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Washington State Wineries Covet Old Vines

Session during Taste Washington examines effect of vine age on wine quality

by Jim Gordon
Old vines, like these in the Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley of Washington, require more work but yield grapes that can produce concentrated, well-structured wines.
Seattle, Wash.—The impact of old vines on Washington State’s wine industry has become more important in the past 10 years as planted acreage surged from 30,000 acres to more than 50,000 acres. The predominance of new vines complicated grape buying decisions as the number of wineries multiplied at the same time, and most winemakers went looking for old-vine fruit.

Yet the definition of old vines and their effect on wine quality and sales remain hard to pin down.

Those picturesque vines with thick, gnarled trunks and shaggy bark were the subject of a 90-minute seminar and tasting March 29 in Seattle during the annual Taste Washington festival.

A panel of growers, winemakers, journalists and a master sommelier discussed the points that make old-vine grapes and wines different, as they led about 80 serious consumers and trade members through a tasting of seven Washington wines made from vineyard blocks planted as long ago as the Nixon administration.

“No one ever asks for old vines when they order wine,” said Jason Smith, master sommelier and director of wine for the 32 venues of the Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas. But if a waiter or sommelier has the chance to describe a wine as the product of old vines, then that does sway diners, he added.

Closer to the vineyard, do winemakers ask for old vines when sourcing fruit from the many independent grape growers of Washington? And are they willing to pay more for them? “Definitely,” said Kent Waliser, the general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards based in Pasco, Wash., that sells to 70 wineries. (See Grapegrower Interview from June 2010.)

Waliser characterized old vines as being more stable against varying weather conditions, and more consistent in their canopy growth and crop yields. “Young vines need twice the attention of our crews, like taking care of a 12-year-old instead of a mature person.” For example, they set twice as much fruit, he said, meaning cluster thinning is often required to reduce yield.

Taste Washington aids mudslide victims

Event producers of Taste Washington tapped the generosity of some 4,000 event patrons who attended the largest single-region wine and food event in the nation March 29 and 30. Visit Seattle and the Washington State Wine Commission, which partner to produce the event, facilitated American Red Cross of Snohomish County cash collection stations on the show floor; 100 percent of these donations will go directly to the mud slide disaster victims. The 17th annual Taste Washington event took place at CenturyLink Event Center. It included more than 229 Washington State wineries and 68 restaurants and drew attendance from across the state and nation, as well as international guests.

Waliser said winemakers usually ask for old vines, and if none are available, they will take 10-year-old vines. At that age, the roots of vines planted six to eight feet apart along the rows have filled out the available space in the soil, stabilizing their annual growth of shoots and leaves. Waliser observed that vines planted even closer, at three to four-foot spacing, reach their limits of root growth in a shorter period of time and act like old vines sooner.

How old is old?
No legal definition exists for old vines in the United States. The panel moderator, writer Sean Sullivan of Wine Enthusiast magazine and the Washington Wine Report blog, asked the speakers at what age a vine becomes old. Waliser said 20 years, but several panelists noted that California Zinfandel vines can be productive at age 80 or older, that many European vineyards last for 50 or more years, and seemed to agree that 25-30 years is a good starting point for old.

Six of the seven wines tasted came from vines at least 33 years old this year. Many participants called the pairing of two 2012 barrel samples of Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Seven Hills Winery the most enlightening about how old vines affect wine flavor and texture.

The vines grow within sight of each other, said Casey McClellan, Seven Hills winemaker. One, from the Seven Hills Vineyard, was harvested from a 1980 planting with 8 by 10 feet spacing and overhead sprinklers. The other was harvested from a McClellan Estate Vineyard block planted in 2003. The wine from old vines was dark in color, intense in flavor and densely laced with tannins. The wine from younger vines was nearly as dark, but tasted fruitier, and felt smoother and silkier in texture.

McClellan described the old-vine effect on the Cabernet Sauvignon as making that wine more integrated, more tannic and structured. “Old vines are a precious resource,” McClellan added. Raymon McKee, winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, said the old-vine wine had extra layers of concentration. Nods from the audience indicated that many people agreed with that assessment.

McKee presented a Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon Cold Creek Vineyard Columbia Valley 2010 made from vines planted in 1973 and 1981, plus a Riesling 2012 from vines planted in 1981. Both varieties were recommended to plant there by Walter Clore, Washington’s pioneering viticulturist.

The Cabernet Sauvignon was structured but not hard, and the Riesling was concentrated. Yet McKee pointed out that for some wines young vines provided a better flavor profile. Bright, fresh Sauvignon Blanc, for example, seems suited to young vines, and Riesling is sometimes, too, he said.

Fifth-year slump
Old vines produce lower yields, and often have leafroll virus which slows their ripening, while young vines are more productive and disease-free, added Waliser. He observed that vines in their third and fourth leaf often produce high quality wines, but then a slump comes in the fifth and six years that requires the vineyard manager to adjust practices to bring the vines back to balance.

His explanation was that newly planted vines store resources in their trunks and roots during the first two growing seasons when no fruit is produced. Then in the next year or two they use those reserves to ripen surprisingly good crops, but in the process they deplete their reserves, causing them to enter year five relatively weak.

Jon Bonne of the San Francisco Chronicle was a panelist. He pointed out that old-vine wines are self-selected for better quality because when a winemaker pays more for them he or she is likely to pay more attention to them, buy better barrels for them and so on.

While winemakers at Washington’s 684 wineries (according to Wine Vines Analytics) currently compete for a small acreage of old vines planted more than 25 years ago, that situation will be very different in the future, barring any vine disease epidemics or economic disasters that might uproot them.

McKee said he is excited about the potential of making wine 20 years from now from the 20,000 acres planted in the past 10 years. And since Washington still uses almost exclusively own-rooted vines, that could be the world’s largest collection of non-grafted old-vines to work with.

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