This month, VinePair is exploring how drinks pros are taking on old trends with modern innovations. In Old Skills, New Tricks, we examine contemporary approaches to classic cocktails and clever techniques behind the bar — plus convention-breaking practices in wine, beer, whiskey, and more.
Who says you can’t teach an old vine new tricks? There’s no official definition, but old vines are typically those that are older than 50 years. Some vineyards have vines that are up to or even more than 100 years old. Because older vines don’t produce as many bunches of grapes, the fruit they do produce bears a more concentrated fruit flavor and tannin, plus balanced acidity. It all adds up to unusual wines that, when produced solely or mostly with these grapes (rather than blended with mostly younger fruit) boast exceptionally nuanced flavor profiles with surprising aromas and tastes.
All wine represents where it comes from, as well as a winemaker’s touch. But many somms appreciate old-vine wines’ ability to reflect a place’s history, whether it’s an iconic winemaker who resurrected old vines in Mt. Etna or a next-generation winemaker carrying on California’s Zinfandel legacy. Old-vine wines are associated with high quality — though this doesn’t always translate to being expensive — and they are often a source of pride for winemakers. So, when somms visit wineries and get to taste these old-vine wines with the vintners themselves, it creates a next-level experience that makes a wine truly unforgettable.
With all that potential for excellence in flavor, we polled sommeliers on the best old-vine wines they’ve ever tasted. Above all, the most memorable are those that surprised and delighted sommeliers with the kind of haunting palate and lingering finish that permanently sears a taste memory in their minds. From a fall-out-of-your-chair-good Sicilian wine to a Georgian wine that sent one somm’s taste buds into a frenzy, here are the expert picks.
The Best Old-Vine Vines Recommended by Sommeliers:
- The Steeple Shiraz 2016
- Bernard-Bonin Meursault ‘Les Genevrières’
- Giodo Nerello Mascalese 2016
- Ravenswood ‘Old Hill Ranch’ 1993
- Orgo Rkatsiteli 2014
- Martha Stoumen Wines Venturi Vineyard Carignan 2018
- Domaine Rougeot Bourgogne Rouge ‘Les Vaux’ 2018
- Samuel Tinon, Dry Szamorodni, Tokaj, Hungary 2009
- I Vigneri ‘Aurora’ Etna Bianco
- Jean-Michel Stéphan Côteaux de Tupin Côte-Rôtie 2009
Keep reading for details about all of the recommended bottles!
“Recently I tasted The Steeple Shiraz 2016 made from a 100-plus-year old-vine Shiraz from the Barossa Valley. I’m not the biggest Shiraz fan but the old vines tasted significantly different. You can really tell the difference between a quality wine made from more concentrated, complex grapes. It’s medium purple with notes of blueberries, plums, cranberries, and spice. It has a full body with velvety tannins and texture, and a lingering finish.” —Carolyn Pifer, Wine Educator and Lead Sommelier, Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards, Charlottesville, Va.
“Bernard-Bonin Meursault ‘Les Genevrières.’ As soon as you put your nose to the glass it is bursting with personality. It was reminiscent of Roulot or Coche-Dury — I fell in love immediately. The purity and honesty of this wine is astounding and haunting in the way that great Burgundy can be. It is bright gold in color with an intense flintiness on the nose along with toasted hazelnut and lemon zest. On the palate the layers of earth, fresh mushroom, and honeyed stone fruit [are] laced with a salty, stony minerality. This wine is medium-plus in body with a long finish driven by the energetic acidity.” —Megan Mina, Sommelier, Zero Restaurant + Bar, Charleston, S.C.
“Giodo Nerello Mascalese 2016. We were at their quaint facility outside of Montalcino, walking the vineyards and tasting the wines. I didn’t realize they made a Sicilian wine, and it was so good, I almost fell out of [my] chair. Tasting a wine I’ve never had, while bringing dear friends to the facility itself and tasting wines created by the maestro winemaker, Carlo Ferrini, was unforgettable. This wine has a light red color. On the nose, I remember it having strawberry, floral, and herbaceous notes. What stands out most is the fine line it walks between being both linear and powerful at the same time. It has a distinct minerality and a strong structure that helps achieve this. It’s a vibrant wine with wild berry, mountain herbs, and volcanic minerality. It’s also a great food wine.” —Jeremy Walker, Sommelier, General Manager and Wine Buyer, Bin 22, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
“I love old-vine wines because they represent the history of a place so well. The heritage vineyards of Sonoma County, Calif., offer some of the best examples. The 1993 Ravenswood ‘Old Hill Ranch’ is like nothing I’ve tasted before or since, with velvety structure and vibrant acidity, leather, and tobacco, but also with Zinfandel’s trademark peachy aromas. There is a reason it holds up as a standard-bearer in California’s old-vine repertoire. I got the chance to open this at Lazy Bear in San Francisco and tasted that and more California history with their sommelier team. The thing that made that experience unforgettable was seeing the future of this vineyard in such capable hands. Ravenswood is no longer under Joel Peterson’s watchful eye, but his son Morgan Twain Peterson just released a bottling of Old Hill Ranch under his label Bedrock Wine Co. We were so fortunate to taste the new release at Bedrock earlier the same day.” —Austin Farina, Sommelier/Captain, March, Houston
“Orgo Rkatsiteli ’14 from Kakheti, Georgia. Having learned about the rich history of Georgian winemaking and use of qvevris [large earthenware vessels used for fermentation], I was excited to try my first Georgian wine. Branched out from the prominent Georgian producer Dakishvili, Orgo produces wines made from old vines of at least 70 to 80 years of age. Not only was this wine well balanced, fresh, complex, and easy to drink, but it also sent my taste buds into a frenzy. Although this was not my first skin-contact white, this wine exceeded my expectations and set a high benchmark for other orange/amber wines out there. This wine had great acidity, complexity, and tannin. Aromas of pineapple, fresh and dried apricot, bruised apple, preserved lemon, dried shiitake mushroom, underbrush, honeysuckle, and chamomile tea jump from the glass.” —Tiffany Bulow, Sommelier, Oste, Los Angeles
“Martha Stoumen’s 2018 Venturi Vineyard Carignan from Mendocino County, Calif. My wife and I visited Pax Wines in Sebastopol, Calif., and were introduced to one of Pax’s winemakers, Rosalind Reynolds. Rosalind proceeded to pour a spread of Pax, Martha Stoumen, and Emma Wines for us while going into the history of Carignan as a once-dominant grape in California, and its triumphant return to the spotlight. Like many memorable bottles of wine, this one had a lot to do with the people I drank it with, and the evening’s conversation. This light-bodied red remains synonymous with dusk in my mind — a deep lingonberry on the palate, floral notes, and medium tannins.” —Clara Kann, Partner and Sommelier, Rooftop Reds, Brooklyn
“2018 Domaine Rougeot Bourgogne Rouge ‘Les Vaux.‘ I poured this wine at my wedding! We got married during Covid, so we had a small get-together at my mom’s house in Laguna Beach. We had steak frites and shared several bottles with family. It’s such a beautiful bottle of wine, in part due to the age of these vines. The vines are up to 70 years old! It’s an approachable wine now but can continue to age. Classic structure, with bright fruit from the whole-cluster fermentation. Hints of plum skins, red cherry, sweet violet, and limestone minerality. This wine is aged in oak barrels for eight to 10 months on the fine lees. The tannins are smooth and approachable in their youth.”—Arden Montgomery, Co-founder, Argaux, Costa Mesa, Calif.
“Samuel Tinon Dry Szamorodni, Tokaj, Hungary 2009. The winemaking technique here is super cool. And Samuel Tinon is iconic. The Szamorodni comes from the Határi vineyard, which has 90-plus-year-old bush-trained vines. The volcanic soils here in Hungary have a 15-million-year-old base and the wines produced are aged under floor in a similar style to sherry. This is a grand cru and is exquisite. It’s not as nutty or oxidized as sherry, but it has a super-unctuous texture full of dried apricot, dried orange peel, honey, and almond. With all that going on, it’s still, like sherry, very versatile. I’d sip on this with pork with sage or fennel, or a platter of ALL the cheeses.” —Zwann Grays, Sommelier and Wine Director, Olmsted and Maison Yaki, Brooklyn
“One that stands out as a favorite is the I Vigneri ‘Aurora’ Etna Bianco from the volcano Mt. Etna, Sicily. It’s a blend of about 90 percent Carricante and 10 percent Minella and comes from very old vines, some over 100 years old, that had been abandoned and were revived by winemaker and key proponent in the wine appellation’s renaissance, Salvo Foti. The vineyard is at over 1,200 meters above sea level, in the village of Milo, the one demarcated grand cru for the white wines of the region. What made it so memorable was just how hauntingly delicious it was. I can still taste it when I think of it. It had a vibrant light-golden hue, aromas of lemon, quince, flinty stone, and honeycomb. The palate was textured, creamy but incredibly lifted, with a striking purity and freshness of fruit, a mineral backbone, and a long, elegant finish.” —Iris Rowlee, Wine Director, Octavia, San Francisco
“Tasting across 17-plus years professionally, the old-vine wines always stand out. The best are light on their feet and powerful. I find the very best old vine wines are left on their own with very little cosmetic winemaking. I love the whole-cluster old vine Gamay, Syrah, and Mencia. I seek out Jean-Michel Stéphan Côteaux de Tupin Côte-Rôtie 2009. I’ve had this amazing wine many times over the years, most recently during my stint as sommelier at Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn in May. The wine is elegant and deep. The attack is spicy, slightly sour, full of sweet herbs, meat, and ripe plums. Mid- palate deepens these flavors, and the finish is lightning — everything brightens, and black pepper and crushed stone cleans the palate. The finish here is technically short, but you’ll think about this damn wine forever.” —Ted Glennon, Advanced Sommelier, Asilomar Fine Wine, Salinas, Calif.