Old vines may be a modern concept—or, at least, a distinction born out of modern viticulture, post phylloxera. According to Chester Osborn, who has collected old-vine parcels to build on his family’s d’Arenberg estate in McLaren Vale, vines planted on their own roots can survive for centuries in the dry conditions at his vineyards. It is largely the failure of the graft between the rootstock and the scion that creates what modern viticulturists consider the vine’s 40-year lifespan.
That’s not to say the vines don’t need proper care. Osborn recalls a lengthy dispute when he joined his father, d’Arry, in the vineyards. Up until 1983, d’Arry had been cultivating between the rows, first with a horse-drawn plow, later with a tractor. Chester wanted to let the grasses grow and, then, to mow them. “We should sell the vineyard now before the vines all die,” Chester recalls his father telling him. “At least we’ll get something for the vineyard now.” As it turned out, Chester’s farming method limited erosion while encouraging the growth of roots and sustaining soil moisture. D’Arry was eventually convinced. Going a step further, Chester decided to bring sheep in to graze in the vines, which he soon discovered was a mistake. “We were carbon farming, then taking carbon out of the vineyard and giving it to the sheep. A low-carbon soil is not very active as far as microflora is concerned; the root mass is smaller and you have less water-holding capacity. We did have a few deaths of vines in our 100-year-old vineyards, more than I would have liked. So, we started a big program with compost and got rid of the sheep. If we have to turn a vineyard around, we have to put higher compost in for a few years.”
When I spoke with Chester last week, he mentioned that d’Arry, at 95, was beginning to slow down. But clearly the younger Osborn was still running at high speed, having just completed a sci-fi book about vines saving the world from a cabal of home appliances that had co-opted human souls, and having also just completed a blind tasting of wines from 19 districts within McLaren Vale—an annual project with more than 100 samples and a group of local winemakers and viticulturists. They are using the project to articulate the differences in expression among the subzones, differences Osborn finds to be amplified by old vines. “As the vines age, the soil character gives in to the underlying geology character. Usually somewhere around 50 years of age, the earth character [in the fruit] becomes quite pronounced and, as the vines get older, approaching or over 100 years, either coffee or chocolate (milk or dark), or iron and dark soot, or complex woody character, or combinations of these and other extreme terroir-driven characters become pronounced.”
Among the vines Osborn farms, 4.25 acres of shiraz date to 1898; 29.4 were planted between 1910 and 1920; and another 7.5 acres between 1925 and 1935. He finds that in those ancient parcels, “Each geology will give different characters. 56-million-year-old limestone gives blocky tannins and wines that are not as complex or earthy as 2.4-million-year-old sandstone, which gives a wider array of tannins. Sand on hard clay is somewhere in between.” He uses many of the parcels to produce 22 different single-vineyard shirazes, working to sustain distinct characteristics in each one. Even his $20 Footbolt is half old-vine fruit, which he defines as 50 years or older.
In the hills above McLaren Vale, Michael Lane has been farming a collection of ancient grenache and shiraz vines since 1998, collaborating with winemaker Peter Fraser, who started working with the fruit of those vines that same year—a few harvests before the property was purchased by the Jackson Family and renamed Yangarra.
“We see more old-vine effect in grenache and shiraz because they are more vigorous varieties,” Fraser says. “As they get older, the vigor diminishes.” Like Osborn, Fraser and Lane are sensitive to the differences in the geology, as well as the ability of their ancient vines to self-regulate. “They work within the realm of what nature is dishing up,” Fraser says. “More so than the young vines. If they are going to have a more challenging season, the old vines manage their yield. It’s partly because the yield is on the lower side; there isn’t so much to adjust.” Among their ancient vines, the High Sands Grenache was planted in 1946 in Blewitt Springs’ deep sand over clay.
From Yangarra, you can follow the ridge north to Eden Valley, where the Henschkes farm their own collection of old-vine sites, including the legendary Hill of Grace, with generations of plants dating back to the 1860s. Down the hill to the west, the Barossa Valley’s arid climate and sandy soils have sustained a host of ancient vines, including the grenache vines that provide the fruit for Johann’s Garden, the youngest being 70 years old.
Older still are the 820 vines at Yalumba’s Tri-Centenary grenache block, planted in 1889—Kevin Glastonbury and Robert Hill-Smith walk the site with Martin Gillam in the video linked to this Tasting Report. Yalumba purchased the block two decades ago and, at the time, did a limited survey of the site underground. “We notice a marked variation in the depths of sandy soil layers down to the heavy clay underneath.” He believes the growth of the root structure and the vine itself would be different depending on whether the soil was shallow or deep sand. The variations in the root systems are a major factor in the growth of the vines above ground. The areas of the vineyard they prefer provide fruit for Tri-Centenary, with the other areas, about one-third of the block, going to their Bush Vine Grenache.
Glastonbury ties some portion of the vines’ longevity to dry farming. “When irrigation was introduced as a mainstream vineyard ‘tool’ in the 1970s,” he wrote in an email, “it’s fair to say, many growers embraced having the availability of extra water. Many vineyards responded with greatly increased yields, increased vine growth and increased root growth. This may have contributed to vine arms collapsing, even breaking off under the weight of extra tonnage and, so their architecture was changed. Irrigation was really only then reduced for many of these vineyards by the mid-2000s. We do not know what long-term effect this increased irrigation over this timeframe would have had on the vine, both above and under the soil.”
For resources on old vines, Barossa and McLaren Vale have both established registries to document parcels in their regions. And JancisRobinson.com started an international registry, launched with the help of Tamlyn Currin in 2010, and updated since then by Benjamin Roelfs.
You can read tasting notes for the top wines from our most recent tastings here.
This feature is part of our February 2022 Regional Tasting Report on South Australia.
This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.