‘Old vines’ may not be so vintage

Special to The TribuneFebruary 24, 2014 

Laurie Daniel

California has zinfandel vines that are more than 140 years old. But when you buy a bottle of “old vine” zinfandel, don’t assume that the grapes are from such venerable vines.

There’s no legal definition for what constitutes an “old vine,” nor are there rules about putting the term on a wine label. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the federal agency that approves wine labels, requested public comment on the matter in 2010, but nothing ever came of it.

Many vintners agree that a vine is old at 50. Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, which celebrates zinfandel and its place in U.S. wine history, hasn’t taken an official position on “old vine.” But Rebecca Robinson, ZAP’s executive director, points out that only vineyards that were more than 60 years old were used for cuttings in the Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard, a project of ZAP and the University of California, Davis.

The issue of vine age is complicated, says Joel Peterson, founder and winemaker for Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma. Peterson knows a thing or two about old vines: He works with vineyards in Sonoma County that date back to the 1880s — “we would all agree those are old,” he says — and with other old vineyards in Lodi and the Napa Valley.

“Really old vineyards are a mix of vines,” Peterson says. In addition to the original vines on the property, a vineyard almost always has some newer vines that have replaced dead or diseased plants.

Old zinfandel vines are prized for several reasons. These twisted, gnarled plants produce naturally low yields of grapes that are concentrated, intense and flavorful. Peterson says these vines are more integrated with their surroundings and exhibit consistent behavior.

A lot of California’s early zinfandel was planted during the gold rush, which is why there are a number of old vineyards in the Sierra Foothills. The oldest documented vineyard in California, near Plymouth in Amador County, has existed since at least 1869. A lot of zinfandel was planted elsewhere in the late 1800s, and old vineyards also remain in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, Lodi and Paso Robles.

Some zins from old vines don’t list that fact on the label. Ridge Vineyards makes zins from a lot of old vineyards, including Dusi Ranch in Paso Robles, but when old vines are mentioned at all, it’s on the back label. Ravenswood’s single-vineyard zinfandels all come from vineyards that are more than 90 years old, but you won’t find “old vine” on these labels, either. (Three of Ravenswood’s county series zins and its inexpensive Vintners Blend are labeled as old vine.)

Because of low yields and labor-intensive farming, old-vine zinfandels can be expensive, but not always. Some of the Ravenswood wines cost less than $20. Bogle Vineyards’ old-vine zinfandel ($11), according to the winery, comes from vineyards in Lodi and Amador County that are 60 to 80 years old.

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