This blog article was updated in July 2022
“Old vines” - or viñas viejas in Spanish - is an increasingly popular term you might see on a wine label. It’s a reference to the age of the vines used to make the wine.
Whilst there isn’t official agreement as to what the minimum age should be for vines to be termed "old", many people tend to use 35 years as something of a benchmark.
Here at Simply Spanish Wine, we’re big fans of old vines for several reasons. First of all, they're rare. On the one hand, Phylloxera, the plague that devastated European vineyards in the 19th century, wiped out whole swathes of vines. Which means it’s not easy to find pre-phylloxera vines in Spain. And there have also been various initiatives over the years designed to address over production and the infamous "EU wine lakes", which essentially paid farmers to pull out old vines. Put those together and you can see why old vines are rare.
Which leads on to the second reason we like old vines. Simply because winemakers who devote so much time and attention to preserving old vines - often when yields are smaller and economically perhaps the wines are less profitable – are helping preserve Spain’s winemaking heritage and are probably going to be equally fastidious about all aspects of their winemaking.
But there are more scientific reasons to pick up a bottle of wine made from old vines. We asked our good friend Bryan MacRobert, owner and winemaker at MacRobert & Canals in Rioja, to explain what makes old vines special.
Over to you Bryan.
“So, what happens is that over time, as the plant gets older, its fertility reduces, and it takes longer for the sap to flow up to the top of the buds. You’re dealing with old cells, old wood, so the vascular flow is reduced. There's a lot of factors that make the old vines produce less and be less fertile.
“But on the same side, you've got a bigger plant, you've got more wood, you've got more starch reserves in the plant. So, in essence, you've got more resources and less production. And that allows you to have higher quality grapes.
“With age also comes stability. In a year with lots of drought stress, the old vines produce the same. In a year with lots of water, the old vines produce the same. But a plot of young vines is going to be up and down like a teenager – trying to grow more in wet years, getting stressed in drought years. Old vines just tick along, which helps you in the cellar when it comes to producing great wine.
“Old vines also give good tannins, good structure, good volume, good aromas. And they have a lot of character, the vineyard itself is full of character that it’s built up over the years. That's what you're bottling. You're bottling a place, a moment in time, the history of the vineyard. And that's what I like about the old vines”.
Perfectly put Bryan. If you’d like to hear more from Bryan about winemaking and the state of the wine scene in Rioja, you can listen to the full interview below.