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jeudi, 05 septembre 2013






Claude Gilois 

The debate is not new. The purpose of this article is not to take sides one way or another but to express the points of view of some of the leading viticulturists on this subject.   At the end of the day, when you look at all the arguments, perhaps points of view that seemed at the opposite end of the spectrum are, after all, not so far apart.

It is probably Robert (Rocky) O’Callaghan from Rockford in the Barossa Valley in Australia who brought this subject back to the fore 25 years ago when the Australian authorities decided to offer substantial financial rewards to pull out old vines from the valley to reduce Australia’s wine glut of the mid 1980’s.    Many were tempted by this proposal that led some journalists to write that ‘the Barossa Valley was on fire’.


old vine barossa.jpg

An old vine from the Barossa

Robert, together with a bunch of the valley’s leading characters, in particular Peter Lehman from the eponymous domain and Bob McLean from St Hallett decided to try to persuade those ready to give up on old vines to change their minds.  If a number of them went up in smoke, the determination of these Robin Hoods of modern times managed to greatly limit the damage and many old vines survived.  Today there are used to make some of best wines of the Valley.


This begs the question that if there is any sense in keeping old vines which yields are so low they threaten the viability of a domain and make wines perhaps more expensive than they should be. The main argument of the ‘conservationists’ is simple: ‘grapes from old vines make better wines’.   Professor Deloire, ex head of the Stellenbosch Wine University, now in Australia, agrees that there is no basic underlying scientific truth in this argument. 


Eben Sadie, from the domain Sadie Family Wines, described by some of his peers, as ‘a national treasure of the South African wine industry’ is an aficionado of old vines,  and indeed only uses old vineyards to make his cuvées.   However, Eben’s views on the question are more restrained than his practices.  He declares: ‘It is possible, even if difficult, to control the vigour of the vine in the first 20 years of its life and you can make very good wines with young vines’.   He adds: ‘old vines only allow small yields and small yields are not always the best way to achieve the best quality.’


So, would the use of old vines be a genial marketing tool to sell wines more easily and more expensively in a world increasingly dependent on images rather than real facts? 


Manfred Krankl from Sine Qua Non Domain in California, declares: ‘You do not need old vines to make great wines. It is complete nonsense. You can make great wines with young vines.’   However,  he is in complete agreement with Eben Sadie that it is not the low yields obtained by draconian pruning or green harvesting that produces top quality material.  The solutions reside in keeping the vigour of the vine under control.  Manfred Krankl adds ‘Whether you obtain small yields (one or two bunches per vine) using young vines or using old vines, the cost of the wine is going to be the same at the end of the day.  The advantages of young vines is than they are generally disease-free unlike old vines that often develop diseases over time’.  But Robert O’Callaghan is quick to point out ‘the old vines have less energy and produce smaller grapes and clusters. As the colour and aromas are concentrated in the skin, smaller grapes will have a higher ratio of skin to juice and that gives them more colour and more concentration.



Manfred Krankl

When you asked Joe Heitz, one of the pioneers of Californian viticulture in the Napa Valley, how much time a vine needed to produce good quality grapes, Joe, whose sense of humour was very sharp, gave his usual answer: ‘two years’.  Everybody thought he was joking but he was not, and he was right as there is a fundamental difference between viticulture in California and France, and that is irrigation. The vine is a plant and it needs water. If you give it enough water when its roots are underdeveloped it will do fine and you will get good grapes. However, if the vine is stressed, it will take a few years to develop its root system and get sufficient water to produce decent grapes. It takes 7-15 years to achieve this equilibrium and this is why wines made from young vines vary so much from one vintage to the next in the early years in those countries where irrigation is not permitted.


All viticulturists at least agree on one point: the control of yields is one of the main factors to increase the quality of wine. However, you can achieve higher quality in years where the yields are higher than in some years where the yields are lower. There is not a perfect correlation between yields and quality. In the Napa Valley, vintage 1996 had some 30-40% less yield than the 1997 vintage, which is however considered superior to the 1996.


Optimum yields are governed by the terroir and in particular the amount of sunshine the grapes receive, as well as by the grape variety. There is a real difference between hot and cold countries. It is easier  for grapes to mature in countries such as California, Chile or Argentina where the amount of sunshine is 25-30% higher than in Europe. Consequently, the vines can have higher yields without loss of quality in those countries.


If you try to grow a tomato plant on the North Pole and one in the south of Spain you will soon see the difference.

A conversation with Dick Ward from Sainstbury in California on this subject was most revealing. When I asked him if 60 hectolitres per hectare was not a bit too much for his Chardonnay Reserve his answer was, quick and sharp: ‘we tried to decrease the yields to 40 hectolitres per hectare and achieved worse results. It is a question of balance between the various elements that make the vine give its best results.’   It is true that Chardonnay is probably the easiest grape variety where you can exceed the optimum yields without paying the penalty. A good barrel maturation on lees and malolactic fermentation and you have a chardonnay that most people will love. I doubt very much that the same risk would be taken with pinot noir.


It is this lack of knowledge of the climatic effects on yields that explains why many French winegrowers, by no means the least talented, failed to produce decent wines in the 1980s and 1990s while trying to make Bordeaux in California, Chile or Argentina. Thankfully, investors, viticulturists and consultants have now learnt their lesson and have remedied the situation. 


Eben Saddie Vines.jpg

Saddie Family Old Vine Series

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