“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





17 June 2012


The legendary Henschke Hill of Grace Vineyard ... being painstakingly restored to healthier old age by the brilliant Prue Henschke ... photo Milton Wordley 

The Geriatric Vineyard Dilemma Venerable Vines: Better Wines? When Do You Sharpen The Axe?

A regular reader, Peter Pacey, raised some good questions about old vines last week. He wrote a letter about a long discussion on TheWineFront chat site, triggered by Dean Hewitson's sudden hiking of the price of his Hewitson Old Garden Mourvèdre by $50 per bottle, from $70 to $120.

The discussion revolved around the value of old vines, and whether their venerable years alone made better wine. 

The answer, of course, is no.

Vines are like musicians. You can download some bratty teenage spunk squawking on about how hard it is to nail a satisfactory lay, or listen to Willie Nelson's recent recording live with Wynton Marsalis and his band.

"The first thing about Willie is his integrity" Marsalis says in the promo Youtube clip. "He's been travellin up and down the road for so many years on his bus … " after which a shot of Willie's Mount Rushmore countenance and battered and smashed old guitar says just about everything else. Until he kinda ambles that smoke and whisky drawl into the opening lines of Georgia and you have an experience that many would pay enormous amounts of money to own. 

They certainly pay a lot to sit right up the front.

On the other hand, there are great musicians who never know when to stop. Frank Sinatra's final concerts were terrible rip-offs: Frank seemed to charge an exponential increase in entrance fees every year after his voice died, but many die-hards could see no fault, and were deliriously happy to pay.

Bob Dylan comes to mind.

Between these extremes of age and experience, you'll find performers who satisfy on a myriad of levels of evocation, emotion, delivery, fitness and excitement.

Old vines can only make really satisfactory wines if they're healthy. Think Tina Turner. On the other hand, they may look as gnarled and weathered as dear ol Willie, but there's still ravishing music in their souls if they're getting nutrients and water and they can still grow leaves and their wits are about them. 

Out of sheer bloody-minded love of old vines, growers like Karl Lindner (Langmeil) and Paul Drogemuller (Paracombe), have saved entire vineyards from destruction by digging the old vines up, one by one, and replanting them somewhere else. Once the roots get going anew, the wines are glorious, but offer nothing I can call "old vine flavour" other than certain frailty until those roots get established and the plants learn to trust their new feet.

Any other distinction will likely be due to the age of the pre-phylloxera clone, and not the age of the vine. Those mysterious old clones have a wide range of flavours. Plant them in a wide range of geologies and terroirs and you have another exponential knot.

All vines must eventually die. It's a cruel moment the grower must face when their yields are dwindling to complete inefficiency: to attempt reinvigoration with trellis management and drip lines, or get on the bulldozer, make a big bonfire, and start again.

The vineyards at Kanmantoo were a perfect case in point. They'd produced the best red wines in the world in the late 1800s, climaxing with the top gong at the Great Paris Exposition of 1889, held to coincide with the opening of the Eiffel Tower. Charles Burney Young planted them through the first decades of the colony and with the help of Sir Samuel Davenport engaged the brilliant French winemaker, Edmund Mazure (above right). Harry Dove Young, Charles' son, carried on the work. 

The genius David Unaipon (left) worked there in the cellars; his fellow Ngarrindjeri helped pick. But by the time Harry's daughter, Nora, came home from studying law at the Sorbonne and impressionism at the Louvre the vines had had enough. Dead arm and white ants and no rain and brutally barren rock had worn them out: the yields no longer reached half-a-ton to the acre. So Nora chopped them in the 'thirties: old vines in their eighties. Romantic to the odd eye, but no good to the vigneron or the drinker.

Even as a kid, I reflected on this in parallel to the ancient Celts, who would take an infirm or indecisive king out and kill him, so they could get a new one. 

Nora didn't bother about getting a new vineyard. She had a 5,000 acre farm to run. Besides, she drank rum. And she certainly wasn't out looking for a new king. Her girlfriend, the fierce Tate Smith, would've had his guts for gaiters.

The Henschke family has faced this awkward viticulture vs. marketing vs. profit for decades in the Hill of Grace vineyard. Many could have argued that it was ready for the chop in the 'eighties or 'nineties. But by brilliant and sensitive viticulture, Prue Henschke has inched it back to a better life and it lives to produce wine which is second only to Grange in fame.

Harvesting the now-healthy bushvines at Greenock Creek's Roennfeldt's Road vineyard ... they took years to be nursed back to health and vigour ... beneath that sward, there's mainly rock ... at least there's a healthy sward! ... photo Leo Davis

When Michael Waugh bought the prized Roennfeldt's Road vineyard to add to his Greenock Creek collection around Seppeltsfield, the vines were dying. He replaced some with cuttings from other venerable vineyards, and with sensitive vine husbandry, coaxed the others back to health over several years.He even gave them a low wire to cling to. While meager, the vineyard now provides a constant profitable crop and makes impenetrable wines that may even outlive the remaining old vines. Only time will tell.

It's not all about alcohol, by the way. Many people think that old vines are best used to grow very sweet fruit for highly alcoholic wines. Two stunning Roennfeldts I've opened recently, the Cabernets from 1999 and 2001, are 13% and 13.5% alcohol, respectively. Eager to please the Robert Parker juggernaut, nearly every winemaker in Australia somehow forgot that it's best to pick when acid begins to fall, not when it's all gone and you have to shovel in the industrial tartaric to balance the alcoholic gloop you've made, thinking you can replicate old vine quality by picking everything later and later and later and patching it up somehow even later. Which is nonsense.

Witness also the old vines around Seppeltsfield. The great Para Grenache bushvines – the biggest dry-grown bushvine Grenache vineyard in Australia – were dying when Fosters sensibly installed underground drippers there before selling the property five years ago. Those old troopers are much happier now.

Yangarra High Sands bush vine Grenache planted by Bernard Smart and his Dad in 1946: they've never been watered, but they're healthy and well now, producing vibrant, healthy wine ... photo Stacey Pothoven

The second-biggest bush vine Grenache planting is the High Sands Vineyard at Yangarra, close to my abode near Kangarilla. Compared to many Barossa vine gardens, these are babies. Bernard Smart and his Dad planted them on a dune of deep wind-blown sand as recently as 1946. They've never been irrigated, and never looked particularly tired or crook, but under the care of master organic viticulturer Michael Lane over recent years, they're thriving. Like Willie, the wines do the singing. 

In spite of their hardy stubbornness and great age, the High Sands vines wilted in the 50 degree heatwave of 2009. Since then, viticulturer Michael Lane has converted the vineyard to organic management, using sheep instead of herbicide, so the highly-reflective sand here now usually has better vegetation cover, and doesn't act so much like a brutal solar oven ... the vines are much happier ... photo Philip White 

Yangarra, by the way, is one of the few brave outfits to be planting large areas of good land to new bushvines, and that same Bernard loves showing new hands how to prune them so they form the classic basket shape from the start. Like Bob and Wilma McLean on Mengler's Hill, they're amongst the very few who are foregoing years of early profit to ensure there are old bush vines when we're all dead. 

While geology obviously influences flavour, it does not alone determine the limits of vine life when we compare the widely-contrasting geologies of the abovementioned vineyards. Sand, rock, clay, loam - whatever it is the vine lives in - a deeper and wider-reaching spread of roots will get the plant a bigger drink, and if those roots are healthy, the vine will live on.

As for the "old vine character" some enthusiasts claim to detect, uh-huh. Unless the vines are so decrepit their juice tastes like the last teaspoons of dead blood left in the beast: like the first years of Waugh's Roennfeldt's before they got new life, and the last years of his Creek Block as it died of salt poisoning from upstream irrigators. The Creek Block was never irrigated, but picked up brackish water set moving along the top of the underground creekline clay, where its roots had thrived for sixty years. 

More than the simple factor of age alone, the wine of old vines is generally reflective of their gardener's effort and sensitivity, their makers' philosophy and skill, their choice of oak, the geology, climate, aspect … all this wondrous jumble we call terroir of which humans are an highly influential component.

Whatever the situation, you can be assured that a healthy young or middle-aged set of roots will make the best of it, just as some much older buggers somehow continue to manage the business. 

As for the price? I run into a lot more Dean Hewitsons than Willie Nelsons. And nowhere near enough Tina Turners.

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