On the Trail

Old Vine Zin with Real Old Vine Character

David Driscoll
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"Old vine" is one of those terms you see on wine bottles that I'm not sure everyone understands, but nevertheless is used as a marketing tool by wineries to tout the quality of their hooch. It's kind of like "small batch" for Bourbon in that it implies something special or unique, but there's no real regulation regarding either term; it's really up to the integrity of the producer when it comes to the usage. What's so special about old vines then? It depends on which winemaker you talk to (as it can be a controversial subject), but old vines often give more concentrated fruit and a better sense of place when it comes to terroir, as the root networks extend deep into the soil, criss-crossing like veins through the heart of their terrain. Some winemakers say that old vines have a better ability to cope with diverse weather conditions because of their life experience—they have wisdom, so to speak. With every vintage, they gain a better understanding of their environment; plus, there's a reason they're still around after decades and decades, right? Someone must think they're pretty special to have left them in place for so long, while other vineyards get ripped up, replaced, and replanted. Nevertheless some winemakers will shrug off their importance, while others like South African superstar Eben Sadie swear by their quality and flavor. I tend to follow Eben's mindset because not only are his wines some of the best I've ever tasted in my ten year career, there's something special when you taste real old vine character.

Here in California, some of the oldest plantings we have are Zinfandel vineyards, as the varietal has been the bread and butter of winemakers and farmers for over a century. If you're interested in tasting an affordable option that showcases that heritage, check out the 2014 Valravn Old Vine Zinfandel: a wine that impressed the hell out of me earlier this week. It's made by the same team behind the Banshee project, focusing on 50 to 105 year old bush-pruned vines in Sonoma County that are all hand-harvested to preserve the varietal's full glory. What you get is concentrated red berry flavors, rich and juicy on the palate, but accented with savory spices, brush, and licorice-like peppery notes. The only thing that impressed me more than the 2014 was the sample bottle I opened of the 2015 vintage earlier today (I placed my order immediately). I could have finished half that bottle had I not restrained myself. It's a lot of old vine experience for your twenty bucks. 

-David Driscoll