Old Vines: Connections to the Past and the Future of Farming

Volcanic vineyards on the Island of La Palma

© shutterstock

Volcanic vineyards on the Island of La Palma

Volcanic vineyards on the Island of La Palma

© shutterstock

So far, my little nomadic winemaking project has taken me to some extraordinary wine lands: Bairrada in northern Portugal, La Palma in the Canary Islands, Bio-Bio in southern Chile, Moratalla in southern Spain, the Mala Valley of Peru. In my efforts to learn about these lands, and make wines that represent them, old vines act as a sort of touchstone for what’s possible – the more of them there are, the greater the potential I see.

Old Vines,  Far-flung Places

In Bio-Bio, where I worked and produced wine with Roberto Henríquez in 2019, the old-vine heritage is almost incredible. Most of the vines I saw were pre-phylloxera; The País wine I made with Roberto Henriquez – from small ancestral vineyard plots on the bank of the Bio-Bio river in Millapoa – were 200 years old at least.

In the Canary Island of La Palma, in the paraje of Las Machuqueras, ungrafted, dry-farmed Listán Blanco vines, many of them more than 100 years old, crawl across the black volcanic picón gravel, harried by the trade winds and scorched by the equatorial sun, yet with the natural resilience to yield some of the most concentrated and complex iterations of Listán Blanco imaginable.

Something Extra

To make good wine, old vines do not always matter. I remember, for instance,  the Rhône winemaker Eric Texier telling me that for some varieties, like Roussanne, good massal selection was more important than vine age. But most of the time, old vines do count. Henri Jayer once said it was only when vines reach 40 that they become interesting, find their stride. All other things being equal, old-vine fruit seems to give a wine something extra; there is more character, more nuance, more going on in the mid-palate. They somehow tell the story of place better.

More than Wine

But, to me, the appeal of old vines is about more than wine. Their real – and less quantifiable – value is in the heritage, continuity and connection that they represent. They are symbolic of a long tradition of viticulture and of a long-nurtured relationship between people and their environment. In the contortions of each of those gnarled vine trunks there are the stories of so many vintages, so much history, so much knowledge passed from generation to generation.

In the contortions of each of those gnarled vine trunks there are the stories of so many vintages, so much history, so much knowledge passed from generation to generation.

Industrialism has severed that link, to a greater or lesser extent, in many wine regions. To me and even more to the winemakers with whom I collaborate, it is vital that these links are restored. In so many regions with centuries of vinegrowing history, this heritage is under constant threat. In the Canaries, for example, more financially profitable and less labour-intensive forms of agriculture, like banana farming, push viticulture to the margin. The banana farmers get preferential treatment for water use, more lobbying power, bigger public subsidies. In Bio-Bio, eucalyptus and pine plantations for use in the paper industry cover vast areas of land which would once have been home to diverse native forest and tangleweb plots of ancestral País vines.

Solutions from the Past

The old vines that give La Palma or Bio-Bio their value as wine lands stand for something more than motives of profit. It is not just sentimentalism about the past. It is a realisation that, for any winemaker sensitive to their environment and the idea of place, pre-industrial ways are often the best. Working organically, by hand, recovering old, perhaps mixed-planted vineyards, working without pesticides and mineral fertilisers in order to foster natural resilience in their vines. This is the antithesis of the monoculture model of industrial farming, through which vines are worked intensively, blitzed with systemic pesticides and mineral fertilisers, then uprooted and replaced when they fall below optimum productivity.

Changing Perspectives

I still have plenty to learn about farming and winemaking, but one thing I have come to understand from my experiences so far, especially in the context of climate change and of limited resources, is that we need to rethink our approach to farming, to our relationship with nature, just as we need to rethink the way we consume. We should also remind ourselves, now and again, what good winegrowing represents - which is less about efficiency and financial profitability, and more about slowing down, giving time, repairing what has been neglected or damaged and recovering what has been lost. The presence, or not, of old vines provides a key by which to measure our progress.

Darren Smith's project is called @tfwath – it is the acronym of 'the finest wines available to humanity' from cult 1987 movie Withnail and I. You can register for updates about his latest wine releases here.

Darren Smith on the Machqueras vineyard on La Palma, Canary Islands

Darren Smith on the Machqueras vineyard on La Palma, Canary Islands

© Darren Smith