Myths are plentiful everywhere in our culture. However, with news media being more revealing these days, fewer myths remain unquestionable in most fields – except in wine tradition. Wine myths are widely believed, mainly because adopting incorrect information of the past is a lot easier than finding logical explanations.
It has been a common belief for decades that there is a direct correlation between quality and vine age. That is, older vines make better wines than younger ones. Conventional wisdom decrees that older vines produce the best fruit. Is this a truth?
Over the last 15 to 20 years, some wine critics have proposed (or proclaimed) that the best wines are those that are deep, concentrated, powerful, and blessed with an opaqueness that’s nearly mandatory if the wine is to gain praise. Such wines, they said, can only be made from vines that produce a low yield per acre. The age of the vines is also a key factor in grape quality. Vines under three years old don’t produce much, if any, fruit, whereas old vines are prized for producing complex fruit but yield far less. The optimal age of a vine for producing top quality is a subject of debate, however. Some say “the older, the better”, while others maintain that quality declines after a certain age.
It is one of the generally accepted observations of wine appreciation that grapes grown on very old vines make exceptional wine. One widely accepted hypothesis holds that the roots of ancient vines have reached so deep (sometimes 30 feet or more) that they are unusually effective at contributing trace elements of terroir – the minerality of the soil – to the wine. Deep roots are a great asset. Vine roots have dug deep into the earth, encountering minerals that don’t lay near the surface. They tap moisture in drought conditions and guard against expanding when it pours from above. Old vines also tend to ripen earlier, a boon to growers in cooler climates, where falling autumn temperatures abbreviate the growing season. Old vines are constant, their reduced juice resulting in smaller berries with a higher ratio of solids to liquid. Colour and aroma compounds are located in the skins, so particularly for red wines, smaller berries mean a higher ratio of skin to juice resulting in wines of deeper colour and greater concentration. Old vines yield more concentrated fruit, leading to richer wines with more sumptuous balance. The “fact” is that a wine produced from high-tonnage grapevines is thin and watery, and the higher the tonnage, the worse the wine.
How old is “old” depends on several conditions. We consider young vines to be under 15 years old. After 40 or 50 years though, grape vines – like people, perhaps – start to slow down physically, even as their “wisdom” grows. Very old vines produce relatively little fruit, to the point where growers consider uprooting the under-performing old vines and replacing them with younger, more vigorous plants that will make more wine.
Others suggest that the declining vitality of older vines simply reduces the yield of grapes, concentrating the vine’s efforts into relatively few grapes of commensurately great flavour and intensity. Young vines often have a good balance between foliage and fruit which, without stress from excess drought or rainfall, can produce excellent wine.
This commonly recognized fact among winemakers doesn’t make it into the press. Winemakers are reluctant to admit to the wine writer that their wine is a product of a young vine. Fruit from very young wines isn’t considered ideal for top-notch wine, and in France and other European wine regions, wine laws typically forbid the use of grapes from vines before their third to fifth year. For the next two or three decades, vines are thought of as “adult” and their fruit may be used freely, although even then, many producers use only their older wines for the property’s top wines, reserving the fruit of the young vines for less pricey “second labels.”
However, there is no scientific proof that older vines always produce better fruit – or, more to the point, better wine. We know that older vines yield less fruit, but when young vines have been trellised and pruned and treated intentionally to yield only a fraction of the fruit it would have on its own, the result can be high fruit (and wine) quality. That clearly indicates that what is at play here is not old-vine production, but merely low yield.
In summary: Vine age is one of the other important factors that contribute to the wine quality. It is something acknowledged for centuries that old vines can make very deep, profound and dense wines. While it's true that older vines tend to produce smaller yields and grapes with more concentrated flavours, there is no guarantee that these flavours will be “better”. Furthermore, old vines present challenges to the winegrower. They require a lot of nurturing, and yields are often uneconomically low. But economics aside, winegrowers seem to cherish old vines.
Wine appears to be a complicated matter. At least, that’s what all wine experts are hoping you’ll believe! The fact is that wine is a remarkably flexible product, ending up as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. However, the subject of wine is exposed and exploited by misconceptions and myths floating around. One such encounter commonly faced by the consumer is choosing a wine. When given the choice between Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah etc. or a blend, a lot of people will opt for a single grape wine. Is this because blended wines are not as good as varietal wines?
Some speculate that red blends are cheap and they are easy to drink. But so are a good many other red varietal wines. To set the record straight, let us clarify this issue. In simple terms, it is commonly accepted that a wine produced from one type of grape is classified as a varietal wine. Blends are wines produced from multiple grape varieties.
Wines blended from several different varietals are the norm in Europe. In the Old World (Europe and Mediterranean regions), most vineyards were planted long before varieties could be easily identify by DNA or reproduced under controlled laboratory conditions. For centuries, European farmers have made blended superior and everyday wines by harvesting and fermenting whichever grapes were planted in their fields. Though uncommon, the tradition of making field blends continues today in winemaking regions around the world. As their name suggests, field blends are single-vineyard wines whose grapes are grown, harvested, and fermented together. In other words, the blending is done in the vineyard, not in the winery.
But what you may not realize is that the single varietal wine you think you are drinking might actually be a blend. Depending on the country of origin, a percentage of the wine in what appears to be a single varietal will have other varietals as well. Labelling regulations allow wines to be classified as varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, with 75% or more of the varietal content stated on the label. The 25% could be another variety. Furthermore, most wines we drink today are made of grapes harvested from various vineyards throughout a region, state, or even country, fermented in separate lots and then blended together into a finished wine. Most blends combine varying percentages of two or more varieties depending on winemaker styles and vintage influence. Knowing the percentages of each varietal in a blend can provide important information about what the consumer can expect.
Why blend? When the sum total of its collective parts is greater than any of the individual parts alone. Blends are a regular part of the industry and a necessity. In the case of blending single varietals, small amounts of certain wines can help to enhance the primary wine’s strong points while diminishing its flaws. Blends allow winemakers to balance the structure, flavours and acidity of their wines. Wine, as art, reaches the apex of its potential when its creation allows the free hand of the winemaker to blend multiple wine-grape varietals from selected vineyards each vintage. The finest results are obtained from varietals that grow best in the specific regions and which combine well for more complex and interesting wines. The most popular red blends are known, not for being blends, but for their brand names; and branding, as an advertiser will tell you, is the greatest accomplishment a product can achieve.
For a time in the New World, early red blends tended to be and often were looked upon as inferior wines developed to dispose of wine that wasn’t suitable to be used in premium-level wines. Gradually, that tendency changed as winemakers looked more to Europe for ideas as they began to search for more wine complexity and quality. Blending grape varieties involves very tricky alchemy, requiring a lot of experience. The proportions of the various grape varieties used in the resulting blended wine are determined in a very precise manner. Quite often, blending is done with two grape varieties, thus resulting in a “two-variety” blended wine. Based on the producer’s aims, a greater number of varieties can be blended.
At first look, one cannot associate the modern popularity of “red blends” and the notion of old-vine vineyards. It is in a grey area, since most vineyards contain vines that were not all “born” at the same time. Some vines get sick, some die. Sometimes a vintner will increase vine density in a given vineyard, adding vines and rootstock to a plot of land that has comfortably housed other vines for decades. The truth is that most wines are blends of grapes from vines of differing ages. Having a red blend in a wine supplier’s portfolio is almost a “must have” these days, with consumers seeking them out. And the winemaker certainly likes the flexibility and art that comes with mixing various grape varieties together.
According to a number of sources in the wine business, the next revolution in fine wine is in the increased interest in blended wines. Perhaps there is a slow acknowledgement that blending can produce better wines. Although there are particular attributes that determine the quality of wine, the notion of quality is still subjective. We can only go by our own tastes and sensory perceptions, and that, of course, is different for everyone. And that, after all, is the beauty of wine. It would be a boring world if we all shared the same tastes.
The proof is in the bottle. Wine is all about enjoyment. Discover what you like and celebrate that. Try new wines all the time to expand your repertoire.