How Do You Define “Old”?

by Monica Bennion on May 10, 2012

Webster’s Dictionary defines “old” as “persisting from an earlier time” and “advanced in years or age”.  The older I get, the more I realize “old” is entirely subjective.  When I was 10, my dad was 37, and at that time, in my mind, he was “old”.  Now, here I am in my mid-thirties, and I feel anything but old (and for the record, my dad will be 60 years young this year).

However, when you see the words “Old Vine” on a bottle of wine, what does that really mean?  Is there a legal definition that allows a winemaker to make this statement?  How can one prove the actual age of a vineyard designated as “Old Vine”?  And how is an “Old Vine” different from that of “Young Vine”, both in the vineyard and in your glass?  Read on to learn more.

In the wine industry, there is no legal definition to the term “old vine”.  Some in the industry have their own timeline that outlines their idea of the age classification, and although these numbers are sometimes used amongst the industry as a very loose standardization, they are completely subjective.   A respected winemaker in the Sonoma Valley, Joel Peterson, founder/winemaker of Ravenswood, went so far as to break down his views of the generations a little further:

0-10 years old      Young vines
10-50 years old   Middle aged vines
50-80 years old   Old vines
80 + years old      Ancient vines

Scott’s way of defining and old vine is, if he can remember when it was planted, he won’t call it an old vine.

As the subject is addressed more often, and with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) having very strict oversight on the labeling of wine, beer and spirits, there have been attempts at setting an industry standard in defining “old vine”.

The most recent being in November 2010, when the TTB introduced a proposed regulation to define the meaning of “old vine”, among other common terms used on wine labels that denote some meaningful information to consumers.  The public was invited to comment on TTB-2010-0006, and in looking over the comments, it appears that many in the industry want less government oversight regarding this matter.  To view the TTB-2010-0006 docket and comments, CLICK HERE.  As of today, no ruling on this proposed regulation has been issued.

Prior to the 2010 Federal proposal, a 2008 survey conducted by Wines & Vines issued an anonymous online survey to vintners in California, where a majority of the country’s “old vines” originate.  The response from 172 completed surveys show that 71% of the respondents believe that the term “old vine” should have some regulated definition; with 63% choosing 50-years as the minimum legal age.  To read more on “The Old Vine Dilemma”, written by Tina Caputo, CLICK HERE.

Throughout the world, multiple vineyards have withstood the test of time, the plight of disease and an influx of pests.  The oldest documented grapevine, in Maribor, Slovenia, just seven miles from the Austrian border, is reported to be the world’s oldest grapevine, at more than 400 years old.  Here in the United States, California is home to multiple old vines, primarily of the Zinfandel variety, with some over 140 years old.

The age of technology imprints a time stamp on nearly everything born, created, manufactured and grown, affording us the knowledge and proof of a specific event.  When it comes to grapevines however, the older they are, the harder it is to prove their actual age.  Some historical vineyards have physical, written proof of their existence or inception, while other vineyards have been handed down from generation to generation.

The 400+ year old vine in Slovenia for instance was documented in 2004 by the Guinness  Book of World Records as being the oldest documented, producing grapevine.  In Australia’s Barossa Valley, a Shiraz vineyard has been noted as producing quality grapes since 1843.  Stateside, here in California, our very own Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel is documented, by proof of the land deed issued by a U.S. Geological Survey, as producing grapes in the year 1869, making this the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in the country.

A common belief is that old vines produce grapes that are more elegant and subdued in character, with layers of complexity, whereas the younger vines tend produce grapes that are a little more energetic and boisterous, but lacking a bit of maturity.  Having tasted a fair share of old vine wine and young vine wine, in general, I find this to be true.

However, there is a lot more to distinguish the difference between an old vine and a young vine, both in the vineyard and in the glass.  When enjoying wine, not only are you experiencing the viniculture, but also the winemaker’s personal influence.  In the vineyard however, there are physical differences that play a part in the delineation of old vine vs. young vine.  Recently Scott wrote a blog on these differences, CLICK HERE to learn more on “Old Vine vs. Young Vine”.

Old vines are a little piece of history, surviving the test of time and consistently thriving to produce some of the best wines today.  In our Scott Harvey Wines and Jana Winery portfolio, we currently produce four “old vine” wines.  Under our Jana Winery label, we have our Jana Napa Valley Old Vine Zinfandel from 83-year-old vines on the D’Anneo vineyard in Calistoga and our Jana Mendocino Old Vine Riesling from 37-year-old vines on the Nelson Ranch in Mendocino.  Under our Scott Harvey Wines label, we have our J&S Reserve Old Vine Zinfandel from 87-year-old vines on the DeMille/Norton vineyard in Amador County and of course the historical Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel, America’s oldest documented Zinfandel.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Justin May 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Nice article 🙂 So given that the Old Vine Riesling comes from vines “only” 37 year old, and given that Scott is fastidious about such things, is there a different rule of thumb for white grapes (or grapes used for white wines) or does Scott just have his own thoughts on what constitutes “Old Vine”?




Scott Harvey May 11, 2012 at 5:56 am

Hi Justin,
I knew someone would catch that. Yes, I have a double standard for red and white vines. For red vines I say I don’t use old vine if I can remember when the vines were planted. For Riesling I use 35 plus years. For Napa and Mendocino 35 year old Riesling vines are less than 5% of the Riesling vineyards that exist today. Thaks for bringing the question to light.
Scott Harvey


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: