I stopped by to watch as neighbour Jacques Rochat and his team replanted 4,000 m2 of Chasselas vines Wednesday, in Saint Prex. Daunting work, even with a tractor, and they were taking a welcome morning hot tea and croissants break.
The vines produce part of our village wine, in the Morges appellation area. I’ll soon be ordering some from Uvavins Cave de la Côte in Morges, at a special rate offered to village residents when the new vintage is ready. Rochat is one of some 400 local growers who work closely with Uvavins, the regional cooperative whose wines regularly win top awards.
I asked Jacques if the vines nearby were also Chasselas, and if so, why wasn’t he replanting those, too? The answer, yes – “but we have to have something to live off of while these”, with a wave of the arm “start to grow”.
Next year, another 4,000 m2 will be torn up and new vines planted. In three years we’ll start to see wine from the new vines.
These are over 30 years old and when I mentioned the new vines to Gilles Cornut at Uvavins, he said he knows them well and Rochat is lucky his vines have held up so long. Chasselas vines generally need replacing by age 28, he said. It’s not so much the soil or the microclimate that determines the useful productive age of vines as the grape variety. Pinot Noir vines, for example, can live far longer – witness “old vines” in Burgundy and, increasingly, in Switzerland.
An idea that wineries love to sell to consumers is that old vines = fine wine, and it can be true because older vines produce fewer grapes, thus grapes that are more concentrated and of excellent quality. But it’s not true for all grape varieties, and it’s true only when the vines are well managed by a good winery where grower and oenologist are working closely together.
A wine from old vines will logically cost more because the grower’s yield is lower, for a start. “Old” vines don’t have a legal definition and the term is used loosely in most countries.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about older vines, noting that the oldest is probably a 17th century vine in Slovenia:
“… In the U.S., the most common use is on Zinfandel, because in California vineyards up to 125 years old are still bearing small amounts of prized Zinfandel fruit.
In a place where wine production is longstanding, it often means a wine whose vines are thirty to forty years old. Some wine makers insist the vines should be older than this. In newly established wine regions, twenty years might be old. The definition is further complicated by the fact that certain varieties simply do not have economically viable yields when they get truly ancient…”
So while an older Chasselas wine, well aged, can be beautiful, one made from vines that are 80 years old will be just plain hard to find, for a good reason.
I carried on with my vineyard hike, admiring the view the vines at the top of the hill have. Another 200 metres on and I watched another kind of planting, a new primary school going up, with prefabricated walls dropped into place by cranes, much as the tractor was dropping in the young vines. The children will grow up watching the vines grow nearby. Nice.