Travel & Leisure Vineyards & Wine

Wines to Savor from the New World’s Oldest Grapevines

Ancient New World vineyards from South Africa to Australia and the United States are undergoing a renaissance, with winemakers young and old finding a renewed interest in their crooked arms, vibrant aromatics, and expansive roots

A biodiversity hotspot with more plant species than a tropical rainforest, the Cape Floral Region surrounding Cape Town in South Africa is home to a hypnotic array of biological history, including some of the New World’s oldest grapevines. Prized for their resilience, unctuous texture, and the flavor-packed wines they produce, these gnarled vines supply the scientific and financial motivation for continued global cultivation.

Why Vine Age Matters

Scanning the horizon in central Stellenbosch, luxury shops and high-end restaurants provide a buzz of modernity. Yet just outside the bustling town, the footprints of tradition are far more prevalent across the region’s jagged hillsides. In fact, the South African region’s older vines have generated such a frenzy that in 2016 the Old Vine Project was launched to officially identify, define, and protect the country’s historical vineyards.

According to founder and viticulturist Rosa Kruger, “Aged vines bring an intensity, a perceived freshness, a texture, and a sense of place. They show less fresh fruit and varietal character, and more terroir and soil.”

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Founder of the Old Vine Project, Rosa Kruger started her viticultural career as a farm manager in the vineyards of the Western Cape after studying journalism and law. Image: The Old Vine Project. Banner Image: John Duval Wines

The Old Vine Project categorizes vineyards from 35 to more than 100 years old, documenting their initial planting dates, varieties, and the unique climatic conditions where the vines thrive. In California and Australia, similar organizations are cropping up to educate and study the merits of heritage grapevines.

“I tell consumers that when they are drinking old-vine wines they are drinking something special,” says Australian winemaker John Duval of John Duval Wines, and the longtime director of winemaking for Penfolds, one of the country’s most famous wineries. “It’s a glass of history, and this is certainly the case of many Barossa wines, which draw on vineyards planted as far back as 1843.”

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Australia’s Barossa Valley is filled with vineyards that were planted by settlers as far back as 1843. Typical grape varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Grenache, Riesling, and Semillon. Photograph: Getty Images

Getting to the Root of Old Vines

The underground complexity of ancient, dry-farmed vineyards is heralded as their biggest strength. Before drip irrigation became commonplace, vines were forced to develop complex root systems, capable of accessing water and nutrients deep beneath the soil surface. Successful vines grew massive root systems reaching up to 33 feet (10 m) in depth, allowing them to survive droughts and floods with relative ease compared to more youthful vineyards.

“Older vines can withstand climatic pressures better than very young vines,” explains Kruger, who researches ancient vineyards around the world. “They grow according to the reserves they built up during the previous seasons, as well as the present season.”

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Gnarly old and ancient vines typically have longer roots, helping them to withstand droughts and floods. Photograph: Getty Images

Today, conventionally farmed vineyards have shallow root systems that lie within the top two meters of soil, where they receive water and nutrients from perfectly placed sprinklers. The results help farmers counter vintage variation and produce a steady crop. However, as climate change brings more intense heatwaves, and droughts restrict watering capacity, young vines dependent on irrigation are more likely to die than those with far-reaching underground networks.

“If we can learn more about the aging process of vines, and how and why they survive climatic stresses,” explains Kruger, “we could plant young vines with a culture to grow them to old age and be more sustainable.”

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The northern Rhône Valley offers sunshine, ancient hilltop villages, and old-vine vineyards. Photograph: Alamy

Cultivating old vines takes a significant degree of care, and the flavor concentration of these vines comes at a price: reduced yields. Smaller crop loads mean less profit for most growers, resulting in the destruction of otherwise fantastic vineyard parcels.

“There are many ways to get an old vine to increase its yield, but it takes two to three years,” says Kruger, pointing out that careful pruning and use of fertilizer can improve the production of even the oldest vines.

While opponents argue the advantages of old vineyards are anecdotal, experts including Kruger and Duval are turning to science to prove the opposite. Recent research by South African scientist Johan Burger discovered traceable chemical differences in old-vine fruit, and The Australian Wine Research Institute is currently examining the differences between old and young vines.

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Contrary to popular belief, some of the world’s oldest vines are not located in Europe, but in Australia’s Barossa Valley. While most of Europe’s vineyards were wiped out in the 19th and 20th century by a root pest called phylloxera, Australia’s location and strict quarantine laws helped to preserve its stock. Photograph: Getty Images

Tasting the Difference

“When you pick old and young vines separately and vinify them the same way, you can absolutely taste the difference,” says Turley Wine Cellars’ winemaker Nick Finarelli, who leads the Amador county winery for the Californian Zinfandel specialist. Founding members of the Historical Vineyard Society, Turley bottles over 40 old-vine wines from across the state.

“Old vines have a good way of self-regulating,” explains Finarelli. “They tend to handle the highs and lows of a season better, and that comes through in more balanced wines.”

John Duval, of John Duval Wines, has been making his own-label wines from old-vine grapes grown in the Barossa Valley, South Australia, for 29 years. Image: John Duval Wines

Likewise, Duval’s Entity Shiraz was born from the Barossa region’s best old-vine grapes, which impart a deep concentration of color and flavor to the wine. “I like the extra flavor, concentration, and structure associated with well-managed old-vine vineyards,” Duval says.

In South Africa, Reyneke’s Natural Chenin Blanc—from vines planted in the 1960s and ’70s—is incredibly expressive with honey, chamomile, and rosemary aromatics that would give any Loire bottle a serious challenge. Likewise, Naudé Wines provides a red counterpoint to European varietals in its flavorful, floral Old Vine Cinsault.

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In Rías Baixas in Galicia, Spain, some of the world's oldest white-wine vineyards hug the region's mountainous terrain. Photograph: LuisVilanova/Getty Images.

While New World wine regions are spearheading the research and protection of these sites, winemakers in Europe have long equated age with quality. In the Rhône Valley of France, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is renowned for its old vines, with estates like Vieux Télégraphe consistently producing exceptional, cellar-worthy blends from its ancient La Crau parcel. Likewise, DO Ferreiro in Spain’s Rías Baixas region is known for outstanding whites from vineyards up to 200 years old.

At once a window to the past and a roadmap to the future, it is impossible to ignore the relationship between old vineyards and wines of exceptional complexity: age in this case is definitely more than a number.

Old Vineyard Properties on the Market

Hilltop Vineyard Estate, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Located on the hills of Emilia-Romagna, in the province of Ravenna, northern Italy, this renowned wine estate has 8.9 hectares (21 acres) of vineyard and a fully equipped wine cellar. On the market with Agenzia Romolini Immobiliare Srl, the exclusive affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate in the region.

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This five-bedroom property, on the market with Agenzia Romolini Immobilaire Srl, the exclusive affiliate of Christie's International Real Estate in the region, is located in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. Its vineyard is planted with Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other local varietals, several of which are old vines.

Vineyard with Mountain Views, Valencia, Spain

Located in Requena, Valencia, this winery estate comes with 30 hectares (74 acres) of vines, some over a hundred years old. A traditional country house and a second modern property are also part of the estate. “These old vines grow the Bobal varietal, the most well-known local grape in Valencia,” says Puri Mancebo of the winery department at Rimontgó, the exclusive affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate in the region. “Bobal is famous for its rich red colour and its fine structure; its rich and opulent quality is typical of an old-vine wine.”

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This winery features a traditional country house and a more modern property with 30 hectares (74 acres) of vines that date to over 100 years old. On the market with Rimontgó, the exclusive affiliate of Christie's International Real Estate in the region.