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."
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.