Old Vine Question

I was wondering today:

If a vineyard is planted 50 years ago, and then a vineyard manager/winemaker/farmer grafts those vines over to a new clone or variety, is the next vintage with the new variety still considered an old vine bottling?

I am not sure if grafting old vines is even a good idea or not, but I guess I am kind of curious if this is ever done anyways?

Yup, Matt… there was a vnyd down in SanBenitoCnyy, maybe it was Enz, that grafted over a block of OV Zin to Viognier and claimed to have the oldest Viognier in Calif. I took that claim with a grain of salt.
My understanding is that grafts to OV don’t take very well.

Given that OV/VV/TVV is completely unregulated, it is totally up to the producer to decide what they label as “old”. I get the idea that old roots do things that young roots do not, but old bud wood also does things that young wood does not. Part of the old vine mystique is the low yield that results from stunted cane generation on those gnarly old vines. I’ve always thought that old vines should be from root to cluster, not some combination of old roots and vigorouse above-ground plant material. I’d label that “old roots”…haven’t seen that yet, so I guess it isn’t a thing.


DeRose. Fantastic wine. I brought one to a bottling day at Roar (we do brown bag tastings every work day at most wineries we work at). Ed Kurtzman popped in, so I made him try it. This was a favorite, because his descriptions and logic were so spot-on. Definitely Rhone grape. California. Other details I don’t remember, that were correct. And - “Definitely not Viognier.”

I’d say the OV aspect contribute to that wine.

The DeRose folks have a huge amount of ancient vines that they’d been playing with long before this project. I’m sure they had grafting onto old vines down. My instincts would be trying to graft onto old wood would be exceedingly dumb, while grafting onto new tissue would be no issue.

Bingo, Wes…DeRose was the name I was trying to dredge up. Nuthin’ to do with old age, of course!!

Absolutely true that “Old Vine” is a completely unregulated term, it also is pretty much always a matter of comparison, whether within a region (Oregon is younger than most) or even within a vineyard. I don’t believe though that the age of a vine is just mystique, and I do believe that the age of the vine actually affects the expression of the fruit. Wines from older vines have a different character than those from young vines, and I don’t think that the core of differences between old and young would go away when there is a graft in place, even if I don’t think I would unabashedly call it “Old-Vine” without any mention of grafting. (Also not sure that I would call a variety “the oldest” that is only grafted on, but this has more to do with understanding that the oldest implies the first. In producing grapes and wines being the first involves a willingness to make a go at something that does not have the security of tradition behind it.)

Grafting certainly does change the story. Top-grafting (this is generally the method for grafting older vines) is both one of the most terrifying and wondrous occurrences that I have seen in the vineyard. It starts with chopping all of the heads off with a chain-saw, which is about as far from the bucolic romance of an untouched old head that you can get, but continues with one of the more remarkable lessons in resilience and regrowth that the vineyard has to offer. The first few years the vines are certainly a little different, and waiting for the first buds to push (some push within weeks, some take months)feels crazy at times, but we are in the third year of grafts at Temperance, and the wood is healed over, and the canopy is back to mirroring the vines that were there before. There are still some adjustments to be made, taking the heads off also lowers the head, which offers challenges to pruning that will take a few years to get right, and as the years pass it also gets to be harder to discern were the new material starts, which just means you run the risk of Pinot Gris popping back up in your Chardonnay (is it then old vine again?)

Back to how much this matters: The heads of old vines are beautiful things, but generally in pruning it is already a cane off of at least 2 year wood that is laid down on a wire, and the canopy itself grows new and is cut off every year(this is specific to cane pruning). At times when a vine’s head starts to stretch too wide, or get too high for effectively laying down, if a cane presents that is lower on the trunk, or more central to the head it is selected and after a few years become the live wood where all new canes are drawn. Cutting off old wood has its own problems, the larger the cut, the greater chance of disease(also of concern with the grafts) and “dead spots” that will never offer a possible renewal bud, and they definitely don’t look as handsome, but this is more viticultural management than the quality of the resulting wines. I don’t think you would suddenly say it was a younger expression of the fruit. Unless there is a serious area of trunk disease that you have sidestepped by selecting the new point of growth, the vine rarely swings out of balance with its original canopy growth, which to me says that it is the greater mass of everything below the head that matters more than the head itself.

Again, as Fred said, there is no regulated definition of Old Vine, and my experience only extends to vines planted in 93. If I was looking at a 50, or even 80 year old vine I don’t think I would want to cut its head off either, but this is more because I would worry about its survival, and whether the loss of 50-80 year old vines was worth a change in varietal expression.

Old Vine is unregulated - except in South Africa where Old Vine wine is certified by a Certified Heritage Vineyard seal with the date the vineyard was planted.

As Megan says, what constitutes an Old Vine is comparative. In South Africa 35 is the age. I’m currently drinking Once & Future California Zinfandels from vines 100+ years old which makes 35 seems very young, but as Rosa Kruger, the founder of the Old Vine Project says ‘you have to make a cut-off somewhere’, but she reckons noticeable difference take place around 40 years. She said that before then one tastes the variety, after that age one tastes terroir.


Thanks for that informative post, Megan!

Are there old vine vineyards on meter spacing? Or are all the truly old vines the wide spaced larger gnarly vines that make such great pictures? I have 15 year old barbera vines on meter spacing and they are still small vines. I could cut the heads off with losers if not pruners in some cases. My Mourvèdre vines that are probably only a decade old but spaced 5 x 6 are much larger.

My experience is that grafting across variety as opposed to changing out clones has spottier results. We grafted 1.3 acres of Dijon 777 to Coury Clone and only about 35 plants didn’t take. Grafted 2 acres of Pinot to Chardonnay and about 250 plants didn’t take. Same experience years ago with Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.