How to Drink Wine From the World's Oldest Vines

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Hint: Start in Australia. 

Where do you think the oldest Mourvedre vines in the world are? Bandol in Provence? The Rhone Valley? Catalonia? You’re not even close. They’re in Australia. The country that brought you the dubious pleasures of Yellow Tail is also home to some of the oldest commercial vines in the world.

Generally, the words ‘old vines’ (or ‘vieilles vignes’) on a bottle of wine have no legal significance. The phrase is used as a marketing ploy, trotted out ad nauseum and usually without regard for the actual age of the vines. But the reality is that old vines—real ones—make better wines.

For as much as the phrase is overused, it does mean something in South Australia’s Barossa Valley. The region has an Old Vines Charter to catalogue its venerable vineyards—there’s a scale starting with ‘Old Vine,’ which means anything over 35 years, and ending with Ancestor Vine, meaning 125 years old or more.

South Australia owes this extraordinary vine heritage to its isolated location and some enlightened governance. Whereas most of the world suffered the ravages of phylloxera, the vine eating louse, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, South Australia protected its lucrative wine industry through strict quarantine laws. It remains phylloxera free to this day.

The vineyards of the Barossa Valley were planted in the 1840s to produce so-called ‘ports’ for the British Empire market. The biggest producer, Yalumba, was known as the Oporto of Australia. Those vines are still in family hands. Robert Hill-Smith, the vineyard’s managing director, told me that Mediterranean grapes such as Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre (known locally as Mataro) were planted for ‘high sugar accumulation’ to make the very sweet fortified wines loved by the British and Australians.

The taste for these fortified wines died out in the 1960s and 70s, as the Australian market turned towards table wines—especially Chardonnay. Sadly, many growers unable to sell their crops would pull up the old vines and replace them with white grapes. Some vineyards survived, but only just: At Dean Hewitson’s Old Garden vineyard, which was planted in 1853 with Mourvedre, the family would irrigate the crop heavily to produce diluted grapes, which then went into sparkling rose. Some growers literally couldn't give their grapes away.

Men such as Robert O’ Callaghan, founder of Rockford, and the recently deceased Peter Lehmann, saw the shift as an opportunity. Just as Randall Grahm was doing in California, they bought up old vine Mediterranean grapes at rock bottom prices to produce distinctively Australian fine wines that Hill-Smith now refers to as ‘rustic exotics.’ As late as 1989, the government was still paying growers to uproot old vines. But around the same time, Australian drinkers were, according to Hill-Smith, beginning to once again appreciate the "viticultural jewels in our backyard." The backbone of what is now Australia’s premier wine, Penfold’s Grange, is made up of old vine Barossa shiraz.

In contrast to South Australia, Victoria’s vineyards were devastated by phylloxera. Australia’s states in the 19th century functioned as self-governing colonies with separate laws, railway gauges and even units for measuring beer. The wine industry in Victoria was nearly wiped out. But at Tahbilk, an hour’s drive from Melbourne, one old vineyard survived, protected from the louse by sandy soil. Phylloxera cannot survive in sand. Here they produce tiny quantities of a very pure, intense wine called ‘1860 Vines Shiraz,’ made from vines planted when Queen Victoria was in her prime.

Thanks to the current demand for old vine grapes, none of these wines are cheap—but then, compared to the disappointing 2011 Grange vintage, which Penfold’s is now selling for $700 a bottle—neither are they very expensive.

Here are some names to look out for:

Tahbilk 1860 Vines Shiraz 2006
You certainly would never describe this wine as rustic. It’s very fresh and elegant, with pure red fruit, cloves and spices. Immensely concentrated with prominent tannins but already showing well now. Despite being made from Shiraz, this has something of a top quality Bordeaux about it. $150, wine.com

Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre
I tried the 2012 of this recently. It certainly smelled powerful, as you might expect from this grape, with leather, dark fruit and licorice notes, but on the palate I was surprised by its delicacy. Wine.com has the 2010, a superb vintage in the Barossa, for $65.

Yalumba Tricentenary Vines Grenache
Made from vine planted in 1889. I’ve had a few vintages of this and I’m always knocked out by how fragrant it tastes. There’s an almost Burgundian perfume alongside the vivid red fruit. The 2008 is widely available for between $40 and $50.

Yalumba Old Bush Vine Grenache 2013
A taste of that old vine magic at an everyday price, with some of the freshness and fragrance of its big brother.
Widely available for between $16 and $20

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz
Finally, a proper rustic exotic with high alcohol and big flavors. This for me is the ultimate Barossa Shiraz. It’s made from vines between about 60 and 100 years old. It gets better and better with age, but it’s also damn good young. This is what you should be drinking instead of Grange. Everything from this producer is excellent; for the full rustic exotic experience, try the Sparkling Black Shiraz if you can find it. The dosage is provided by a little old-fashioned Barossa ‘port.’ Flickinger wines in Chicago have the Basket Press Shiraz 1998 for $75.

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