On a 97-degree day in France’s Northern Rhône Valley, I was standing at the top of a vertiginous parcel of vines with a chain-smoking winemaker. There wasn’t a single part of Laurent Courbis that seemed coached or “media-trained” or careful. He was the picture of authenticity. And then he said something that made me grateful to be talking to the winery owner himself, not some polished PR agent.
There are now more PR agents than journalists, which probably explains why food and wine are soaked with slogans and catchy terms. We can’t just eat food that is locally grown; we must support farm-to-table enterprises. We must join the locavore movement. We must seek out wine bottles labeled as “green” or “sustainable.” We must try the newest wine from a “rock star winemaker.”
Witness the “old vines” revolution in wine. American vines that aren’t yet old enough to legally drink are strutting about with the “old vines” title. California, in particular, seems to delight in the notion of older vines. But what can a consumer expect from an “old vines” bottling? The term, like “reserve,” means essentially nothing in the United States. As always, it’s best to ask the producer what they think it means.
What you will find is that there are a lot of nebulous pronouncements: more complexity, more mid-palate weight, higher quality, more non-fruit character. I suspect that much of that is true, but I haven’t conducted a broad-ranging tasting to attempt to find out. Wine Spectator’s James Laube writes that he doesn’t see much discernible difference:
“I’ve done many comparative tastings, in blind formats, comparing old vine and new vine wines, and the results are always mixed. Occasionally the old-vine wines shine; sometimes the new-vine wines are better.”
Fair enough. But all of the focus on taste and texture tends to miss the point. Which brings us back to Laurent Courbis.
You see, the Northern Rhône is on the verge of a tremendous vintage, and if they can pull it off, it will be largely due to the “vieilles vignes,” the old vines.
When I arrived for a week’s stay in the Northern Rhône in late July, it had already been a hot summer; the côte was very much rôtie. An African air mass had drifted onto Europe and by mid-August it still hadn’t fully departed. Wimbledon saw 92F. The Tour de France spent much of its three weeks knifing through a furnace of 100F.
Riding by train from Paris to Valence, it was clear that France needed a drink, and I’m not talking about alcohol. The countryside was parched, crispy. Everyone was asking for rain. I expected to find the vines struggling, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see some beginning to shut down. In the United States, many growers have told me that they don’t like to see anything past 95F, because the vines can turn off, close in, stop development. Heat is good for grape ripening but extreme dry heat can be a problem.
Laurent Courbis’ vines in Saint-Joseph were beautiful.
We had driven up to Les Royes, a steep amphitheater of a vineyard on the southern edge of the appellation. From there, we could see all the way to Hermitage Hill to the north. Every row of vines was green. Nothing was yellowed, haggard. How could that be?
Laurent performed the move that the writer John Baxter lovingly attributes to the French DNA: the shrug. In this case, Courbis shrugged as if to say, “No big deal.” And then he said, “The vines are old. They are deep, and they can find water.”
That was it. He wasn’t trying to impress me; for Laurent, it’s just reality. The old vines can handle this summer’s heat, and thrive. With a little bit of pre-harvest rain, they might produce a classic. It’s nothing to boast about, nothing for a press release. That’s just what old vines do.
Now, does Laurent Courbis believe that older vines produce better wines? I suspect so. Just about every grower and winemaker I’ve met in Europe will offer this view, in some form or another. But that’s not the focus this summer. The old vines, first and foremost, are survivors. Their roots are older and run deeper. They tap into water far below what the youngsters can find. How old is Les Royes, which happens to produce a chalk-streaked Saint-Joseph that is pure and gorgeous? Some vines in Les Royes are as young as 45. Others are around 70.
Throughout the week, we heard this conversation repeated over and over, and always with the same humility, the same accompanying shrug. We saw beautiful, healthy vines in Cornas and Saint-Joseph and Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. Guillaume Clusel of Domaine Clusel-Roch pointed out a few rows of vines in Côte-Rôtie that were starting to yellow. “They’re younger,” Guillaume explained. “The new vines, this is harder for them.”
Fortunately for Guillaume, he’ll work with fruit from vines that were planted generations before he arrived. In the United States, vineyard managers debate digging up vines as they age, as explained on the winery blog for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars:
“After about 25 years, the vine slows down and progressively yields less and less fruit. Although vines can live to be over 100 years old, it’s rare to see them reach that age because for most producers, the yield is so small that it isn’t economically viable. Many wineries replace vines as they decline rather than replanting an entire vineyard, so it’s common for one vineyard to have vines and blocks of varying ages.”
Suffice it to say that this approach is a lot less common in Europe. Old vines don’t guarantee success, but they offer much more consistency. In most of the Northern Rhône, there appears to have been no lag in ripening. Whereas a region of young vines would have been dealing with stops and starts, this year’s vintage has cruised along, even as other crops have dried out.
The next time you hear a vague promise of the greatness of wines made from old vines, I’d first ask you to think of Laurent Courbis. He’s not boasting of his old vines. He’ll tell you about them if you ask. He’s not trying to oversell the story, even though it happens to be a wonderful story. The Northern Rhône harvest has started earlier than usual in 2015, and all of that work that happens deep beneath the surface of the soil is about to bear some remarkable fruit.