“Old Vines” or “Ancient Vines” is an uncommon designation, often synonymous with rich wines with great texture and character. Aside from some “old vine” designates in the Rhone Valley in France, the overwhelmingly vast majority appear in California with the zinfandel varietal.
Most research shows that vines of popular varietals like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc have a life span of approximately 50 years and the terroir, rather than the age of the vines, is what translates into quality. However, leave no doubt that the ancient California zinfandel vines uniquely translate into a higher standard.
The distinct life of a zinfandel vine goes through several decade-long productive transitions until reaching maturity in 70-80 years. This is when they begin to produce dramatically lower yields which as we know, equates to heavily concentrated flavors and overall high caliber wines. We see this with many varietals during times of
destructive weather impacts such as a late frost when the damaged grapes must be sacrificed for the good of the others. In these years, volume and profits are low but, as many wine makers have told me, it’s the time to submit wines for critical review. With zinfandel vines, reduced yield, or lower tonnage, occurs naturally, appealing to those consumers who prefer big, luscious zinfandel releases and are willing to pay a premium price.
Ancient vines are as physically identifiable as the rich flavors they produce. In dormancy, they are thick and gnarly, looking like headless ogres waving their
arms in all directions, otherwise appearing lifeless. They become more majestic in late spring, serving as a strong foundation for what is proportionally, moderate leaf and fruit growth.
France, Germany, Australia and other countries boast “ancient vines,” but old California zinfandel vines, from Sonoma County, Napa Valley, Lodi and Paso Robles afford us the opportunity, firsthand, to experience what the excitement is all about.
Cline Cellars produces a series of reasonably priced “ancient vine” wines from their Oakley vineyards in Contra Costa County, first planted over a Century ago by Italian and Portuguese immigrants. Among many consistent vintages, the 2013 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel Contra Costa County ($20) adds a combined 10% of petit sirah,
carignane and syrah to the blend that delivers ripe fruit flavors and a creamy mouthfeel. Used primarily to add structure and texture to the Rhone Valley blends in France, the 2013 Cline Ancient Vines Mourvedre Contra Costa County ($22) is a rare solo release with hints of chocolate and a luscious deep plum flavor. Equally rare, the 2013 Cline Ancient Vines Carignane Contra Costa County ($23) adds a degree of spice to the rich flavors.
The iconic Napa Valley Rombauer Vineyards produces old vine zinfandel from a historic vineyard in the Sierra Foothills of Amador County. The 2012 Rombauer “Fiddletown” Zinfandel ($43) comes from Gino Rinaldi’s 100+ year-old vineyard, located some 1,800 feet above sea level, producing very low yields and a wine both intense and complex.
For observing “ancient vines,” I recommend a drive along the Valley of the Moon Highway, connecting Sonoma with Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco. A gorgeous site during any season, but the late winter vines, interspersed with yellow mustard plants, using the Mayacama Mountains as a backdrop, are breathtaking. Tasting the fruits of these vines is available at a plethora of valley wineries along the road including Landmark Cellars and Ledson Winery.
The classic ancient vine zinfandel story comes from Geoffrey and Alison Wrigley Rusack of Rusack Vineyards in
the Ballard Canyon area of the Santa Ynez Valley, north of Santa Barbara. Geoffrey received permission to explore and excavate cuttings from some ancient vines discovered on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Ventura. The University of California, Davis confirmed that the vines were zinfandel, most likely left by missionaries over a century ago. The zinfandel vines have been re-planted on Santa Catalina, another of the Channel Islands, as part of Rusack’s Santa Catalina Island program that includes pinot noir and chardonnay. Having recently enjoyed the rare 2012 Rusack Santa Catalina Island Zinfandel ($72)), these ancient vines certainly delivered a rich texture and complex flavor profile that will continue to improve with age.
LIMERICK LANE CELLARS
My recent curiosity in “old vine” or “ancient vine” zinfandel was peaked when a small, little known Sonoma County winery with vineyards adjacent to the Redwood Highway, south of Healdsburg placed their vintage 2012 Limerick Lane Zinfandel Russian River Valley (94-pt/$32) in the #12 spot
on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of 2015. A very high ranking of a zinfandel from a local winery within 10 miles of my home led me to investigate further.
The year 1910 was when the Del Fava family planted the oldest vineyard on the property in the northeastern Russian River Valley. They saw potential in this site that has less fog and considerably warmer soils. The family owned and farmed the original vineyards for over 65 years, sourcing grapes to many wineries before they sold it in 1977 to locals, Michael and Tom Collins.
The Collins operated the small winery on Limerick Lane for 34 years, making significant strides to improve the property, including the new dry-farmed, 25-acre Collins Vineyard, directly across the road. Also, during their stewardship, the Limerick Lane Cellars label was created to produce estate wines.
When the Collins brothers decided to sell the winery in 2011, they rejected any corporate interest, handpicking local Jake Bilbro and his brother Scot as the best team to maintain the small family operation that had been productive over the past 101 years. After some preliminary challenges, the sale was consummated and the Bilbro brothers sought out on a journey through Limerick’s most recent evolution. We sought to taste some of their new 2013 vintages following up on the 2012 estate zinfandel that put them on the map.
With some mourvedre and petit sirah to provide complexity, the most high production 2013 Limerick Lane Zinfandel Russian River Valley ($36), with 1,900 cases, had a chalky, earth element, nice minerality and luscious mouthfeel, a good value.
From the original ancient plantings,the 2013 Limerick Lane “1910 Block” Zinfandel ($48) has a distinct
herbal nose with concentrated fruit flavors and a smooth, balanced finish. Combining Rhone varietals, the 2103 Limerick Lane Syrah/Grenache ($36) offer healthy spice in the bouquet and does not disappoint mid-palate with berry pie, pepper flavors and evident tannins.
We finished the tasting with two very small production releases, one highly rated and another resulting from a unique process.
With 94-point ratings from both Wine Spectator and Robert Parker, the 2013 Limerick Lane “Head-pruned Block” Syrah ($48) is a full=bodied syrah with a fragrant bouquet and intricate white pepper, plum and blackberry on the palate with balanced tannins throughout.
Clearly the most unique wine of the day, the 2013 Limerick Lane “Hail Mary” Syrah ($48)uses carbonic maceration, where whole cluster grapes are fermented in a carbon dioxide-rich setting, to create complex flavors and soft
mouthfeel. Grapes, leaves and stems are placed in open top stainless steel tanks, layered with dry ice and gently walked on every few days. With the exception of those on the bottom, the grapes are not crushed, oddly leaving the skins intact during fermentation.
Initially, the “Hail Mary,” with 94% syrah and 6% grenache, displays a beautiful deep ruby color, then earth and candied fruit on the nose followed by rich flavors and silky tannins. This is the one I took home.
Producing quality juice for more than a Century, it took that 2012 vintage “old vine”zinfandel to uncover Limerick Lane’s wonderful wines and their story of handwork and commitment to the land. All of the wines we tasted had high character and, although cost is relative to our personal budgets, all current releases are a value at their price. This and the other small boutique wineries on Limerick Lane are definitely worth exploring on an afternoon.
As for these mature zinfandel and other varietals, look for the “ancient vine” or “old vine” designations on the labels of wines at all levels. Your research will assure more expression of fruit and a softer texture in the glass.