Winemaking from old vines

Winemaking from Old Vines Q& A with Winemaker Tres Goetting

I know that Biale specializes in old vine wines…why do winemakers think that old vines are better?

Wines made from old vines have something special about them; A certain Je ne sais quoi. The wines tend to be more elegant and refined compared to “normal”, younger vines. Winemakers like that we do not need to manipulate the fruit or wines much when they come into the cellar. A less is more philosophy comes into play with old vine wines because the fruit really shows the terroir of the vineyard. This is the ultimate goal for any winemaker. Therefore, we have a great advantage when sourcing from old vineyards.

Winemakers sometimes refer to old vineyards as “field blends”. What exactly does that mean?

Field blends refer to vineyards that have multiple varieties growing within the same vineyard. They are harvested all together at the same time and co-fermented together as one single lot of wine. Many of California’s oldest vineyards are planted in this manner. Some people think that this is because these vineyards were planted mostly by Italian immigrants, who thought that the terrain and landscape here reminded them of their home vineyards. This is one reason why they would plant multiple varietals in the same vineyard—just like they saw in Italy. The reasoning behind the field blends was to put the vineyard in a natural state of balance where longer ripening varietals would be planted in the warmer parts of the vineyard and quick ripening varietals planted in the cooler parts (lower lying areas) of the vineyard. This would allow the fruit to ripen more evenly and it could all be picked at the same time. Other reasons for planting field blends are to add complexity and color to the wines. One more theory suggests that clonal material or bud wood was harder to come by back in those days because nurseries had not yet been established as common businesses. This meant that grape farmers had to find vine

cuttings from friends, neighbors, or special sources and they would most often get whatever they could to fill out their vineyards.

Do vines get “too old”?

(Monte Rosso Vineyard) 

I hope to live long enough to find out!

Different varieties have different ageing potential. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example will usually start to diminish its fruit production yields after around 20-25 years. At this point, the vineyard is ripped out and replaced with new vines. Other varieties, such as Zinfandel, can live and produce fruit for 150 years and beyond.

The oldest vitis vinifera vine in California is a Vina Madre (Mother Vine or Mission Grape) that was planted in 1818 in Los Angeles County at the San Gabriel Mission. It is still

producing fruit, which is used to make a sweet red wine.

Why are so many old vines vineyards planted to Zinfandel?

Zinfandel happens to be one of the varieties that has a very long life span. The Italian immigrants who planted these vines chose this variety because it was similar to the Primitivo that they had planted in Italy.

What are the oldest vineyards that you make wine from?

I am fortunate enough to source fruit and make wine from some of the oldest vineyards in California. My favorite old vineyard that Robert Biale Vineyards sources from is the Monte Rosso Vineyard, located in Sonoma County’s Moon Mountain AVA. This vineyard was planted in 1886. It is one of the most dramatic vineyard sites I have ever seen and the wines are beautiful, feminine, and very age-worthy. Other Sonoma County vineyards that I source from are Bedrock Vineyard (planted in the 1880s), Pagani Ranch (planted in the 1880s), and Valsecchi Vineyard (planted in early 1900s). I also source grapes from several old vineyards in Napa Valley including Grande Vineyard (planted in 1920), Old Kraft Vineyard (planted in the 1890s), Varozza Vineyard (planted in 1910), and Aldo’s Vineyard (planted in 1937).

(Grande Vineyard)

Do you make all the old vineyards’ wines the same way?

Yes. I use the same overall technique to make all of the wines from the different vineyards. This is the beauty of the differences in the wines. The aromas, flavors, and characteristics are mostly coming from the vineyard site. I have learned that minor nuances such as specific cooper choices, yeast strains, fermentation vessels, and extraction techniques can all impact the style of the wine, but I use these things to help accentuate what is already there.

(From left to right: Cellar Intern Richard, Enologist David, Cellar Master George, Winemaker Tres)