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A gnarly old grape vine in Spain. (Matias Costa/The New York Times)
A gnarly old grape vine in Spain. (Matias Costa/The New York Times)

With wine, is there a standard age or other measure that specifies what can be called ‘old vines?’ Add to ...

The question

Some of our favourite big Canadian reds are “old vines” Foch or other grapes. Is there a standard age or other measure that specifies what can be called “old vines?”

The answer

In a word, no. Standards vary around the world and in most regions there is no legal definition for what can be called “old vines.” Your perception regarding quality, however, is widely shared. As vines age, their vigour – like that of humans – tends to decline. This tends to be a good thing where fruit is concerned because reduced sap flow will naturally yield smaller berries with a higher ratio of solids to liquid, concentrating flavour in the resulting wine. That fruit also tends to ripen earlier in the season compared with fruit from younger vines, which is particularly advantageous to growers in cool climates, where growing seasons can often be too short to bring clusters to full maturity.

The rough definition for “old” tends to be somewhere around 30-plus years, though it remains very much a marketing tool used at the discretion of each producer. (The term in France, by the way, is “vieilles vignes,” which you’ll find on many labels.) In Canada, some of the longest-lived vineyards are indeed devoted to Maréchal Foch, the variety you cite. Quails’ Gate in British Columbia, for example, produces an Old Vines Foch Reserve from a vineyard planted 50 years ago, one of the country’s oldest. Malivoire in Niagara also makes one from 40-year-old vines.

While vines can in principle live well beyond 100 years, their longevity depends to a great degree on weather. In dry conditions where fungal diseases and pests are kept in check, it’s not uncommon to find thick trunks as old as 120 to 150 years, as with many “ancient” zinfandel vineyards in California and the so-called “ancestor vines” of mourvèdre and shiraz in Australia. Spain, too, is a hotbed of old garnacha vines of 60 to 100 years of age.

In cooler and more humid climates, on the other hand, a vine’s life expectancy can be severely compromised. Harsh winters in particular take a toll. If the vine doesn’t die outright, its fruit production after about 40 years can dwindle to a point where it’s not economically viable to keep things alive. A producer generally will pull the plug and replant with new, more productive material. So, even though most of Canada’s vineyards have been planted within the past 20 years, it’s not likely we’ll see many (or any) of those plants reaching the century mark. Twenty-five or 30 years seems like a reasonable milestone for the old-vines designation in this country.

The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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