fraction of what it used to. However, what is lost in quantity is often made up for in higher sugar level and a different quality of juice. The resulting wines are often higher in alcohol and have more complex flavors.

So, what does this all this mean vis a vis Ned's wine? Zinfandels aren't for the faint of heart. These are usually rich, powerful, chewy, spicy wines. Until the early 1990's, most Zinfandel was used either for blending or to create white zin. Zinfandel producers, especially in Sonoma County, then started a push to put these big reds in the public consciousness. It worked. Wine drinkers, tired of merlot and cabernet, started snapping up these wines. I fell in love with Zinfandel on our first trip to Sonoma. Zinfandel (A Dark Horse 2003 Zinfandel, specifically) was the first wine that ever made my eyes pop.

Many of the long-standing winemakers with access to old vines chose to produce a "regular" Zinfandel, which tended to be more powerful, fruity and straightforward, and an old vine version which, while often higher in alcohol and powerfully fruity, had more balance and more nuance. But more demand for these wines meant increased production and, in the case of the old vine zins, a "Californizing" of the wine style. Much like large producers of California chards producing ultra-buttery or ultra-oaky wines, many of the larger Zin producers began focusing on one particular aspect of the wine. Inexpensive zins became either unremarkably syrupy fruit bombs or thick, peppery alcoholic stews without subtlety. Some of these wines had more in common with jug wine than with the traditional Sonoma products. Thankfully, that era seems to be passing and even the wines from the lower price points are showing some more balance. The pattern still holds, though. For comparison, we tried a couple of zinfandels from Cline.

The Cline 2007 Zinfandel ($12) certainly fits the "straightforward" category. The nose is straight up vanilla initially that eases into some spiciness and some cherry after some air. Rather than a thick fruit bomb, the body here was more approachable and tasted like vanilla covered cherries and blackberries. The finish is somewhat tannic, easing towards coffee at the end. For comparison, the Cline 2007 "Ancient Vines" Zinfandel ($16) had a more balanced (and I thought, more interesting) nose of cinnamon and clove and lighter cherry on the nose. To me, the flavors had more "structure," meaning that we tasted things more gradually, almost "sequentially," rather than getting vanillacherrysmoketannin all at the same time. The peppery notes from good Zinfandel also presented themselves more strongly. The finish felt like it was wrapping the back of my tongue with sour cherries before drifting away with a strong, coffeeish taste. We tried it with some two-bite brownies, the "Young Vines" Cline was actually better with chocolate. The immediacy of the wine's flavors took care of the cocoa more handily.

Is Zinfandel the only "old vine" wine? Nope. Australia does some old vine Shiraz, which makes sense to me as both wines tend to be big and alcoholic. There are some in France and Spain as well. I haven't had the chance to try any of those, unfortunately.

There's no real guideline for what constitutes an actual "old" grapevine. The general rule of thumb is "older then 45 years." Winemakers usually turn to Potter Stewart for direction -- they know it when they taste it. Since there's nothing cast in stone, the term can be applied quite loosely for marketing reasons. On my last wine store trip, I saw that the bottles of Gnarly Head Old Vine Zin had new neighbors -- Gnarlier Head Old Vine Zin. The notes for the "regular" Gnarly Head said that the wine was made from a blend of wines from 35-80 years old. The Gnarlier Head notes only say that the wine is a "single vineyard" zinfandel -- but makes no note of the age. The "Ancient Vines" we tried above is from Cline's 100 year old vines.

One semi-tangential note: On the evening when we were trying the Cline wines, I was feeling lazy and the SPinC didn't want to finish her glass. (This frightened me a bit.) We'd done a side-by-side of the two wines, so I just poured them together for fun to finish up, tried it, and immediately tried to replicate it. (I was able to do it fairly easily -- about a 60/40 blend of new vine/old vine.) The whole turned out to be better than the sum of the parts. The two wines merged into a very approachable, somewhat fruity, very drinkable "cuvee" which seemed to have a better flavor balance than either of the individual wines.

"It's like a black and tan!" said the SPinC.

Who knew?

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