Readers often ask me: what’s your favorite wine? That’s a tough question, because I love so many, from full-bodied Barolos to the elegant, almost ethereal reds from Mt. Etna, from mineral-driven Soaves to complex, savory Verdicchios. But one thing many of my top picks have in common is vine age, with wines made from old vines leading the way.
You’ve no doubt seen the term “old vines” on many wine labels (think Old Vine Zinfandel) but in Italy, the term takes on a whole meaning.
First some background: there are no regulations in Italy or anywhere in the world on how old vines have to be in order to merit the old vines moniker. In California, some producers proudly consider their 25-year-old plants as veterans. But in southern Italy, we’re talking really old vines, some more than a century old, including a surprising number of centenarian Aglianico vines in Campania’s Taurasi, as well as ancient Nerello Mascalese vines that cling to the steeped, terraced slopes of Sicily’s Mt. Etna. I should also point out that while some Italian producers making wines from old vines use the term Vecchie Viti (“old vines”) on their labels, many more don’t.
But, you may ask, apart from the striking visuals of thick, gnarled vines twisted into Medusa-like contortions, does vine age matter?
Yes, especially when it comes to native Italian varieties. Even though not all grape varieties do well in old age, the general consensus is that when handled well, healthy, old vines lend a level of concentration and character never achieved by younger vines. Apart from southern Italy’s wealth of ancient indigenous vines, you can find estates tending old, native vines—those planted between the 1930s through the 1960s—across the country. Many yield stunning wines.
For one thing, old vines are generally more resistant to severe heat. As a vine ages, its roots go deeper into the earth, finding nutrients and underground water reserves that aren’t accessible to younger vines whose roots stay closer to the surface. Thanks to their deep roots, older plants better survive the extreme drought and sweltering temperatures that are fast becoming the norm in Italy. Mature healthy vines—let’s say those over 50 years old—also produce fewer bunches. Most producers say their old vines are self-regulating, or in other words, they require little intervention.
“Old vines have a much stronger balance throughout the vegetative cycle when compared to younger vines, so you don’t have to intervene as much. It’s like they have more experience: they have just the right amount of leaves to protect the grapes and they produce just the right quantity of grapes that they can nurture. As a result, we prune our old vines less and don’t have to green harvest,” explains Antonio Capaldo, president of Campania firm Feudi di San Gregorio, whose oldest Aglianico vines are a whopping 130 and 150 years old. He adds that older vines, “also give richer juice with greater depth and complexity that require less oak ageing to make a great wine with longevity and body.”
Besides surviving various diseases, heat, drought and even World Wars, some of Italy’s oldest vines have also survived the infamous phylloxera invasion that nearly destroyed all of Europe’s vineyards between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. After years of trial and error, researchers discovered that grafting vitis vinifera vines onto American rootstock stopped the root-eating aphid that was inadvertently imported from America on vine cuttings. Today, most of the world’s vines are grafted onto American rootstock, and there is always the question if this practice has changed the fundamental character of many of Europe’s wines. Setting aside advances of modern cellar technology and vineyard management, some of southern Italy’s wines made with old vines (namely a small number of Taurasi and Etna bottlings) are among the very few examples that offer a glimpse into what Old World wines were like pre-Phylloxera.
Here are some of my favorite old vine wines from around Italy:
Guastaferro 2006 Taurasi Primum Riserva; $N/A, 97 points, Vinifera
Contrade di Taurasi Lonardo 2010 Taurasi; $50, 95 points, Oliver McCrum
Feudi di San Gregorio 2010 Serpico (Irpinia); $75, 93 points, Palm Bay International