So what constitutes “old vines” in CA Zinfandel? I enjoyed an Italian-American grower’s comment on the subject a while back. “When I was pruning them I used to think 50 years made for a pretty old vine,” he said, “but now that I’m on Social Security, I’m thinking 70 or 80 years sounds like a better definition.”
There is no regulatory standard. A winery could put ‘old vines’ on a label for wine made from 10- to 15-year-old vines. Of course their Zinfandel growing neighbors would never speak to them again… but it would be legal. And setting some governmental standard would be hard ~ not to mention it’s an enforcement quagmire. The better answer is probably to fall back on the marketplace. Don’t expect government to insure the quality of wine for which you pay a premium price. Taste the wine, and arrive at your own conclusions.
In our second Video Tasting Sierra Foothills Zinfandel we covered how the style of Zinfandel changes as one progresses up the gradual western slope of the Sierras fromLodithrough Amador toEl DoradoCounty. We had a Master of Wine (Dr. Liz Thach fromSonomaState) tasting with us, and a prominent marketing research consultant named Hal King. We tried the wines with BBQ pork shoulder and with BBQ brisket. We concluded there was a considerable difference, not just in the character of the wines from the three elevations, but also in their color, acid content, intensity, and finish.
Woven into the beginning of our video lesson, however, was a discussion about vine age.Californiais unique in having some 5,000 acres of Zinfandel vines which are more than 80-years-old. They are in the Sierra Foothills, inSonomaCounty, in Paso Robles, and in isolated pockets such as Ridge’s Jimsomare Vyd in the Santa Cruz Mtns, and several places inMendocinoCounty. Very old vines yield meager crops. Maintaining these ancient vineyards is an extreme form of artistic stewardship.
Loosely linked to vine age is the matter of how the vines are trained. Virtually every old vineyard is head-pruned; whereas almost all young vineyards are trellised along cordon wires. That fact reflects conventional practices when the vineyards were planted. Logically enough, old-timers tend to feel head-pruning is a superior method for Zinfandel. Traditionally a head-pruned vine cascades outward in an umbrella pattern. Sun can penetrate into the middle of the vine through a relatively leafless circle at the top. But the angle of that light penetration changes as the sun passes overhead, so no clusters get sunburned. They receive a very desirable ‘dappled sunlight.’ The downside to head-pruning ~ forgetting, for our purposes, that there is no such thing as mechanically harvesting for head-pruned vines ~ is that pickers have to search through each vine, lifting up canes, in order to find the grape clusters during harvest.
Trellised vines place all their clusters in a row about waist high. That makes life a lot easier for the workers during harvest. Vineyard managers can also perform selective leaf removal at the end of the season seeking ‘dappled sunlight’ on the clusters. A common technique in vineyards with rows running north – south is to pick leaves only on the eastern (i.e. morning) side of the vine row.
Trellised vs. head-pruned is but the most rudimentary description of training options for Zinfandel. There are many types of trellising, of course, and head-pruning takes at least two forms: wagon-wheel vs. Xmas tree. Most of the old vines in our videos are wagon-wheel. When bereft of leaves, those take on the shape of a chalice, with spurs for next year’s growth forming a pin-wheel, more-or-less in a single horizontal plane. Structurally it is quite strong (cf. the Guyot system inFrance’sRhôneValley resisting the Mistral winds there). Historically these sculptured vines were pruned by the owner on a small plot (3 to 5 acres) around his house. They took years to train correctly. They look spectacular in late Winter – early Spring against a backdrop of yellow mustard flowers.
As vineyardists purchased larger plots, and needed hired workers to do their pruning, a common practice was to teach laborers the easier, quicker Xmas tree technique. This form is basically a vertical trellis, with spurs left in an ascending helix around a central trunk. This is a good compromise for vineyards where an owner is supervising the tasks of pruning and harvest. Trellising along horizontal cordon wires is more expensive in the first couple years, but simpler long-term. It started becoming popular as owners moved away, and labor became something contracted through a third party.
Do these factors actually affect how the wines taste?
You will easily recognize our Master of Wine friend as the attractive, younger person in the middle. Hal King is on your left. He asked if I’d only invited him because it was barbecue? That’s ridiculous! I think every BBQ – Zinfandel event needs a Harvard MBA who did three tours inVietnamflying military aircraft. (He’s also on our Marketing Advisory Committee.)
At the end of the day it is almost impossible to untangle the effect of old vines vs. young ones from the effect of head-pruned vines vs. trellised vines. ‘Old’ pretty much implies head-pruned. During our tasting we thought there was a substantial difference between the two wines, but that didn’t mean we enjoyed one more than the other. They were both delicious, albeit easily distinguishable. The young-vine, trellised example was intense, clean, refreshing, boysenberry-like, and a screaming winner with our pork shoulder and a slightly sweet, tomato-based sauce. It had all the virtue and life-force of a college 440 champion with good grades. The old-vine, head-pruned example was darker, more Gothic. It matched better to our brisket and to a sauce with some liquid smoke in it. The old-vine Zin took more thought. Like the indiscretions of youth, one’s opinion was subject to change over time. The wine showed many layers, but always in a tighter package. It was more about the crust on the steak than about the meat.
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