What makes an old vine worth treasuring? Across the world, many old vines are ripped out and replaced with younger and more sprightly models which are happy to produce an abundance of fruit.
But there’s change afoot, with people now doing their bit to protect and nurture old vines. Host of The Drinking Hour podcast, David Kermode reports from Italy, after attending the Old Vine Conference inaugural ‘field trip’. Sarah Abbott MW runs the Old Vine Conference and says these elderly vines are part of an underestimated heritage of wine that’s both cultural and agricultural. Old vines can make really delicious and really unique wine, but looking at the bigger picture, organisations are working together to preserve their local viticultural heritage, and preserve the diversity. 80% of the world’s vineyards are made up of just 20 different grape varieties. ‘Wine needs diversity like every other type of agriculture,’ Abbott says.
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As wine has become truly global, new markets have emerged. While this is a good thing, many are driven by the concept of noble varieties, with a huge pressure to plant more of those and dig up the specialised and localised varieties. That started to happen in Italy, but the country has now gone full circle and is becoming a centre for the appreciation and restoration of really local, highly niche, completely delicious indigenous varieties that make delicious wine, Abbott says.
Old vines can also be hardy, managing drought conditions more effectively and ‘learning’ from their mistakes and experiences. Over time, the vines become wise to their location. ‘Grapes are like the babies of the vine,’ Abbott says. If a vine is a little worried about what’s going to happen, it gets its genetic code out there and produces fruit. When you take cuttings from these old vines, the adaptations are passed onto the offspring. ‘I’m highly anthropomorphising… any botanists will just have to forgive me,’ Abbott adds.
Wine needs diversity like every other type of agriculture
Kermode also chats to Claudio and Niccolo Zani who have a vineyard in the Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. They produce Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC from a vineyard planted in 1895 with Refosco di Faedis. Niccolo Zani says on the importance of old vines, ‘We think it will be a bad thing to remove the historical vineyards. It’s an open air museum of viticulture of 127 years. We’re trying to preserve this beautiful thing.’
Domenico Veronese is the owner of Villa Bogdano, found in a small town between Veneto and Friuli. Around 18 hectares of his 180 hectare estate are historic, with Merlot and Tocai Friulano (now known as Friulano). Friulano arrived in north east Italy in the second half of the 19th century. Veronese said there’s some historic documentation suggesting it appeared around 1880, but within two decades most vines were wiped out by phylloxera. Now he’s trying to preserve the genetic pool, which is a complicated and slow exercise, but absolutely worth the effort, he says.