When does a vine really reach its full potential? When is it at its best? Is it when it reaches 20 years, or 50? Or rather 120 years, or maybe 400? It all depends on who you ask, as well as the rootstock's capacity and quality are also determined by the place of growth, what grape variety it yields and the philosophy of the winemaker at hand.
A favorite producer in the crown jewel of the southern Rhône, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, claims that the vine delivers at its best between 35 and 50 years of age. So once the vines have crossed the 50-year mark, without hesitation, row after row is rooted up and new cuttings are planted; not a single rootstock lives through its 60th anniversary at the castle.
Many producers believe that the older a rootstock, the better the fruit it yields, but is this an opinion or a fact? How do you objectively measure the greatness of a grape? What everyone in the wine business agrees on is that the vine must grow up, or mature, in order to start producing good quality fruit; in its youth, the quality of the vine is wavering to say the least in terms of sugar levels, acid levels, tannin structure and resistance to various external factors. But even therein the developmental curve varies somewhat: some grape varieties take longer than others to ripen, just as the characteristics of the stem on which the grapes are grafted play a role; thus, there are several factors that determine when a vine finally grows up and begins to produce qualitative material.
An important question in this context, which in itself determines how old rootstocks to be chosen: what kind of wine are you setting out to produce? The older the vines, the heavier the taste of the grapes they produce, as the vine in its golden age begins to produce fewer and fewer grapes; in this sense a natural "green harvest" takes place, the winemaker thus needs to prune less to concentrate the flavors. With more flavor in the grapes, a stronger wine is produced, but is this what you as a producer look to achieve?
In general, it can be said that the drier a climate, up to a certain limit, the older the vines tend to get. Moisture and heat, as well as moisture and cold, weaken the rootstocks over time. Rot is not uncommon and pests and insects as well as diseases generally threaten to attack roots, trunks and branches, foliage, and bunches in this type of climate. Of course, there are old vines in, for example, Barsac and Sauternes, but not to the same extent and not quite as old as in southern France or Monsant in Spain. The oldest known grape vine that still bears fruit is a vine of the Zametovka grape in the Slovenian village of Maribor, it has been dated by researchers to stem from the early 17th century. The oldest still commercially viable winery is Turkey Flat in Tanunda, Barossa Valley, Australia. It was planted in 1847 with Syrah seedlings, which still yield ample fruit for the producer's "Old Vine Shiraz"!
For some, an old vine can be as young as twenty-five years, for others all plants younger than a century are still only children, nor is there a specific system for when a vine is considered young or old. What everyone agrees on, however, is that when a rootstock reaches its adult age, the roots have penetrated so far into the bedrock and soil that it can viably withstand both rainy and dry periods and has such a finely divided network below the ground that it can take up all the minerals and nutrients it needs to produce wine-worthy grapes. A mature vine can have roots that extend over thirty meters down into the bedrock to reach water reservoirs to quench their thirst!
Here is our Vieilles Vignes 57 which is made of grapes from vines planted in 1957.
In France the term "vieille vigne" is used, in German-speaking countries "alte reben", the Italians call old logs "vigna vecchia" and the Spaniards refer to "viñas viejas". No matter where in the wine world the journey goes, try wine from the same producer where the grapes come from young and old logs respectively and compare, discover what YOU like; regardless of the fact that a wine with "old vines" printed on the label often costs significantly more than a wine from young rootstocks, it is in the individual experience that the true value lies.
Bollinger in Champagne owns one of the few vineyards that actually still has pre-Phylloxera vines, i.e. not grafted, which is otherwise the case with most rootstocks since the ravages of wine lice in the 1860s-1890s in France. The champagne from their "vieille vigne française" costs about €1500 per bottle, and mainly just because of its exclusivity as the vineyard only produces around two thousand such bottles per year.
Young or old, the same goes for wines as fellow humans: it is impossible to say what age is unequivocally best, it is entirely up to personality, taste, and wholeness!