Old Vines & Discovering The Sutton Hoo Of Sauvignon

Quick disclaimer. I’ve not been writing on this blog for some time. Work has taken over well and truly, and since passing the WSET Diploma, I’ve not been studying wine so keenly. However, I’m now an MW student, and will be rebooting and reposting as I make my way through the incredibly extensive syllabus. I’ll do my best to keep these insightful and useful, with history and wine still the pairing at Past Cutting’s heart. But I do mainly write on here to process the information for myself and my studies – so please don’t judge me on it. End of message, onto the content…

You’re reading a wine label, or walking a vineyard. Someone is talking about old vines. An image of gnarly, haggard looking trunks spring into your mind, fruit carefully drooping from branches as old as the hills. It sounds attractive, ancient and clearly worth a couple of quid more. But how old is old? And how old can they get? And really, does it matter? It’s a debate which goes to the heart of winemaking. And, typically, creates as many questions as it can answer.

There aren’t many living organisms which directly link us to the past. An archaeological record; something permanent and grounded in its place. Like a type of architecture from a bygone time, old vines do just that – a physical imprint of past taste and techniques. A piece of the past you can buy bottled, from a time before you were even born. Like any treasure chest, the excitement of cracking open the lid can lead to jubilation or utter disappointment. But the finished product is only part of it, and you can trace a vines journey through history like lines in the soil. 

You’ll have seen the term ‘Old Vines’ on bottles both New and Old World,perhaps Veilles Vignes or similar. The term has no real legal definition, and seems to scale in comparison to a region’s history. In South Africa, for instance, it will be considered from 25 years. Elsewhere it may be 50 or 80 or even older. 

Old vines are often seen as a badge of honour; an anchor to the winemakers of the past, a line in the sand which says to the world “we’ve been making wine since long before you were a twinkle in your mother’s eye, young man”. The virtues of old vines are often widely proclaimed. They create fruit which is subtler, “more concentrated” and in lower yields (another plus). They show that a vineyard, or winemaker, is a bastion of the past – an evolution of previous generations which must lead to perfection in bottled form. Or at least come close. Others argue against them too. Sparkling Winemakers in England, for instance, prefer the vibrancy of newer vines. At the famous judgement of Paris, the Stag’s Leap cabernet (which beat the big names of Bordeaux) was from vines only three years old. 

With my archaeology hat on, I would argue that old vines are about so much more than the fruit they produce. They are a living, growing tapestry of the past. Every notch or cutting a marker of a life’s labour past. Every tendril or root grown another step into the future; regardless of their surroundings. They speak (to me at least) to something deep inside us, something which craves a tangible permanence between the now and the world which came before it. And then there is always the possibility of striking gold; the discovery of an ancient variety hitherto unknown. The Sutton Hoo of Sauvignon. 

The oldest vine still producing fruit in the world resides in Slovenia and has survived centuries of change. The vine – a  Zametovka – produces just 100 250ml bottles of wine each vintage, and could date back as far as the 16th century. Found in the town of Maribor, Styria, the vine is a key tourist attraction and emblem of viticultural history (it even has its own museum and drinking anthem). And quite rightly too – the vine has survived everything from Ottoman invasions to World War Two shelling. Yet still stands proudly. 

Another famous example is the ‘The Great Vine’ at Hampton Court. This single vine, planted in the mid-18th Century, is recognised as the world’s largest. The grapes it produces have been fed to kings, queens, Great War convalescents and WW2 prisoners of war. According to the vine’s official website, “The average crop of black dessert grapes is about 272 kilograms (600lbs), however in the autumn of 2001 it was 383 kilograms (845 lbs) – the best crop ever.” There’s no record this has ever been used for wine, but given that you can buy the grapes from both the palace’s gift shop and eBay – it might time to give it a go? 

But old vines, and even ancient vines, are not just a curiosity. They are fundamentally commercial too.  There are parts of the world today where you can buy wines made from plants which predate the turn of the 20th century – and even the watershed moment of phylloxera (more on this in the next blog). In the sandy, relatively disease free soils of northern Spain you’ll find those gnarly, romantic storybook vines. Some dating back two centuries to the time of Napoleon’s invasion or even before. There are numerous other pockets across Europe with truly ancient vines. 

In the States, the ‘old vine’ concept throws up some fascinating stories. There’s the ‘Mother Vine’, an ancient specimen planted  by the Croations who later became known as Native Americans, first recorded in the writings of an expedition to the New World in 1584. Across California there are plenty of other examples of truly ancient vines, planted by European missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries and surviving prohibition by producing ‘communal wine’ (in heavily inverted commas). It’s a living story too. In 2010 a society was founded to preserve many of these old vineyards which were being pulled and replaced with new vines. Often it was Pinot Noir being planted – the legacy of the film ‘Sideways’ which had put the grape firmly in the zeitgeist-spotlight. It just goes to show; old vines may be able to survive global conflicts and revolutions – but one cult-hit film can undo decades of work.

In Jason WIlson’s ‘Godforsaken Grapes’, he talks of the excitement of meeting winemakers in the Alps who are still cultivating ancient varieties on original rootstocks. The book, and winemakers at its heart, is something of a rejection of the international varieties which dominate the wine world (for instance, there are 1,400 grapes grown globally, but 80% of wine is made from 20 of them). It gives the impression that many of these ancient vines and vineyards are on a knife edge. That changing tastes – and fashions – could wipe them away in an instance (if they have not already done so). These tiny Alpine vineyards are nests of old, underrated or unheard of varieties. The mythology is “they could be the next big thing”, but really I think it’s just nice they’re being preserved. 

What makes these all so fascinating is that they can be propagated and reproduced. Every vine is, in itself, a Noah’s Ark of DNA. A cutting from the Hampton Court vine, or the Mother Vine, will grow into a new version of itself. The vines are living museums of themselves; a self reflecting window from a world very, very different to our current one. Who knows what may come next. Maybe one of the ancient vines of Spain, Switzerland, America or wherever else may prove to be the next Pinot Noir in a world of climate change. Or maybe they won’t. They don’t need to be a breakthrough, for me at least. Just the idea that something delicious and ancient may be out there in some half forgotten field, having weathered decades of obscurity, is fascinating. All we have to do is to keep digging.