Just as different grape varieties produce an astonishing range of flavors in the wines we drink, the grape vines themselves can be vastly different. Zinfandel vines, especially when head-trained, are among the hardiest in the world. Dry Creek Valley, long-regarded as Zin Territory, is home to a dense concentration of old vines, prized for the distinctive character they impart. But what does it mean to be an old vine?
The Life Cycle of a Grapevine
Throughout the world, wine labels sometimes bear the phrase “Old Vine.” This is not a legally-regulated term, in part because a vine’s maturity varies by grape variety. It takes about three years for a newly-planted vine to produce its first fruit. Sometimes winemakers will wait five or six years after planting a vine to begin harvesting its fruit for wine. For the first couple of decades, a grapevine will grow, increasing vigor, vegetative growth and overall size. During this period of growth, the flavor complexity of the grapes it produces is thought to develop and deepen. By the time the vine is 20- to 30-years-old, it has reached maturity, and its flavor profile is more consistent and predictable for a winegrower, despite the climate conditions that will alter its expression vintage-to-vintage. From this point of maturity, a grapevine’s vigor will decline for decades, plateauing when the vine is around 50-years-old. Because vigor directly translates to the volume of wine produced, many farmers will tear out their aging vines to maintain a higher-yielding vineyard. Others savor the unique, extracted flavor and historic value that comes from these faithful old vines.
After about age 50, a zinfandel vine is considered “old,” but at 50, zin may not yet be half-way through its life. In Dry Creek Valley, you will find vineyards with vines that are more than 120-years-old!
Why Less Can Be More
Think of the a grapevine as having a finite amount of flavor it can impart each vintage. The more grapes the vine produces, the less concentrated its wines will be. This is one reason younger vines are pruned to produce fewer grapes. When an old vine’s vigor has plateaued, a grower is left with that plant’s most extracted grapes — the vine is distributing all of its flavor among the fewest grapes. The wines are more expensive at this point, from grape to glass, because the quality is thought to be higher and volume is lower. “Old vines contribute an intensity and complexity of flavor to the wine that cannot be replicated by any other method,” says Ridge Vineyards, whose 115-year-old Lytton-Springs vines make one of the nation’s best-loved Dry Creek Valley zinfandel blends.
Who Planted All That Zinfandel 100+ Years Ago?
Pioneers flocked to California in the mid-19th century during the California Gold Rush. Many settlers to the area known today as Dry Creek Valley were Italian immigrants. Fortunes in gold were rare, so these pioneers had to find different means of success in the New World. Viticultural and agricultural skills learned in Europe proved highly applicable to Sonoma County’s fertile soils. By the late 1880s, Dry Creek Valley had nine wineries and almost 900 acres of vineyards, most of which were zinfandel. While phylloxera and Prohibition decimated most vines and winery businesses in the early 20th century, not all grapevines were uprooted. In the 1970s and 1980s, on the heels of California’s wine renaissance, top winemakers began to rediscover and revitalize these surviving heritage vineyards.
Today When You Visit
Dry Creek Valley produces a broad range of premium wines from more than 40 different grape varieties, offering something for every palate to savor. Despite this breadth and recognition, everyone in the appellation takes pride in celebrating our region’s humble beginnings and the hard-working pioneers whose place in California history is honored in our heritage vines. When you taste our wines, we hope you will first take in the view of our dramatic and beautiful old vineyards, where the wine in your glass began, more than a century ago.
Follow us to stay up to date with all things Old Vine Zinfandel & Dry Creek Valley: