Guest post by Ned Goodwin MW. Ned is a Sydney based sommelier, educator, show judge, consultant, TV wine show host and wine writer.
The Barossa's rows of centenarians-gnarled old bush vines stooped proudly against the landscape for the sake of posterity and the high quality of wine that they can produce-are regional landmarks. In fact, Barossa and its environs are home to some of the oldest vines on the planet, be it Penfold's Cabernet plots in Kalimna, or the prodigious Hill of Grace Shiraz vineyard tended by Henschke, in nearby Eden Valley.
While the very mention of old vines connotes high quality wine, the term is bandied about loosely around the world. With this in mind, the Barossa Old Vine Charter was instituted to register vineyards by age. This serves to promote and preserve the better regional vineyards. The Charter classifies vineyards into four categories in ascending order of vine age: Old, Survivors, Centenarians and Ancestors.
Despite these efforts, old vines do not guarantee superior wine. They do, however, draw on deep water sources and the necessary nutrients via their established root systems. Subsequently old vines tap into the soul of the vineyard while mitigating water pressures and facilitating a holistic, dry-grown ecosystem. Old vines also promote earlier ripening and a balanced sugar to flavour ripeness in the fruit; not to mention grapes that boast an indomitable purity and intensity of flavour. Old vines are also sturdy, having withstood the Darwinian ebb and flow across disease pressures and drought to provide a rich genetic pool for the region's viticulture.
In essence, the existence of old vines and their staunch resistance to the elements is testament to where the better sites and potential for better grapes lie. On the down-side, yields are often uneconomically low and the vines require a great deal of care. In the pursuit of preserving the past while tasting the future, however, this is surely a small price to pay for their many benefits.