Wine: does vine age really matter?

DO OLDER VINES produce more complex wines? It's a question that has divided growers for years, largely due to the ambiguity surrounding the definition of 'old'.
From this vintage, a group of researchers will embark on a three-year project that seeks to answer that very question, focusing on Shiraz in the Barossa Valley.
The researchers, all from the University of Adelaide, will compare the performance of vine growth and berry quality in vines aged 10-125 years or more.
'Anecdotally 'old' vines are thought to produce more complex wines. This project aims to validate these claims and if differences are found to better understand what is driving these differences,' says Cassandra Collins, viticultural lecturer at the University of Adelaide.
Collins will work closely on the project with post-doctoral research fellow Roberta De Bei and Master of Viticulture student Devin Methven, who has received funding from the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation.
'The research will aim to determine any common attributes, differences or trends with vines of similar age using assessments of vine performance, and chemical and sensory analyses of berry and wine characteristics over three seasons.'
The research is being made possible after the Barons of the Barossa awarded the University's School of Agriculture, Food and Wine with the Bruce Thiele Memorial Trust Grant, which will provide $5000 per year in assistance over the three-year period.
'This is a collaborative project with the University of Adelaide and the Barons of Barossa,' Collins said.
'The Barons of Barossa, and in particular Prue Henschke and Mal Whyatt, have been instrumental in the establishment of this project and have enabled growers with Barossa signature old vines to meet with researchers from the University of Adelaide to begin this project.'
As part of the research, Shiraz vines will be compared at five Barossa sites with both young and old vines on the same soil type. Where possible, the vines will also have the same row orientation, management and clonal material to reduce the number of variables in the study.
Plant physiological measures will be taken from all sites throughout the growing season, while berry maturity will be assessed from veraison to harvest. Berry sensory assessments will be made just prior to harvest, and wines will be made from all sites for quality assessment by an expert panel of winemakers from the region.
Collins said the research findings could provide validation of the perception that many winemakers hold about the increase in complexity in wines from old vines.
'A better understanding of vine age would provide growers with more confidence in investing in proactive management options,' she said.
'A better understanding of how vine balance relates to vineyard profitability for growers should reduce conflict between grape producers and end-users.'
The value of the research to the Barossa vignerons will be an acknowledgement of the great old pre-Phylloxera genetic stock existing in the Barossa.
The research will also form part of a larger GWRDC-funded project that investigates vine performance in Australian vineyards by developing a toolbox for industry to ensure best practice, sustainability and profitability. The findings from the Barossa vines will later be compared with other experimental sites in Australia.

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