COURTESY BAROSSA GRAPE & WINE ASSOCIATION
The world of wine is full of quirks and curiosities. One of my favourites is that Australia, as part of the new world of wine, has some of the world’s oldest living vines.
One of the great sights in a vineyard is looking at rows of fat, gnarly old vines that have been tended by generations of farmers and vignerons. The fact that these old vines often make bloody good wines only adds to the allure.
It’s true that vines comprise only one part of a wine’s terroir – site, soil, climate and winemaking are the other key factors in producing great wines – but as vines age, the volume of their crop tails off and they become an even greater part of the equation. In effect, the vines are putting the same energy into producing fewer berries, resulting in a more concentrated flavour.
Coupled with good winemaking, old vines can produce wines of great structure, intensity and power – characteristics that most winemakers strive for with all their wines.
Grapevines are bit like an iceberg: only the top third of the plant is seen above ground. As vines grow, they send roots deep into the ground, penetrating layers of ancient soil and stone looking for water and nutrients. These deep roots are key to their survival and the prized old-vine characteristics.
Mature vines are also more susceptible to disease and require more TLC than younger vines in the vineyard. For economic reasons, it is accepted practice in most of the wine world to replant vines as their volumes start to drop around the 50-year mark.
Grapevine euthanasia is not practised everywhere, however, and in pockets of the Barossa and McLaren Vale, along with Great Western and Nagambie in Victoria, really old vines of cabernet, shiraz, grenache and mourvedre have been pensioned off rather than dug up. The resulting wines are not only great to drink but also help keep in touch with Australia’s rich wine heritage. Just think of how many people have enjoyed wine from these old vineyards over the years.
The lower-crop volumes of old vines, coupled with the additional cost in the vineyard of nursing these vines along, does mean the wines they produce aren’t priced for everyday drinking.
Well-priced old-vine wines can be found, but you generally won’t see much change from $50, or even $100. These wines are to be celebrated and enjoyed, and are a rich and important part of Australia’s wine heritage.
The French have a law that says the term, vieilles vignes, meaning old vines, can be used on a wine label when vines reach 35 years old. We have no such laws here but the Barossa marks its rich heritage with an old-vines charter, where four generational milestones are recognised by winemakers and growers in
Instigated by Yalumba in 2007, the Barossa Old Vine Charter has been in use for three years. See one of these terms on a wine’s label and you’ll know you’re drinking liquid history:
Old vine \ Thirty-five years must have passed since the vines were first planted.
Survivor \ Vines with 70 vintages under their belt.
Centenarian \ No letter from the Queen, but vines are recognised as centenarian when they pass this milestone.
Ancestor \ At 125 years of age, ancestor vines are among a small group of the world’s oldest wine-producing vines.
Calabria Bros. Shiraz 2010
(Barossa Valley) $24.95; 14.5%
The Calabria Bros. label comes from Riverina-based winery Westend Estate and grapes for this come from vineyards they own in the Barossa. Value has been a hallmark of the wines I’ve tried from the Westend portfolio and this continues the trend. Aromas of dark cherry, blackberry, mocha and earth have a delicacy that follows through to rich, lively palate of spice, dark berries and fruitcake. It’s nicely structured, with fine tannins and bright acid that keeps the wine light on its feet.
Food match \ Steak tartare
St Hallett Old Block Shiraz 2009
(Barossa) $100; 14.5%
A range of Barossa vineyards that, at a minimum, fall within the old-vine classification, with some vines dating to 1906, supply grapes for this wine. Lifted aromas of raspberry, blackberry, spice and wet stone set the tone before filling the mouth with bright, layered flavours of blackberry, spice, mocha oak and blood plum. It’s a smooth wine, too, with lovely, fine-grained tannins, balanced acidity and a mouthful of squashed summer berries on the long finish.
Food match \ Slow-cooked lamb shoulder
Woodstock The Stocks Shiraz 2009
(McLaren Vale) $65; 14.9%
Thirty-one rows of low-yielding vines from a vineyard first planted in 1900 provide the grapes for this rich, seductive wine. Heady aromas of dark cherry, plum, blackberry, vanilla and spice. It’s complex and dense, but not heavy, with flavours of blackberry, fruitcake, earth, leather, liquorice and a bittersweet chocolate note. There’s a lovely mouthfeel to this, with ripe, chewy tannins that provide not only a nice grip but a driving force to the long finish.
Food match \ Pot-roasted pork neck with herbs and peas
Seppelt St Peters Shiraz 2008
(Grampians) $75; 14.5%
There are some very old vines around Great Western, some planted with the ancient St Peters clone of shiraz, which is a cornerstone of this wine. There’s loads of cool-climate pepper and spice here, which I’m a real sucker for, along with elegant aromas and flavours of red and black cherry, blackberry, cured meat and eucalypt. It’s full of hidden depths that will reveal themselves over time, but the combination of super-fine tannins, bright acidity and subtle flavours makes for very good drinking now.
Food match \ Rabbit terrine
Love a bargain?
Woods Crampton Mataro 2010
(Barossa Valley) $25; 14.5%
From the Vine Vale district of the Barossa, this mataro (aka mourvedre or monastrell) comes from 80-year-old vines. Mataro is a grape that is regularly blended with grenache and shiraz but, all by itself, it’s a delight, especially when made from old vines, as this is. It smells of squashed cherries, blackberry, blueberry and mixed spice, while the rich but medium-bodied (a good thing in my book) vibrant palate displays flavours of plum, dark berries and liquorice. Supple, fine-grained tannins and a long finish complete a lovely picture.
Food match \ Home-made hamburgers