Christine Austin tries out Australian wines grown on traditional historic vines

Cultivating old Australian vines doesn’t come cheap as the grape-picking has to be done by hand, but what a tale you’ll be able to tell to your dinner party guests.

For several decades, the wine world has been neatly divided into Old World, which is essentially France, Italy and all our European neighbours, and New World, such as California, Chile and Australia, New Zealand.

South Africa was a problem because, although it was new on our shelves, its wine industry started in 1659, so it was definitely old.

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Gradually, the terms Old World and New World have largely dropped out of general use, although they are still embedded in many hearts and minds. What is surprising is that some vines in parts of the new world are actually older than those in the old.

Old vines, still producing fabulous flavoursOld vines, still producing fabulous flavours
Old vines, still producing fabulous flavours

That all comes down to phylloxera. Phylloxera is an aphid that devastated Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th century.

It arrived on plants imported from North America and once it encountered vines in France, it destroyed their roots, killing the vine, and then moved across Europe and other wine regions around the world. After much research, a solution to this problem was to graft vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks.

This means that most European vines have a graft attaching the fruit-bearing vine to the American root.

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Nutrients easily pass across the graft although there are downsides in that grafted vines do not seem to survive as long as ungrafted vines. It means that most of Europe’s vineyards are uprooted and replanted, usually every 25 to 30 years.

But there are parts of the world that phylloxera did not reach. Some isolated wine regions, such as Chile and parts of Australia, and some with sandy soil have not succumbed to the devastating aphid.

The great advantage of some of these regions is that they imported vine cuttings from France, Spain, Madeira, South Africa and possibly even England, long before phylloxera crossed the Atlantic.

This means that there are parts of the world still growing grapes on vines that contain the same DNA that was present in vines long before the devastation of Europe’s vineyards. Does this make the wine taste any different? Maybe.

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Ungrafted vines generally live longer, but as they age, they produce fewer grapes, often with more concentrated flavours.

Old vines are usually dry farmed, without irrigation, so the roots have dug deep to find water and on their way down those roots may also encounter other minerals and soil elements which could have an influence on flavour.

The downside of old vines is that they were almost never planted in straight rows so much of the cultivation and grape-picking has to be done by hand, which makes them an expensive option to cultivate.

So why would anyone hold on to their old vines? There is genuine pride amongst some growers, particularly those in family businesses, to still have a vineyard that was planted by a grandfather or even a great-grandfather.

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Many have ledgers that say what was planted when, and quite often they make the wine in the same way it was made a century ago. And while it is still debatable whether old vines actually produce wine that is vastly different from new vine wine, the elements of concentration and lack of irrigation does seem to lend a vibrancy and depth of flavour.

Another possible benefit is that these old vines seem able to survive the modern climate change crisis, which indicates that they could have a role in solving future grape-growing problems.

I tasted through a range of Australian old vine wines. All were packed with flavour, and they had a finesse and complexity that was delicious and impressive. None are inexpensive, but over dinner they provide a great tale to tell.

Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon Hunter Valley 2016, Australia, The Wright Wine Company, £51: Vines for this wine are at least 40 years old, and some were planted over 100 years ago in sandy free-draining soil, without irrigation.

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This is an extraordinary wine that starts out with fresh lime, peach and minerals, but evolves over 10 or more years to a waxy, honeysuckle-filled wine backed by pure, vibrant citrus.

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2020, Margaret River, Western Australia, One More Wine Shop ( £70: Made using the Gingin clone of Chardonnay which came from California but probably originated in Meursault long before phylloxera reached Burgundy.

Leeuwin was a cattle farm until the 1970’s when Robert Mondavi was looking for the right place to grow grapes in Australia. He became a mentor and consultant to owners Denis and Tricia Horgan, and Leeuwin Estate is now one of the most respected producer of Australian wines.

The vines at Leeuwin are 48 years old and this wine shines with elegant fruit, apricots and peach, perfectly balanced with acidity, a savoury richness and a streak of minerals.

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Also available from Field and Fawcett and The Wright Wine Company.

Cullen Wines Diana Madeline 2020, Margaret River, Western Australia, One More Wine Shop £80.65: This is a Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot blend from one of the world’s leading biodynamic producers. The vines were planted in 1971 and 1974 but are descendants of vines imported into Australia in 1837, probably sourced from Bordeaux. This is a hugely impressive wine. Deep in colour, with dense, complex, blackcurrant and mulberry fruit, edged with spice, creamy, polished and long on the palate.

Langmeil The Freedom 1843 Shiraz 2017, Barossa Valley, Hic! £75: These Shiraz vines were planted in 1843 and are some of the oldest and rarest in the world. Wines from this property are outstanding with brambly fruit, spiced complexity and a long, structured finish.

Yalumba The Octavius Shiraz 2018, Barossa Valley, South Australia, Harrogate Wines £76.99 – currently sold out: Vines for this wine are, on average, 100 years old, with some planted in 1854. These gnarled, twisted vines produce tiny quantities of concentrated wine, with bramble and dark cherry fruit, refined, elegant tannins and layers of savoury complexity. If you manage to get hold of a bottle, there is no rush to drink it. It shows fabulous vitality now but will age magnificently.

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Henschke Hill of Grace 2015, Barossa Valley, Field and Fawcett £570 per bottle: A world-famous wine from an outstanding property. These Shiraz vines were planted around 1860 and are still dry farmed on their own roots. The wine is still young and full of fruit, layered with savoury balsamic notes, with oak in a supporting role.

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