Bargain Bottles

Do Older Vines Mean Better Wines?

An exploration of zinfandel

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If you’ve ever spent time browsing the shelves of zinfandel, you’ve probably noticed the term “old vines” before. It adorns most labels like a stamp of approval, instantly suggesting the notion that the wine inside is better than other bottles. What’s even crazier is that we’re expected to admire and value them like we’re expected to always respect our elders—with no questions asked.

We often believe things improve with age. When cooking, an older cast-iron skillet is far superior to a worn non-stick frying pan. Antiques and collectibles are usually worth more than their shiny new replacements and even sex is rumored to get better with time. Things are no different when it comes to wine. We all know collectors pay outrageous amounts for bottles from legendary vintages.

The “old vines” concept follows the same trend. Old vines have a reputation for producing wines far more complex and mature than what is attainable from rookie vines. The belief is that the older the vine, the more concentrated the fruit’s flavor will be, and the better the wine it will produce. Putting the phrase on a label indicates something grand and desirable. Or at least that’s what producers who are lucky enough to have old vines want you to believe.

Just how old is “old”? There’s no agreed upon or legal definition for the required amount of years old the vine must be. In some places, like Spain and France, the use of the term is legitimate. Some vines here are over a century old and have survived the phylloxera disease that wiped out most of Europe’s vineyards by the late 1800s.

In New World regions like New Zealand, “old vines” can be used to indicate vines with a youthful age of only 27 years. And in zinfandel’s home, California, they can range anywhere from 35 to 100 years old. Like “all-natural” on a jar or box, the phrase is misleading, confusing, and impossible to really define.

Even though “old vine” wines don’t follow any exact rules, people often deem them as great. And with greatness usually comes a heftier price tag. But finding a bargain when looking for inexpensive bottles with traces of old soul isn’t completely impossible. Usually, wines from California are overpriced and difficult to attain, but there are plenty of old vine zinfandel options available for under $10.

In the late 1840s, zinfandel migrated to California with fortune-seekers during the Gold Rush, where it quickly became America’s iconic grape. To save the vines from being ripped up during Prohibition, they were shipped on trains back to the east where home winemaking was allowed. When Prohibition ended, they were replanted in California and are some of the treasured “old vines” we know today.

Critics and snobs love to hate zinfandel. They call them “Frankenwines” and “fruit bombs” and declare them unbalanced and too difficult to match with food. Haters often claim the wines are too hot to handle, but in the case of old vine zins, alcohol seems to be a good trait to have. The ones that fell below 14% alcohol by volume were weak and watery. A higher alcohol percentage combats undesirable candied fruit flavors and helps achieve a more drinkable and pleasant balance.

Not all old vine zins exhibit that extra special something expected from their name. Many have aromas of over-baked pies, similar to the way cherry filling that spent a few too many extra minutes in the oven smells. They’re sometimes too pruny and raisiny, but not in an impressive or attractive way.

I’m not completely convinced that “old vines” on a label always translates to better in terms of affordable zinfandel. Compared to regular ones in the same price range, old vine zins don’t always deliver. But if you’re interested in getting a trace of vine history in your glass for a bargain, there are a few worth your frugal investment.

Recommendations

Bogle Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel 2009, 14.5%

California, $9.99

Bogle is known for its deliciously cheap petite sirah and chardonnay, but this zinfandel executes value and quality as well. Its deep ruby color, black cherry flavors and hints of smoked American oak will leave you craving another sip. As elegant as it gets for this category under $10.

Four Vines Old Vine Cuvee Zinfandel 2009, 14.4%

California, $9.99

A collection of grapes from all top five California zinfandel appellations results in a wine with a rich bouquet of fresh berries and vanilla. Surprisingly youthful and fruity with a spicy finish makes it pleasant and easy-to-sip at a reasonable price.

Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel 2010, 14.5%

Lodi, California, $8.99

Made with grapes from gnarled old vines ranging from 35 to 80 years old, this zinfandel brings boldness and intensity to the table. Savory layers of oak and baking spices follow aromas of plums and pepper. A decent delivery for the dollars.

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