Old Vines: Notes of Profound Wisdom

by | 6 Aug, 2011

Wines made from old grapevines deliver uncommon balance and depth of flavors. This is an additional dimension that only time and a perfect integration with the environment can achieve.

Despite the lack of accurate data, the area currently under old grapevines in Chile is estimated in about 20,000 hectares. These are the direct descendants of the cuttings brought by the Spaniards in the 16th century who made a home for them in today’s regions VII and VIII. The ligneous trunks and rustic souls shaped by the basic humors of País grapes have created a rough and breathtaking landscape where trying to tell apart the character of its people from the wines it produces is not always easy.

“Grapevines are like gnomes, magical beings that have lived here for hundreds of years. if you move them they will inevitably lose their magic. It is not a question of the grapevines being in harmony with the environment, as we usually hear. Grapevines are the environment. They are the landscape,” says Felipe Zúñiga, chief winemaker of Lomas de Cauquenes.

With almost 200 affiliate producers, the Cauquenes-based cooperative is the main heiress of this rich winemaking tradition. 80% of its 2,000 hectares are unfenced and the head-trained vines grow free, sprawling up and down the rolling topography of the interior dryland, sinking their roots in the old and degraded soil while lifting their branches to catch the sunlight they need to ripen the grapes.

Without doubt, the traditional País and Italia varieties of the Maule and Biobío valleys constitute a viticultural heritage that has withstood the test of time, a sort of living museum that has awoken from its slumber, reinventing itself to serve the whims of a market that cries out for wines of singular history and identity.

The enormous potential of Maule Carignan and the experiments that enhance the spirit of the old Cinsault grown in Itata have brought these old varieties back to the forefront, in an invitation to travel the rest of the country in search of other ancient treasures that also deserve to be protected, bottled and shared with the world.


Seven meters underground, the old egg-white mortar cellar of Cousiño Macul are home to wines loaded with history that summarize the successful saga of Cabernet sauvignon in our country. At Quebrada de Macul, an area surrounded by the relentless realty expansion of greater Santiago, we still find old vineyards that are the direct descendants of the first cuttings brought by the Cousiño family from Médoc in 1863. Today, their genes brand the character of Lota, the winery’s icon, which took over the quality leadership of the traditional Antiguas Reservas.

“In Macul, grapes ripen quite well and, unlike other vineyards, seeds become completely dark. they reach optimum maturity. The resulting wines feature incredibly smooth, silky and juicy tannins. They contribute to the Lota blend with excellent fruit and firm structure. Undoubtedly, this is terroir at its best,” explains Gabriel Mustakis, winemaker of Cousiño Macul.

In his opinion, the vines’ age plays a crucial role. Young plants are less consistent. At Quebrada de Macul, however, they have developed stronger and deeper root systems and better fruit load distribution. Managing the vineyard is much easier. You do not need intensive canopy thinning or green pruning. The plants have reached perfect balance and deliver what they have to offer, very naturally and without excesses.

“Wines are smooth, fruity and very balanced in their alcohol-to-acidity ratio. In general the pH of Macul Cabernet sauvignon does not exceed 3.45. Yields are in the vicinity of 5,000 kg per hectare. They are concentrated and the quality of their tannins allows prolonged post-fermentation maceration. Their acidity is also very natural. Not as exuberant as Pamela Anderson, but leaner and classier… like Elle McPherson,” he jokes.

Still in Alto Maipo but further south than Quebrada de Macul, we meet Cecilia Torres, winemaker of Santa Rita and responsible for its icon Casa Real Reserva Especial. Seeing these 50+ year old vines thriving in the restrictive granite soil of Alto Jahuel is witnessing the extremely elegant potential of Chilean Cabernet sauvignon.

According to her, these grapevines deliver an unmatched balance of fruitiness, acidity, alcohol and tannins. In a younger vineyard one can find power and fruit expression, but not the same concentration levels. That is the reason behind the exhaustive viticultural work of labeling the youngest plants in the lot and vinifying their grapes separately to prevent diluting the final outcome, even if all grapes share the same genetic origin.

“After three or four years a plant can show you its potential, its genetics, its aptitude to adapt to the soil and climate, but it will still be far from reaching the balance needed to produce the best possible wine. It only gives you enough information to predict its future behavior. It is just like asking an extremely smart and capable child to drive a car. he is just not ready,” she explains.

Something similar happens with Carmenère plantations in Apalta, where the 80+ year old vineyards constitute the base of Pehuén. There you have the perfect combination of vine, soil and climate. The geological and topographic features of this Colchaguan sub-valley, which forms a south- looking granite amphitheater, ensure the right amount of luminosity for grapes to ripen to perfection. Vineyards need no irrigation and grapes evolve wisely, reaching excellent concentration and balance between their alcoholic and phenolic maturations.

“it is not because a vineyard is old that its fruit will necessarily be good. the value of a grapevine’s age is directly linked to its terroir. For example, Carmenère grown in a cold valley or on very clayish soil with poor drainage or superficial phreatic layers will not produce good wine, even if the plants are 100 years old,” she sentences.


Despite the uprooting policy applied decades ago in Argentina as a way to improve the production/profitability balance, it is still possible to find thousands of hectares of old Malbec vineyards. But in Chile, most of the centennial grapevines are País. Really old grapevines of noble stock are extremely rare, with few exceptions, most of them in Colchagua, such as Viu Manent’s Malbec, Ravanal’s Carmenère and Santa Helena’s Cabernet sauvignon.

In the 1970s, it was still possible to find large patches of very old Cabernet sauvignon. Nevertheless, because of their low productivity and encouraged by the state-driven reconversion policy, many producers ended up uprooting these vineyards and replacing them with fruit trees like peaches, nectarines, apples, pears, plums, kiwis and cherries.

One of the exceptions that miraculously survived this relentless fate is Miguel Torres’ Manso de Velasco vineyard in Molina. Today, its 117 to 119 year old vines stand as a true monument to that traditional viticulture, bridging the gap between generations, layering new roots and tempting international markets with their fruit.

According to Fernando Almeda, chief winemaker of Miguel Torres, these are vineyards of controlled vigor, low production per hectare, nice sun exposure and good ventilation. They do not require much human intervention since their root systems are strong and deep. Qualitatively speaking, they are more stable and consistent. They do not suffer much water stress between rain seasons.

“Manso de Velasco has lower yields, with smaller bunches and berries. The water- aromas-tannins ratio is lower, thus resulting in greater stability and concentration. there are no significant variations between individual vintages. The wines are more consistent, with the same base, the same material, the same spirit. This allows you to maintain your style year after year,” he explains.

Another advantage of old vineyards is that their grapes develop a better sugar-to-alcohol ratio, since the metabolic processes span over a longer period. They are always harvested later, usually when alcoholic and phenolic maturations have been completed. A vineyard that suffers less water stress degrades its acids less, especially malic acid. For their part, tannins are bigger and rounder, with greater 

molecular weight. They do not have the short molecular chains typical of younger vines.

Unfortunately, old vineyards, especially after 40 or 50 years, are prone to pests or diseases like nematode, viral or fungal attacks. Chlorotic leafroll, for example, develops when bark fungi enter the plant, most often through pruning cuts. Not only do they degrade the wood; they also speed up the aging process. Similarly, inadequate nutrition, particularly potassium and zinc deficiency, can significantly reduce their productivity or useful life.

“When plants catch a virus, photosynthesis becomes less efficient during the maturation process, as they close their stomata and stop producing oxygen. In plants affected by virus, the accumulation of sugars is lesser and much slower. Oddly enough, this does not always have negative effects. It may even be good, provided the place and characteristics of the harvest allow you to obtain good maturation. The area of Molina is hot but not extremely hot. It is an intermediate zone. Here we are on the edge. In cooler areas the risk of not reaching optimum phenolic maturation may be higher,” Almeda explains.


Back in Maule, the land of Carignan offers a new generation of wines. the 60+ year-old head-trained vines have become a valuable differentiation asset for Chilean viticulture. However, we are not talking about just one variety, but about a whole terroir. “No vineyards are more beautiful than head-trained País and Carignan. The old and worn soil of Loncomilla and the fact that it is a dry-farmed area allow them to grow moderately. The roots dig deep into the soil, helping the plants withstand the climatic variations of each season to deliver consistent quality,” explains Ricardo Baettig, winemaker of Morandé, a winery that pioneered this variety with its Aventura 1997 label.

According to him, the grapevines’ age enables balanced and upright shoot growth, producing a nice canopy that does not need intensive thinning. Grapes ripen quickly but with great balance. “This would be simply impossible in more fertile soil, or with a shallower drip-irrigated root system. The training method is traditional and adapted to the cultivar’s vigor. Each plant is an individual in its own right,” he adds.

In his opinion, Carignan is a singular wine, brimming with fruit and a distinct personality resulting from its great acidity and tannic structure. It is slightly rustic but extremely pleasurable to drink. It may lack some complexity, but this is definitely an advantage: it is a straightforward, juicy and savory wine where fruit and acidity rule.

For Undurraga’s winemaker Rafael Urrejola, who picks Carignan grapes from this same location for his TH (Terroir Hunter) line, the wines made from old grapevines add an extra dimension. On the nose they appear similar to wines from younger vines, but their aroma profile is much richer.

“We are not just talking about delicious fruit. There is something else. These wines are deeper, more complex and lasting. The vines have very strong foundations to deliver beautiful consistency year after year. You may make a mistake and irrigate or thin the canopy too much, but the plants are less susceptible. The fruit presents fewer flaws and more balance. It is less likely to fall into green or bitter notes when looking for less alcohol. You have a firmer floor to work on. They are definitely noble,” he points out.

This is why more and more viticulturists are grafting Carignan or other varieties on old País rootstock, looking for that magical terroir touch. But this is not an easy task. “I very much like to graft on País. But you need to be aware that, because of the limited surface on the old vine, graft efficiency is substantially reduced, with losses as high as 20% or more. Finding the active vascular strand in the trunk is not easy at all,” he explains.

“Before, everything was poetry. Today, it is a fact. Cultivars grafted onto País rootstock reflect the attributes of the place,” says Felipe Zúñiga, who believes grafting on the trunk is a big mistake. “It is like tearing down the Roman coliseum to build a mall. You just kill the magic and the possibility to show this part of history to the new generations,” he adds.

According to him, it is better to plant further up. The plant will take care of the rest, and success rate is over 90%. Besides, this allows you to reverse the graft and go back to País. This technique requires more work, but the results are outstanding. After two seasons, the plant knows it must concentrate its resources on developing the new cultivar.

For Ricardo Baettig, this is a completely natural relationship that has included, on the one hand, a warm climate favorable to Carignan development and, on the other, a poor soil that curbs its vigor. “Time did its part of the deal, without forcing the plant beyond its production limits. Today, we all benefit from the ‘oversight’ of leaving this variety untouched in Maule… today we all benefit from having left it to grow in peace,” he concludes.




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