Old Vines in Mendoza
Old age rarely equates with beauty – until lips meet wine. Not only do the greatest wines define themselves by the ability to grow more comely with cellar years, but vines, too, are thought to perform at their best when age has wrinkled them into geriatric contortions. The unregulated term ‘old vines’ and its local language equivalents are, thus, splashed across labels wherever reality or chutzpah permits. Attempts have been made to define the term: the Australian company Yalumba’s Old Vine Charter decrees that ‘Old’ begins at 35, saving the terms ‘Antique’ for those vines of 70 years or more, and ‘Centenarian’ for those which have seen out a century. I would have thought 50 years rather than 35 a minimum. What, though, do you call sterling vines neither young nor old? ‘Middle aged’ carries as little viticultural cachet as it does human.
The theory of old vines is that their lower yields bring greater fruit quality and flavour concentration. Assuming a penetrable subsoil, their roots keep growing and may therefore also find mineral larders or access to high-season water which youngsters miss out on. Older vines tend to represent clonally diverse populations giving flavour complexity, whereas younger vineyards may be single-clone simple. Old vines, too, sometimes seem to adjust to their surroundings with time, producing balanced growing and fruiting patterns rather than either emaciation or jungle fecundity.
There are, though, sceptics. The distinguished Australia viticulturalist Peter Dry points out that the low yields of old vines are often due to disease, and that the reverence accorded to old vines by those tending them may be more important than age itself in creating quality fruit. By definition, too, old vines are those which have been more successful than their now-dead peers – attributable to site rather than plant. “There is,” he says, “no hard evidence to support the proposition that old vines actually produce better fruit than young vines.”
Argentina’s Mendoza is a fascinating area to put the old-vine theory to the test via its key historical variety, Malbec. Mendoza has two quality hotspots. The vineyards of Luján-Maipú lie close to the city of Mendoza itself, while the higher sited and thus cooler Uco Valley lies about 90 minutes south. Both have old-vine plantings, though they are rarer in Uco. The country’s most ambitious reds, consequently, are made from very young vines as well as much older ones, and ‘old vines’ as a term is rarely seen on Argentinian labels. At the end of a 10-day visit to Mendoza in December 2008, I couldn’t see any obvious stylistic thread linking the wines I liked best. It was only later I realised that, unwittingly, I appeared to have championed a high percentage of those wines made from old-vine fruit. All great Argentinian Malbec, whether made from young or old vines, has a seductive perfume and vivaciousness; what the old vines seemed to bring was aromatic complexity on both nose and palate, rendering the wine less easily assignable and more profound, and a sense of inner architecture not necessarily connected to tannins or texture.
An easy range to study old-vine Malbec fruit in is Trapiche’s ‘Single Vineyard’ series. Since the 2003 vintage, chief winemaker Daniel Pi has selected the three best Malbecs of the year. Of the twelve wines released over four vintages so far (the 2007 is scheduled for release at the end of this year), just two have come from young-vine vineyards; the rest have come from vines aged between 33 and 95 years old. Indeed the winegrowers are venerable, too: Felipe Villafañe, who provided fruit in 2003, was 104 at the time. His wine (each wine is sold with the grower’s name) was my joint highest scoring from the range of twelve: magnificent aromatic composition mingling earth, sweet fruits and a truffley note, with dense, mouthfilling flavours which bond blackberry richness to vivacious, ripe acidity to convey both balance and power. It’s made from 50-year-old vines in La Consulta, in the Uco Valley. (Alas, his elderly sons squabbled after he died in 2005, and the vineyard was sold off for housing.)
As good is the 2006 Adriana Venturin, from 48-year-old vines nearby: a seductive wine through which liqueur blackcurrant and black cherry streams, lent poise with perfumer’s spice. Third place went to a wine from 66-year-old vines in the Agrelo district of Luján-Maipú, the 2005 Francisco Olivé. The warmer growing conditions give mellower, less fruit-influenced scents (tobacco and tapenade), with a comfortingly ample, earth-drizzled palate backed by soft, plump tannins.
It was the quality of old-vine Malbec in Argentina which attracted former Bordeaux négociant Hervé Joyaux-Fabre of Fabre-Montmayou/Vistalba back in 1993, long before it was fashionable. The Fabre-Montmayou Gran Reserva Malbec is, for me, a regional benchmark: the 2007 vintage (made from 60-year-old vines in the Vistalba sector of Luján-Maipú) has the floral lift which makes the best Mendoza Malbec such a charmer, combined with further back-palate rose aromas once you get the wine into the mouth. Well-judged tannins and ripe acidity help give the central core of wildfruits like sloe and damson great penetration and definition.
Skilled Roberto de la Mota is the winemaking force behind Mendel, a newer company owned by architect Anabelle Sielecki, the wife of Argentina’s ambassador to the United States, Héctor Timerman. Two of the company’s three top reds are pure Malbec, based on different old-vine vineyards in the Major Drummond sector of Luján-Maipú and the Altamira sector of the Uco valley. The 2007 Mendel Malbec (based on fruit from 80-year-old vines in Major Drummond) has commanding aromatic complexity and inner structure giving its chocolate-robed black fruits authority. The 2007 Mendel Finca Remota (from 70-year-old vines in Altamira) is a little gruffer at this stage but may be even better in the long run, with splendid precision, depth and vividness. Age itself, or the respect age inspires? I don’t know, but whatever it is, it works.
Some UK and US Stockists
The Trapiche Single Vineyard releases are sold in the UK by Noel Young (01223 566744, www.nywines.co.uk) and in the USA by Chelsea Wine Vault (212 462 4244, www.chelseawinevault.com). For Fabre-Montmayou’s Gran Reserva Malbec , contact Vinothentic (0207 354 1994, www.vinothentic.com) in the UK and Sussex Wine Merchants NJ (856 608 9644) in the USA. The wines of Mendel are available in the UK through Playford Ros (01845 526777, www.playfordros.com) and Hispamerchants (0208 740 4556, www.hispamerchants.com), and in the USA through Vine Connections (415 332 8466, www.vineconnections.com).