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Sarah Abbott (MW): here the world best old-vine wines

When we talk about old vines and their value, we often remember the quality of the wine obtained from them, but we often forget the importance and richness of this heritage for biodiversity. Today, more than ever, it is necessary to create a network not only to protect this category but also to give it the right value in the market. We interviewed Sarah Abbott, Master of Wine, promoter of the Old Vine Conference project.

Where does the idea of the Old Vine Conference come from?
I’ve been interested in the culture, the heritage and the humanity of wine. About the conference it passed through Serendipity. I had this long standing interest that reflected in the work I’ve done to Italian wine regions actually, but also with emerging wine regions like Georgia, Turkey, which have a very ancient culture. I wanted to share this interest and collaborate with 2 partners Leo Austin and Alun Griffiths, Master of Wine like me. The time was right to share in a more coordinated way, the great work that have been done by many organizations all over the world for promoting and marketing great old-vine wine. The movement, the awareness of the importance of heritage of old vineyards has been quite active for 20 years. Jancis Robinson MW, she has been writing about the importance of the old vine heritage for nearly 20 years, also talking about the south Africa old-vine project, born to put wines produced from old vines under a single category, thanks to a certification; and other organization such as Barossa Old Vine Charter which is again nearly 20 years ago and other organization such as Save the Old in USA, Old Vine Collective in Chile. So what we are doing is anything new in the sense that the wine world already accepts this particular type of old vineyard rich in heritage, terroir, in interaction with place and traditional practices and a kind of deep agricultural wisdom. But what I found while I was travelling around the world for work is a lot of great individuals working in amazing old vine projects, regenerated old vineyards, working with communities to maintain the prosperity and the sustainability of agriculture community. Lots of this individuals did not actually know about each other.

So, what is the purpose of The Old Vine Conference?
The project wants to be a connection among those individuals and organizations. Because the paradox of this great old-vine wine is that on one hand you have some of the greatest winemakers, the most famous winemakers in the world jumping in old-vine wines and get the recognition for that. On the other hand, in the market for the most consumers “old vine” doesn’t mean anything. Without a category is difficult to achieve higher value in the market. So one of the aims is to connect and amplify all the great work on spread the message of the importance of heritage. But another big part of our mission is actually to engage producers, grape growers, big companies as well as importers and distributers in the market being able to talk about this category of old-vine wine. You can make meaningful in the market then you can achieve the higher price in the market. For example, with the South African project, they have changed the dynamic in the market, they have achieved an average increase in grape value, in prices that is payed to the old vine grape growers. The main issue is not the low yield, but a kind of intimacy in knowledge. At our first conference we had Marco Simonit, CEO of Simonit&Sirch Vine Master Pruners, who explained that old vine doesn’t automatically mean that you sacrifice as a grower half of the yield. In order to keep vine in the ground more than 20 years, you need to think it’s like a lifetime partnership between the growers and the vine. The rewards are high because mean old vine have a genetic interaction with the environment. Therefore, they become high adaptive, highly resilient giving high deep terroir expression.

Do you think the wine produced from old vines have an edge on others and why?
Yes, it can do. Of course is not just about the vineyard is old but also the grape variety planted in a place which is adapted on the environment. And it must be healthy and tended and the wine must be made in a good way, professionally. So all these things must be equal. What I find in old-vine wine is a kind of depth that is not necessarily about concentration, it’s not a kind of manipulated depth, I find great layered through the palate, and also what happens when you have old-vine wine is that it involves a kind of sacrifice to keep these vines in the ground and an effort from people making fine wine, they really invest in it. I think it’s one of the most intimate partnership between nature and men. You don’t make necessary exceptional wines, you make wines unique perhaps, also thanks to the passion of people. The initial researches suggest for example to old vine fruit is often really well balanced so in very hot years for example you the acidity is still maintained. We know that the most famous wines in the world are made from old heritage vineyards and what is interesting is that old vines really give the concentration. What is interesting is that one statement is often made. Old vine gives really low yield and concentration. Actually the research suggests that there is a moderated yield defect but not automatic and if you have health in your vines there is no reason for them to lose. It’s more about composition, balance and fruit.

Do you think the climate change will affect this kind of old vines or their strong roots are their strength?
The issue of climate change has touched the issue of old vine wines in quite particular way. It touches on the genetic material of old vineyards and for example in Spain there is an amazing project by Torres, winemaker of one of the most important and ancient wineries of Spain. Torres is one of the four runners to embrace the need in the industry to act. He starts to identify and recuperated old vineyard forgotten varieties, really ancient grape varieties, the world didn’t really use any longer in the commercial wine production. They planted and made wines from this recuperated varieties, and what they’ve found is that these varieties have been incredibly important in helping rebalance the composition of grape when it comes to climate change because this change, especially in Spain is related to extreme temperature, drought, and a concern for maintaining freshness and vitality of fruit. These old varieties have performed brilliantly and when they do ripen they maintain their acidity, freshness and colour. So I think that’s probably one of the most important aspects of old vine heritage when it comes to climate changes is that they are a weapon, a kind of insurance of genetic diversity.

Where in Europe or somewhere else in the world are the territories where old vines express better in the soil?
I think every part of Europe and every part of the world has a potential for their old vines to shine, and to give wine quality and deep connection to the culture and tradition. I would say that in Europe there no the right attention to the topic and it’s a paradox because other countries have organizations to market and support old vines. The leaders of old-vine movement have been from the new world: South Africa, California, Australia, Chile, but in Europe, for example in Spain, Italy, France (South), Portugal, they have such a richness of old vine heritage and old vineyards, but they have not yet come together to create something of impact as the rest of the world. So rather than talk about which part of Europe is best suited to make good old-vine wine, we need to talk about the waste potential for the great new old-vine project. I’d say that in Italy, Italian is so used to living right next door to incredibly beautiful and ancient things, you have millennial civilization that this richness is just waiting to being communicated. Italy could really take a lead actually. Italy has got so many great old vineyards and it’s losing a lot because the economics in the modern wine industry do not make easy to recuperate and restore old vineyards. Europe is not incentivized to focus on old vine heritage. One great example on regenerative agriculture, is the one of Salvo Foti, speaking about the project on Etna. I’d like to see the equivalent of South Africa project in Italy as well.

What are the best way to communicate or tell to wine lovers the wine from old vines?
I think there are 3 main aspects to focus in. The first one is the quality, we have great old-vine wine, wines of unique character, very high quality, great depth and uniqueness of flavour. The second aspect is this kind of sense that you’re drinking history, is the sense of cultural connection, and the expression of unique place. In the same way people appreciate the gastronomic histories of a particular country or the music or the artists of a country. It’s a piece of heritage and that is very powerful. Old vine heritage combines both historical aspects of heritage with the agricultural heritage. Then, the third aspect is that old-vine heritage is a type of regenerative agriculture. this means that immediately you’re in a more eco-friendly, more holistic approach to viticulture. Because if you know you need these vineyards going, 50 or 60/70 years you immediately work using this approach.

Would you like to tell us about 9 wines that, from your point of you, express better the soul of old-vine wine?
Yes, sure. There is some great old vine wine!

  1. Gini, Soave Classico, Contrada Salvarenza Vecchie Vigne –  from vines up to 160 years old, some ungrafted. Sensational wine – I had a bottle that was 20 years old, from magnum, and it was just ethereal greatness.
  2. I Vigneri, Vinupetra, Etna Rosso – old vine Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio from Salvo Foti’s inspirational project to restore the vineyards, terraces and communities of ancient wine culture on Etna
  3. Bodegas Verum, La Mancha, Spain, Las Tinadas Airén – from 80-year old bush vines, a brilliant and mineral white that is transforming the reputation of La Mancha
  4. Bodegas Frontonio, El Jardín de las Iguales, Garnacha, Aragon – incredible Grenache from vines planted in 1918. Intense but racy – brimming with vitality. Made by Master of Wine Fernando Mora. The old vine Macabeo is incredible too.
  5. Thistledown She’s Electric Grenache, McClaren Vale, Australia – old vine Grenache becomes transcendent and fine. This is a great example. Again, made by a Master of Wine, Giles Cooke, who has long championed old vine heritage.
  6. The Whole Shebang, Cuvée XIII, The Bedrock Wine Company, California, USA – a gloriously sumptuous red blend of old-vine Zinfandel and many other varieties. A fine example of how old vines bring lively richness to a wine, without clumsy heaviness. Made by another MW – Morgan Twain Peterson.
  7. Argyros Estate Assyrtiko, Santorini, Greece – from vines planted in the 1800s, the crisp vitality of Assyrtiko takes on deep richness from these incredible old vines, trained in the distinctive circular shapes.
  8. Natenadze Vineyards, Meskheti, Georgia. From recuperated vines thought to have been planted in the 1600s, Giorgi Natanedze makes tiny quantities of a delicate but precise red blend, from varieties previously unknown or thought to have been lost. Almost impossible to get hold of, but like drinking a piece of pre-history if you do!
  9. Domaine Jones Fitou, Languedoc, France: vibrant but rich classic appellation from Englishwoman Katie Jones’ treasured old vines. Incredible value here for less than 20-euro retail.

Which trade can better understand the concept of old vines?
I think all channels can explain this concept, but it’s a new concept about premium wine so, in UK for example, the Horeca channel can work better. It has great position to be able to tell story and, we know, people is always looking for stories. Connecting and speaking with influential figures on trade. I think is also important to focus on Independent wine sector, independent wine shops. They are very skilful about selling wines and telling stories for premium and online market. Also, I think direct consumer marketing is extremely important. Besides, education of the trade is very important and critical as well. Every channel of the trade has this new opportunity to talk about and merchandise this new category. It’s a “win-win” because if you merchandise and talk about it well, you basically engage your customer in a higher value category, facilitating the economic viability of growers.

Do you think create a brand only for wines coming from old vines can be useful to distinguish these wines from others? Do you think is necessary to protect this category of wines?
Yes, I think it can be very useful even if it’s not easy but, when you succeed in it, you have very good result. The benchmark is really the South African Old Vine Project. They started with 8 and now they are 80 producers. What the producers do is they apply for the certification for their old vineyards. The vineyards are dated, assessed, they need to satisfy criteria of the project. They receive the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal and they are allowed to use this on their wines. The consumers associated the CHV to higher value, higher quality and sustainability. It’s not easy to agree this chart of value and definition but you need to start.