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Old vines for the New Year: You’re not getting older, you’re getting better!

Wines made from old vines are an abiding preoccupation of mine. Vine age is not a guarantee of anything, but for certain vines grown in specific conditions, there is a correlation between the age of the vine and the character of the wine it can produce. Carignan vines, for example, can spend decades harnessed to the yoke of the “useful” wines in which they are typically employed, but when these vines pass, say, the eighty year mark, it’s as if a switch is thrown and the vines begin yielding distinctive wines that overflow with brambly, rustic flavors

There are well-understood aspects of grape botany that explain how vine age affects wine quality, e.g., as a vine ages, the grapes grow smaller, increasing the skin to pulp ratio (a lot of flavor resides in the skin of grapes), and older vines are naturally less productive, so the vine lavishes its sugars on the remaining grapes. However, there are less-charted dimensions of grape growing that contribute something, too. I am not prepared to defend this scientifically, and yet I do believe that older vines, with their complex and extensive root systems, express terroir in ways that younger vines cannot.

I admit to falling prey to a pathetic fallacy of seeing a message in the life of old vines. A message all the more pathetic and embarrassing because in my internal theater, it has a soundtrack with a reassuring refrain from a Madison Avenue jingle of the 70s for Clairol Loving Care shampoo that asserted, “you’re not getting older, you’re getting better.” With that, I would like to tell you about three old vine wines for the New Year.

Doniene Gorrondona Txakoli 2012 $28

The sort of Txakoli that has become familiar on our shores is a dry and minerally white wine that is bracingly briny and fizzy. I like to imagine that Txakoli telegraphs something essential about the Basque character—a certain rusticity, an austere saltiness, the frothy, short-lived bubbles a sign of the ephemerality of life. However, there is another sort of Txakoli that is still rather than bubbly. Then there is the still Txakoli tinto from Doniene Gorrondona, made from astonishing, pre-phylloxera hondaribbi beltza vines that are over 150 years old. I understand that there’s some genetic connection between hondaribbi beltza and cabernet franc, and this wine does remind me, in a way, of the lean, earthy, and crunchy cabernet franc of Muscadet master, Marc Ollivier. Yet, there’s another, iodinic thing going on here that tastes so deeply the sea that upon opening the bottle you might look around for Queequeg. Gorrondona ferments the wine in neutral tank, a move that shows off the purity of fruit and intensity of flavor that these superannuated vines confer upon the wine. This is a rare red wine that is equally at home with shellfish, carnitas Michoacán, escalivada, and anything grilled, charred, and salty.

Birichino Cinsault Bechtold Vineyard 2012 $21

This wine is from antique cinsault vines that were planted in Lodi in the 1880s (you can read the story of the remarkable Bechtold vineyard in this two-part article). Thanks to Randall Grahm, these vines have achieved a minor celebrity, and now winemakers as varied as Gideon Bienstock, Abe Schoner, and Tegan Passalaqua have made the fruit from this relic a precious commodity.

Alex Krause and John Locke, the folks behind the Birichino label, are fellow appreciators of old vines, using Bechtold cinsault in various blends and in a unique, varietal bottling. Cinsault is mostly a blending grape—in particular, it gives attractive, fresh berry flavors to the very best Provençal rosé. However, with 130 years of age, these 130-year-old dry farmed vines reveal a more nuanced side to cinsault. Krause and Locke practice unobtrusive winemaking—their cinsault is wild yeast fermented in neutral barrel, and despite the warmth of inland Lodi County and thanks to dry farming and great viticulture, it comes in at only 12 percent alcohol. This wine is fresh, dry, light-bodied, and perfumed with the scent of scrubby herbs and rhubarb. Pan-roasted duck breast (medium rare, of course…maybe with some pomegranate seeds, if you have them), grainy sheep milk cheese, ratatouille.

La Grange Tiphaine Côt Touraine Vieilles Vignes 2011 $35

Damien and Coralie Delecheneau grow a range of meticulously crafted, organically grown, and pure tasting wines in the Touraine and Montlouis sur Loire appellations of France’s Loire Valley. A few months ago I tasted their old vines côt for the first time (that’s what malbec is called in the Loire), and I was hooked. This wine is from a patch of 100+ year old côt vines planted by Damien Delecheneau’s great-grandfather in the 19th century. It is a wine that does not BLOW YOU AWAY with fruit, gobsmacking glycerol, extract, oak, or alcohol. It is a wine that doesn’t clobber you with a club, but rather one that seduces you with its subtle and leafy charms, with a depth of flavor that is as mysterious as the grapes are old. To eat? Wintertime rib-sticking braises, almost anything from Ottolenghi’s Plenty, tagine with dried fruit, bulgogi.