Image of an old vine in the Hunter Valley
Image of an old vine in the Hunter Valley

When it comes to describing wine, we rely on a complex and evolving glossary of terms in order to explain what we mean. It is usually a safe starting point to ask for a full-bodied red in a restaurant, or a dry white in a retail shop, as it gives the person serving you a relatable idea of what you’re after. Adding other terms – a full-bodied, earthy red to go with steak – narrows the choices even more, and a Grenache from a warmer Barossa vintage or Shiraz from most parts of Victoria will do nicely.

Wine descriptions have evolved dramatically over the past three decades, as wine writers – especially Robert Parker – have used language to expand our understanding of what we smell and taste. While I have no idea what “garrigue” is, I’ve come to anticipate its scent in certain Rhone wines. “Struck match” is synonymous with fine white Burgundy, and “sweaty saddle”, coined by the great Len Evans, means one can be almost nowhere in the world but the Hunter Valley.

The relevance of Old World vs New World

The term “old” appears often in wine parlance, usually (but not always) as an indicator of higher quality. Old World wines – those originating from European countries – are often compared more favourably to New World wines (ie those from anywhere outside Europe). The Old World/New World dichotomy has become a legitimate way to structure wine lists and retail store sets. In Total Wine and More stores, each Old World country has its own section, where New World wines are ranged by variety. Restaurants in the US will often group wines from Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa together in a New World section (more space is generally given to domestic wine, particularly from California).

But is something good because it’s old? Not necessarily. A wine that’s ten years past its peak may be insipid and undrinkable, and no amount of extolling the winemaker, region or wine inside the bottle will surmount the fact that it should have been drunk much sooner.

Old vines in a New World

It is now commonplace to see “old vine” on a wine label, and the consumer message is simple: the wine inside the bottle tastes better because the vines are old. But behind that simple equation lies a complicated saga that actually places the Old World and New World on a much flatter playing field.

The oldest vines in the world aren’t in the Old World. Phylloxera decimated Europe’s original vines in the second half of the 19th century and over 90 percent of vines were lost.

In what now seems a miracle of timing, in the 1830s, a little over a decade before the introduction of phylloxera in Europe (it is a painful irony that English botanists brought the disease back from the United States) Australia had begun importing a significant number of vine cuttings derived from the original European genetic material.

It is widely believed that the oldest Shiraz, Mourvedre and Grenache vines are in the Barossa Valley, and the world’s oldest Pinot Meunier in Great Western, Victoria.

Australia: Custodian of global viticultural history?

Stephen Henschke, whose Hill of Grace single-vineyard Shiraz is sourced partly from vines planted in 1868, is conscious of Australia’s position as custodian of global viticultural history.

“We are in possession of significant pre-phylloxera genetic material, and that is incredibly valuable as a resource for the future. Once you start to graft onto rootstocks you lose the unique diversity of what was originally there, so (the Hill of Grace vineyard) is effectively a museum.”

Protecting a priceless resource

Curating the future of these treasured vines lies chiefly in two areas: protecting against phylloxera (which exists in Australia, though the threat is mostly contained) and continuing to understand the sensory output of these vines through science. A soon-to-be-published study by researchers at the University of Adelaide looks at whether old vine wine tastes better than young vine wine. Before seeing the results of the research, Henschke is convinced.

“Unanimously, old vines behave differently, and anecdotally the maturity figures are different between young and old vines, which have lower pH and higher acid.” He characterizes younger vines as prettier; the fruit more like confectionery. But with a century and a half of age comes greater depth, mature flavour and complexity. “Hill of Grace just has that ‘extra’. That’s why old vines matter.”

As long as Australia controls phylloxera and continues to maintain and scientifically describe its extraordinary old vine resource, it will contribute something to the global story of wine that is as unique as it is irreplaceable. As the wine market moves at breakneck speed, always hunting for what’s new, sometimes it’s good to stop and pay attention to what’s been happening, slowly, for more than 150 years. Even if the place it comes from is still New.

The seminar Ungrafted: old vines and why the matter is at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City on June 8.


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