Old Vine (not just) Zindandel
There are a few select areas around the world graced with gnarly old vines, planted in the nineteenth century and still producing wine. These vines are special because they produce exceptionally concentrated wine (albeit in small quantities) and because they are a direct, physical connection with the distant past. Ironically, it's the so-called New World that has rich plantings of old vines, particularly in phylloxera-free parts of Australia and also here in California, where nineteenth-century vines have survived the twin ravages of phylloxera and Prohibition.
I visited Ridge's property in northern Sonoma County, on the border between Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley, where there are vines planted in the early 1900s after phylloxera struck California in the 1890s. There are even some vines from the 1880s planted to the St. George rootstock by canny growers who were learning from France, where the devastating effects of phylloxera were countered by grafting vines to American rootstock. Walking through the vineyards made me realise how connected we are to the past, as some of the practices of the nineteenth century still hold true today, and how winemakers and growers from around the world have always learnt from one other.
the passing of time
The Ridge vineyards have many old vines with thick, wrinkled trunks, growing in different, maverick directions, determined to do their own thing after many years growing, yet disciplined in the quality of grapes they produce. These are interspersed with thin, seemingly weedy vines that are easy to train but produce fruity, upfront, almost undisciplined wines. These young vines have been planted to replace the old vines that one by one die. The contrast between the young and old vines was stark, but with time one will grow into the other. Ridge are intensely interested in preserving California's wine culture, but also in building on it. The younger vines are trained higher than the older ones, so that the canopy can be better controlled, but still without trellises which are almost uniform now across California (with the exception of Syrah, which has wildly productive canopies).
zinfandel, and other varieties
Old Vine Zinfandel is the most famous style of wine in California which connects the state's rich winemaking culture with today's drinkers. Rightly so, because old Zinfandel vines produce wines with much more concentration of flavours than young vines which result in fruity, somewhat simple wines. But on Ridge's property, there are over 20 other grape varieties planted, some of the vines dating back to the nineteenth century. Zinfandel is at its best as the main part of a blend, and those other grape varieties add what Zinfandel can sometimes lack according to the site: colour, acidity, or tannins.
These other varieties include Petite Sirah, which was planted far more than I was expecting in Ridge's vineyards, providing colour and tannin, as well as two other much-maligned grape varieties. Carignan is often dismissed as a high-yielding, low-quality grape, but old Carignan (spelt Carignane by Ridge as it was in California in the nineteenth century) can produce intense, concentrated wines, and it can also add acidity to a blend. Alicante Bouschet is dismissed even more often, planted during Prohibition to give colour to home winemakers' amateur efforts. Not only do Ridge have old Alicante Bouschet, they're still planting it now - for its historic importance in California as well as the colour it adds to a wine.
blending and field blends
In the nineteenth century, all those grape varieties were often planted together in the same vineyard without any particular rhyme or reason. Or at least, so it can seem. I walked through the vineyards with Ridge's viticulturist Will Thomas, who explained that the winery had conducted experiments to see if co-fermenting the field blends was better than fermenting the different varieties separately. The field blends won. Turns out those nineteenth-century European immigrants knew what they were doing, and now Ridge are deliberately planting some of their vineyards as field blends.
Having said which, there was one old vine, planted in 1901, in the middle of all those warm climate varieties. Its canopy was far more developed, aggressively so, and the grapes ripen more quickly than the vines around it. Will had conducted quite a bit of research to learn which variety it was: unexpected answer, Pinot Noir. There must be few older Pinot Noir vines in the world, and here it was planted entirely in the wrong place.
This on-going learning experience is now focused on two newly-planted rows with over twenty varieties, arranged in alphabetical order from Alicante Bouschet to Zinfandel. These vines have been planted to see how the different varieties perform in the same conditions. It was incredible to walk down the rows and see how the canopies are larger with some varieties (Syrah); others have noticeably waxy leaves (Grenache Gris); while others grow firmly upright (Mataro, or Mourvèdre).
The most intriguing of all these field blend vineyards was one planted to Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Peloursin. Petite Sirah, also called Durif after its creator, is a crossing of Syrah and Peloursin, an extremely tannic grape. Here was a vineyard that had the mother, father, and child all growing together: in California, where vines were only first planted two hundred years ago.