Flavors of Age: Tasting Australia’s Old Vines

We make something of a fuss in the wine world about old vines. Undoubtedly, there’s something romantic about tasting the fruits of a plant that began its life before your parents or even your grandparents were born. But apart from our palaeophilist tendencies, do the age of vines really matter when it comes to wine?

In my experience, yes.

Finding the right language to generally characterize the impact that vine age has on a given wine can be difficult, and I don’t know that I or anyone else has truly nailed the description of old vine character. Most people resort to the use of words like complexity, finesse, nuance, or depth, with others claiming that old-vine fruit has more balance or harmony.

Old vines in Australia’s Barossa Valley.

Leaving aside for a moment the challenges of oganoleptics, we can easily observe many unique characteristics of older grapevines. Their more well-developed root systems often mean they require less water and they seem weather the extremes of a season with more grace. Some say these extensive root systems give these plants access to more, or even more varieties of micronutrients. Generally, old vines host fewer and smaller clusters of grapes, which sometimes us writers like to romantically characterize as the plant having learned to self-regulate its production over time.

Old vines are full of stories.

The oldest vines are almost always planted on their own roots, rather than having been grafted to rootstock, which means the genetics of the plant are different, as is its individual ontogeny. Born before modern “clones,” old vineyards often contain different plant material than modern vineyards, which is why some people make a big deal out of sourcing “cuttings” from these ancient vineyards to start new ones.

Old vine at Cirillo Estate in the Barossa Valley.

In any case, regardless of the adjectives they use, anyone who tastes a lot of wine can confirm that there’s something to older vines, and that they bring something to the qualities of the wine we perceive in the glass.

And of course, those also interested in history, culture, tradition, and farming recognize the heritage and value of preserving and celebrating surviving old vineyards. These plots of ground and the plants they host are at the very least, testaments to the hard work, perseverence, and vision of multiple generations of their caretakers, which occasionally represent a single family’s ownership since planting.

Old vines are full of stories.

All of which brings me, or us, to Australia, which claims one of the highest concentrations of ancient grapevines on the planet. When Europeans settled the country in the 1800s, they brought lots of vine cuttings with them with which they planted lots of vineyards. Thanks to the island nation’s remoteness, relatively strict quarantine measures, and soils that were not particularly conducive to phylloxera, a large number of vineyards have survived the multiple waves of death and replacement that plagued the rest of the world’s wine industry in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

71-year-old Shiraz vine at Oliver’s Taranga Vineyard, McLaren Vale

That means the southern part of Australia, in particular the Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Clare Valley, Rutherglen, Goulburn Valley and the Grampians all host populations of vines dating in some cases back to the 1850s. Farther north, the Hunter Valley also boasts some particularly old vines.

Barossa Valley is so lousy with old vines, that they’ve actually come up with something they call the Old Vine Charter, to both recognize and preserve these historic sites.

Despite appearing on wine labels the world over, no universal standard exists for what constitutes an old vine.

This charter makes an attempt to standardize and define one of the most problematic aspects of old vines in the wine industry, namely the definition of what we mean by “old.”

Despite appearing on wine labels the world over, no universal standard exists for what constitutes an old vine. In some places a vine might be considered unusually old at only 20 years of age, so frequently are the vines ripped out and replaced.

Yalumba’s “Tri-Centenary” block of Grenache, planted in 1889. Image courtesy of Barossa Wines.

In a world where appellations and their associated wine laws can dictate things as specific as the date of harvest, how many clusters are allowed per vine, and what percentages of grapes in the bottle must come from where in order to put a given place name on the label, it’s somewhat shocking to learn that no such regulations exist for determining whether your vines are actually “old.”

The folks in Barossa have decided to classify their vines as follows:

  • Old vine = at least 35 years
  • Survivor vine = 75 years or older
  • Centenarian vine = 100 years or older
  • Ancestor vine = 125 years and older

That’s a pretty good taxonomy from my standpoint, and one that it would be lovely to see the rest of the world adopt.

Justifiably proud of these old vine treasures, the folks at Wine Australia asked if I wanted some samples of old vine wines a while back, which I’ve recently tasted.

As I went through these wines I was struck by how many offered savory, even salty notes, something that I tend to find appealing in red wines, especially those with richer flavors. That salty quality can balance out particularly ripe fruit, and when combined with proper acidity, make for a particularly tasty mouthful.

I encourage you to seek out any of the wines below that sound appealing, not only for the pleasure they offer, but also because buying these wines helps to support the efforts of those who strive to keep these old vineyards alive and healthy, so we can all enjoy the unique flavors of their histories.

Tasting Notes

2014 Tyrell’s “HVD Vineyard” Semillon, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of candle wax and lemon pith. In the mouth, steely flavors of lemon pith, rainwater, and wet pavement have a brisk acidity and lovely minerality. Somewhat simple now in its youth, this wine will blossom over time into something richer and more complex. Most people won’t be able to wait 10 years for this to happen, but if they can, this wine will prove well worth it. This vineyard was planted in 1908. 10.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $38. click to buy.

2013 Pewsey Vale “The Contours Museum Reserve” Riesling, Eden Valley, South Australia
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of mandarin orange oil and green apples. In the mouth, brisk flavors of citrus pith, wet chalkboard, and a hint of diesel are all dry and stony, almost austere, with notes of unripe apple and yellow herbs lingering with the wet pavement in the finish. These vines were planted in 1965. Fermented with ambient yeasts. 12% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2016 Yalumba “Old Bush Vine” Grenache, Light Pass, Barossa, South Australia
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of strawberries, sawdust, and dusty earth. In the mouth, dried herbs, sawdust, cooked strawberries, and redcurrants are bright with excellent acidity that brings with it a hint of kumquat sourness. Faint, gauzy tannins. Made from vines between 35 and 80 years of age. 14.1% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $19. click to buy.

2016 Langmeil “The Fifth Wave” Grenache, Barossa, South Australia
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of strawberry jam and eucalyptus. In the mouth, bright herbal, minty flavors of eucalyptus mix with orange peel and strawberry jam. Good acidity, and barely perceptible tannins. Made from 70+-year-old vines. 15% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2016 d’Arenberg “The Custodian” Grenache, McLaren Vale, South Australia
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of berries, licorice, and woodsmoke. In the mouth, leathery tannins wrap around a core of cherry and strawberry fruit shot through with dusty earth, dried herbs, and a touch of smokiness. Very savory. Excellent acidity brings an orange peel tang to the finish. Made from vines planted before 1920. 14.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2017 Angove “Warboys Vineyard” Grenache, McLaren Vale, South Australia
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine smells of chopped herbs, earth, and strawberry jam. In the mouth, juicy flavors of strawberry, dried herbs, and a touch of bitter earth have a wonderful brightness thanks to excellent acidity. There’s just a touch of minty heat in the finish. Made from organically grown grapes of vines at least 50 years old. Matured in older French oak for 10 months. 14.5% alcohol. 300 cases made. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $39. click to buy.

Elderton Shiraz Syrah 2017 750ml - Barossa, Australia

2018 Angove “Warboys Vineyard” Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry, salty licorice, and vegemite. In the mouth, savory, even salty notes of blackberry and licorice are shot through with a hint of mint and oregano. Faint, suede-like tannins add texture while excellent acidity keeps the saliva flowing. Made from organically grown grapes of vines at least 30 years old. 14.2% alcohol. 1230 cases made. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $56. click to buy.

2016 Angove “Warboys Vineyard” Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberries, black cherry, and licorice with a hint of mint. In the mouth, blackberry, black cherry, vegemite, and fresh green herbs make for a dark, spicy mouthful, with hints of molasses in the finish. Good acidity, faintest of tannins. Made from organically grown grapes of vines at least 30 years old. 14.5% alcohol. 1440 cases made. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $56. click to buy.

2017 Elderton Shiraz, Barossa, South Australia
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black plum and fresh herbs. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy black cherry, black plum, and blackberry flavors are shot through with a salty licorice note. Excellent acidity and faint, gauzy tannins. Very tasty, balanced as it is between fruit and salty notes that even range to Japanese pickled plum in the finish. Vines range from 24 to 123 years of age. The wine is aged in 2nd and 3rd-use American oak puncheons. A blend of fruit from the Greenock, Nuriootpa, and Craneford vineyards. 14.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $33. click to buy.

2017 Oliver’s Taranga Vineyard “HJ” Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dusty roads, dried herbs, and dried blackberries. In the mouth, blackberries, salty licorice, dried herbs, and dried flowers have a nice seamlessness to them as well as a lovely savory character. Excellent acidity, faint, gauzy tannins. Hints of raisin linger in the finish. The Old Block of vines was planted in 1948. 14.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $32. click to buy.

2015 Leogate Estate Wines “Brokenback Vineyard” Shiraz, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cola, blackberry, and dried herbs. In the mouth, excellent acidity makes flavors of blackberry, licorice, and red miso paste quite juicy. Hints of dried herbs linger in the finish. Faint, putty-like tannins. Made with vines planted in the 1970s. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $21. click to buy.

Negociants Australia - John Duval Annexus Mataro

2015 Yalumba “Steeple Vineyard” Shiraz, Light Pass, Barossa, South Australia
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberries, dried flowers, smoked meat, and dried herbs. In the mouth, salty flavors of blackberry, dried herbs, peppermint, and licorice have a lovely texture, with barely perceptible tannins and fantastic orange-peel acidity. Very drinkable. This vineyard was planted in 1919. Spends 15 months in French oak. 14.1% alcohol. Closed with cork (as opposed to most of their wines). Score: around 9. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2012 Brothers in Arms Shiraz, Langhorn Creek, South Australia
Very dark ruby in color, this wine smells of cedar and berries, vegemite, and dried herbs. In the mouth, wonderfully savory flavors of dried herbs, dried flowers, licorice, and cooked blackberries have a nice citrus peel acidity to them and a faint grippy tannic texture. Mouthwatering and very tasty. Sourced primarily from two vineyard blocks, one planted in 1891 and the other planted in 1893. 14.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $29. click to buy.

2012 Brothers in Arms Cabernet Sauvignon, Langhorn Creek, South Australia
Dark ruby in color with hints of brick at the edges, this wine smells of cedar and cherries, but with a hint of dried herbs. In the mouth, fairly saline flavors of cherry, cedar, dried tobacco, and red miso paste mix with excellent acidity and a touch of alcoholic heat. Powdery, supple tannins coat the mouth. Sourced primarily from a vineyard planted in 1891. 14.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $33. click to buy.

2017 John Duval Wines “Annexus” Mataro, Barossa, South Australia
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers, red miso paste, and black fruits. In the mouth, a saline, savory combination of dark berries, leather, and vegemite makes for a brooding and unusual wine. Excellent acidity and faint, cotton-ball tannins. Made from 100+-year-old vines. Aged 15 months in old French oak barrels. 13.5% alcohol. 250 cases made. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $53. click to buy.

Old vine at Torbreck, Barossa Valley.

All images above courtesy of Wine Australia unless otherwise noted.