If you follow the world of wine, you've certainly come across this expression. But do you know what it means?
In this article we'll explain what old vines (Vinhas Velhas) are, tell you why they're so fashionable nowadays and reveal what you can expect from a wine with these characteristics.
What does old vines mean?
The designation "old vines", "Vinhas Velhas" in Portuguese, which can now be found on many bottle labels, indicates a wine that has been produced from vines of an unusual age. This longevity gives the grape a distinctive profile, often resulting in a wine of superior quality.
Another distinguishing feature of old vines is the diversity of grape varieties they represent. These vineyards are generally made up of the indigenous or oldest varieties of a given region, often mixing white and red grape varieties in the same perimeter.
Given Portugal's long wine-growing tradition, it is still possible to find a valuable heritage of old vineyards spread across the various producing regions, which have managed to preserve many rare grape varieties whose origins are lost in time.
A brief history of old vines in Portugal
Until the 1960s, most of the vineyards planted in our country were multifaceted, bringing together a diverse collection of grape varieties that were chosen empirically or even at random.
Generally, the production of these vines was accompanied by other crops, such as olives, wheat or fruit trees. This polyculture was carried out on the same plot of land and was difficult to work, as everything was done by hand, usually in small, cramped spaces.
From the 1980s onwards, viticulture underwent a major process of industrialisation and various forms of support began to emerge to replace old vines with young vines capable of producing a greater quantity of grapes per year and, as such, generating higher yields.
At that time, and in the years that followed, the concept of "old vines" became less explored, giving way to modern vineyards with the introduction of new grape varieties, planting by plot and the mechanisation of various processes.
The valorisation of the past and a "return to the roots" is a recent phenomenon, and there is now a growing interest in preserving these older vineyards and all the history and wisdom they contain.
How old must the vines be to be considered old vines?
Surprisingly, there is no law, no general rule or even a consensus to determine the exact age at which a vineyard can be classified as an "old vine".
In Portugal, this definition varies from region to region. The same scenario is repeated from country to country, and there are also no international regulations to guide this issue.
Since the term "old vines" is used on labels to draw the consumer's attention to a rare and special wine, this lack of standardised rules can lead to confusion or even misinformation. For this reason, several movements and organisations are already springing up around the world that are trying to create some regulatory principles to clarify the information given to consumers and enhance the value of the wines in question.
Douro: the first region to value old vines
The Douro region was the first in Portugal to take a significant first step towards organising and enhancing this wine heritage.
As this is the region where wines produced from old vines are most easily found, the Douro and Port Wine Institute (IVDP) defined, in December 2020, a set of rules that producers must comply with in order to be able to use this designation on their labels. These regulations apply to Douro Controlled Designation of Origin (DOC) wines, regional Douro wines and Port wine.
In order to be labelled as old vines, vineyards in this region must, among other rules, follow guidelines such as:
- be over 40 years old
- have a minimum of 4 grape varieties
- have a minimum of 5,000 vines per hectare
Are old vines necessarily synonymous with quality?
There is a widespread idea among consumers that age is a guarantee or synonym for increased quality, which, in the case of old vines, doesn't always correspond to reality.
It's not simply because these vines are many years old that they can produce exceptional wines. For this to happen, the vines need to be healthy, well adapted to the climate and soil in which they are planted and predominantly made up of grape varieties of high oenological value.
This whole process requires careful management and the implementation of appropriate procedures that allow the vines to continue producing high quality grapes. Once these conditions are met, the resulting wines have all the potential to be outstanding wines.
The differentiating characteristics to look for in an old vineyard
In addition to their traditionally thick and twisted trunks, old vines are recognised by the following profile:
> Genetic diversity
Combining diverse grape varieties with different characteristics, they transmit a great complexity of aromas and flavours to the wine that results from them.
> More concentrated grapes
With age, the vines tend to produce fewer grapes. This reduction translates into a lower yield, but also a higher concentration of sugar and flavour in each berry, giving rise to more complex wines.
> Deeper roots
With longer roots, old vines are able to draw water and nutrients from deeper parts of the soil. For this reason, they are more resilient to adverse climatic variations.
> Harmony with the terroir
Less subject to the influence of external factors, old vines give greater balance and constancy to the fruit they produce, developing an adapted and harmonious relationship with the territory in which they are located. The profusion and authenticity of the grape varieties used make for very balanced wines with a strong identity that faithfully expresses the characteristics of the terroir of origin.
The importance of preserving the culture of old vines
You may be wondering why, given all this potential, old vines are still often overlooked (and even replaced) by younger vines.
We've already mentioned their reduced production, which translates into lower yields for the producer. Apart from that, looking after a plantation of old vines is more labour-intensive and expensive than looking after a young vineyard. It is rarely possible to use machines for this maintenance process, and a lot of manual labour and skilled labour is required to carry out the work, which often differs from one vine to the next. The costs inherent in all these operations can therefore be quite significant.
On the other hand, there is a growing trend towards greater interest in studying and preserving this heritage. The potential of these vineyards to produce unusual wines with greater added value is one reason, but not the only one.
Many professionals linked to the world of wine argue that a more in-depth study of the behaviour of old vines can generate important contributions to understanding the resilience that young vines need in order to better cope with today's climate changes.
Another reason for defending the oldest vineyards is their historical and cultural value. Many of them are vineyards that have survived wars, plagues and territorial disputes, and which bear silent witness to the history of the place where they are planted.
Let yourself be carried away by the flavour of history
Now that you know a little more about old vines, it's time to enjoy the historical journey that these wines take you on through the palate.
Visit our Uva Wine Shop and discover our Douro São Luiz Vinhas Velhas, a true treasure moulded by time and the wisdom of our vines, which brings you all the authenticity of the emblematic Quinta de S. Luiz.
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