Often, you'll see the words "Old Vine" on the label of a Zinfandel. But what does it really mean and does it equate with a better wine?
First, you need to realize that "Old Vine" is not a regulated term. It can appear on any bottle of wine. Most in the wine industry consider 50 years and over to be worthy of the title. And, in many cases, these old vines are more toward 100 years of age. So, let's assume that wineries are using the 50+ definition for their old vine Zinfandel. The question remains - Is it a marketing gimmick or does the fruit from these old vines really result in a better wine?
Let's take a quick look at the life of a grape vine. When first planted, it may produce fruit in the first year or two, but these fruit-baring vines are often pruned before the grapes ripen. Typically, after about five years a vine is capable of producing a harvest-able annual crop. The vines really hit their stride in their teens and twenties, but their decline begins after that. At age 50, the vines are really in their fading years but are now worthy of being called "Old Vine."
Their deep roots that grow to a depth of approximately 25 feet are able to pull moisture and nutrition from the ground in the driest years and not create bloated fruit in wet years.
But, in their golden years, the vines are producing fewer and smaller grapes. This is where the difference can be. The juice of these smaller grapes tends to be more concentrated in flavor. And, after pressing, the concentrated juice is less affected by the smaller amount of skin in the mixture, leading to lower tannin and a smoother wine.
So, yes, an old vine Zinfandel can be better. Or the vines can be badly in decline and in need of being dug up. But with good land, weather and proper farming an old Zinfandel vine can produce some great wines.
Given the choice on the store shelf, or on the wine list, I'd say go with the old vine. Cheers!