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California Vines Age Prematurely

This vineyard is just starting out in life but when will the sun set on it?
© Rebecca Gibb | This vineyard is just starting out in life but when will the sun set on it?
An early addiction to irrigation might be the reason that vines planted in California in the 1990s are not aging gracefully.

California has the image of a place where people want to stay forever young. But for grapevines, it seems to be a state where they get old in a hurry – maybe that's because they drink too much. Water, of course.

Monday's seminar at the now-annual In Pursuit of Balance conference brought together four winemakers who work with mature Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines.

One of the first questions was, how old is old? "For California, 20 years is an old vineyard," responded winemaker Steve Matthiasson. "It's not producing as much. Diseases are kicking in. You have to decide whether it's time to replant."

This is a far cry from many classic Old World regions, noted Raj Parr, founder of the In Pursuit of Balance group. "An old vine in Burgundy is 40 or 50 years old."

In an attempt to explain the age gap, Wind Gap owner and winemaker Pax Mahle speculated that the difference in life span may be irrigation, which is not permitted in most of Europe. Vines must learn to find their own water sources underground, whereas in California, they are usually nurtured through their early, fast-growing years by drip irrigation, he explained.

In addition, Matthiasson, who is much in demand in Napa and Sonoma as a vineyard consultant, believes that as a group, California vintners continually made poor choices about rootstocks, which has had a negative impact on the age of the state's vineyards.

In the 1970s and 1980s, most California vineyards were planted on the AxR1 rootstock recommended by UC Davis. That rootstock turned out in the 1990s to be susceptible to phylloxera.

"We don't see a lot of vines today that were planted in the '70s and '80s," Matthiasson said. "They got replanted."

L to R: Steve Matthiasson, Michael McNeill and Alder Yarrow on the panel
© W. Blake Gray | L to R: Steve Matthiasson, Michael McNeill and Alder Yarrow on the panel

At the time of replanting, vineyard owners were looking for rootstocks that not only would be disease-resistant, but also that might boost the sugar levels of wine, because in the early '90s nobody thought there could be such a thing as "too ripe" grapes. However, those rootstocks might not have been well suited to the warm, dry summers in California; their early thirst for irrigation water may never have been properly slaked.

"A lot of vineyards planted in the '90s are not maturing gracefully," claimed Matthiasson. "That's why you see a lot of 20-year-old vineyards being replanted."

A historic rootstock, St. George, was largely shunned, he noted, because vintners feared the grapes grown on it would taste greener and more tannic. But St. George is drought-resistant and thrives even in extremely dry years like California experienced in 2012 and 2013.

"St. George had a bad name in the '90s, but that was not long-term thinking in terms of our water supply," Matthiasson said. "I'm battling with my clients right now to put in drought-tolerant rootstock."

Many of the most famous older vineyards in California are planted with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. Some of those vineyards are over 100 years old, and the resulting wines often have greater complexity, but are more expensive to produce because older vines produce fewer grapes.

The oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir vines in North America date back to 1953. The Ambassador's Vineyard is owned by Hanzell Vineyards and its winemaker Michael McNeill said: "One of the things about having old vines is that whoever planted the vineyard got it right. It survived as long as it has."

Adam Tolmach, owner and winemaker of The Ojai Vineyard, said wines made from old vines can be richer, but that doesn't necessarily make them better. "You have to treat wines from old vines differently," he added.

Mahle noted: "I find the wine [from old vines] to be less overtly fruity. A lot more umami. That makes a wine inherently more interesting."

While age does seem to matter, both grapevines and people are better old than dead.

Related stories:

Irrigation: The Root of all Evil?


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  • Comments

    Steve Matthiasson wrote:
    17-Mar-2014 at 16:21:01 (GMT)

    This was an interesting panel discussion which attempted to further the understanding of old vines. I want to jump in here and clarify the bit about irrigation from my perspective. This is responding to the earlier article on irrigation as well. Grapevines, like all cultivated plants, respond to care, and part of taking care of a plant so that it can thrive and continue to old age is managing it's water supply. Whether to irrigate or not, how often, how deeply, etc are fundamental questions, as is whether to cultivate or leave permanent cover, which impact water supply to the vines, or whether to hedge or trellis in different ways, which dictate water use by the plant. I want to get away from this concept of irrigation being a "bad" manipulation, and dry-farming being a "good" lack of manipulation. Like anything we do for the plants, we need to to it intelligently--irrigation is no different than pruning or cover crops or compost or tillage--it can help or cause harm, depending on how, why, or when it is used. I strongly believe that here in California, since our summers are hot and dry, it is critical to carefully irrigate young vines so that they establish themselves as strong and healthy young plants, capable of withstanding stress later in their life. I've never worked in Europe, so I don't know what the conditions are like for young vines there. Here, though, for their first year in the ground I like to give gradually deepening irrigations to young vines, spaced more and more widely apart, so their roots can follow the water deeply into the soil. I'm trying to establish young plants, just like a tree or a rose bush--if they stress too much that first year they become susceptible to al sorts of wood diseases due to poor carbohydrate assimilation and a subsequent impaired immune system. No one would plant a rose bush in their yard in California and expect it to be strong and long-lived if they don't water it. As the vines get older we can wean them back--with that strong start we might be able to dry farm them. But everything is site specific. There is also an sustainability question of diesel-intensive tillage to conserve moisture versus no-till and electricity to pump water. It is very complicated. I'd like to see interested consumers asking hard questions about a producer's approach to sustainability, but I'd hate to see a simplistic judgement in the wine world that "irrigation is bad."

  • Derek Cronk wrote:
    14-Mar-2014 at 16:43:26 (GMT)

    In my opinion, the irrigation issue is also a myth. While some parts of Europe do not allow irrigation, it rains there year round. It is not as predictable as turning on the valve, but the vines do get water. That is very different from "dry farming" in California. Also, I have been one of the people removing as many of the 1990's planted vineyards as my clients will let me. And I am on track to removing the last of them in the next 3 years. None of them have been removed due to lowered production. They have all been removed for quality reasons. Mainly viral infections, but also poor clonal selections or trellis design. The change in rootstocks, away from AxR1 and St. George has led to higher leafroll expression. This has decreased the quality to the point of not being an asset, but rather a liability.

  • Tyler Thomas wrote:
    12-Mar-2014 at 19:32:30 (GMT)

    Let's also remember the economics. One reason vineyards are younger is simply the need to get greater production. One thing for sure is older vines tend to lower yield. In famous Eurpoean vineyards (or less famous subsidized European vineyards) the economics might pencil out. But I can tell you that if Europeans were losing money on their old vineyards they would replant them. Ditto to what NorCal Vineyards said. The deep root myth is just that. Why should deep roots make a difference? Just stop and think about that. How does it improve wine just because the root is deeper?

  • Eduardo Holzapfel wrote:
    12-Mar-2014 at 15:53:28 (GMT)

    Like todays lifestyle, we want everything yesterday. That means the grapevines have to produce fast, a lot and quality grapes. We need to plant today the vineyards that will gives us it´s best grapes in 10 to 20 years from now. And maybe more. What manager wants to plant today something he will probably not be there to harvest and enjoy the credit.

  • Jim Klein wrote:
    11-Mar-2014 at 23:18:03 (GMT)

    The lion's share of vine material produced in the 1990's was poor - small caliber green growers, micro grafted, Black goo infected, virus infected, misidentified rootstocks and not much experience with the material that was replacing AxR1. Let's also not forget that we planted those vineyards on tight spaced VSP which may or may not have been appropriate for the soil and site on a latitude south of Madrid. That said I do agree drip irrigation has led to water dependent vines which produce wines with a water stressed character unless irrigated through harvest.

  • Norcal Vineyards wrote:
    11-Mar-2014 at 23:12:27 (GMT)

    A lot of grapevines in California were replanted due to phylloxera (biotype B) damage on AXR1 rootstock. Many more vineyards came out due to virus, Eutypa, Esca or similar issues. Red Blotch virus will claim it's share of vineyards over the coming years. The idea that irrigation of grapevines in the north coast of California is weakening vineyards is a myth. I have looked at hundreds of root zones in drip irrigated vineyards. Roots grow into moist soil. If the soil profile has water the roots will continue to grow down unless impeded by hard subsoil strata or very acidic subsoil. Some roots will grow under the drip emitters too. The claim that that all the grapevine roots in an irrigated vineyard stay shallow is total nonsense in areas where the soil profiles are at or near field capacity (nearly) every Spring . We have successful started vineyards with drip and converted them to non-irrigation. Nevertheless the myth just keeps on growing. Also the lower vigor rootstocks were not planted to increase sugar, just to control or limit vigor. The ripeness issue is another discussion. I do agree that rootstock choices are key in areas with limited water, limited rainfall and/or skeletal, shallow soils. You pay for poor vineyard design.

  • Tyler Thomas wrote:
    11-Mar-2014 at 15:51:12 (GMT)

    I think it often comes down to vigor. Water stress devigorates vines and improves overall quality, so does vine age. The greatest benefit of vine age is likely to come from moderately to higher vigor sites where the young vines may be a bit more unharnessed. This would be particularly true in Europe where irrigation is not allowed. In season rain would increase general vigor and reduce quality. But if vines were older, the natural devigoration that comes with age would mitigate the impact of increased moisture in a given season, thus conferring an improved quality from the older vines. Many of the improvements in quality and complexity as a result of water stress are blieved to be caused by compounds associated with stress response. Some of those compounds are believed to be flavor precursors. Age comes with increased virus presence and generally harder living which is likely in increase the amount gene activation of stress response compounds. That MAY improve quality. Mostly speculation though. Root depth is one of those unquestioned answers. Do we really know it improves quality? I don't think so. Again it likely has more to do with general vine vigor which is impacted by age and irrigation strategy. Therefore many CA vines may simply be under stress earlier in their life which can induce decline sooner. I think Steve's point is valid regarding rootstocks. In fact we notice increased vigor here in our own-rooted vines and I think we will see improvement in those blocks as the vines mature simply due to increased virus presence and general vine age impact. Thanks for the summary Blake!

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