I recently attended a tasting at the Oxford Wine Circle presented by Christophe Bristiel from Château La Nerthe. La Nerthe is one of the foremost producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the famous appellation in the southern Rhône. Other than producing fantastic wine, La Nerthe is famous for having vines of incredible age. Indeed, La Nerthe can lay claim to having the oldest Grenache vines in France – as they were the first to be grafted onto American rootstock after phylloxera devastated the indigenous European grapevines in the 1870s.
Well over 100 years on and these vines are still producing fruit, and their produce can be found in vinified form in La Nerthe’s Cuvée des Cadettes. We were privileged to taste two vintages of this quite exception wine – the most recent, 2009, and a mature vintage, 1989.
The two wines were very different, as you could imagine from their 20-year age difference. However, what they had in common was an incredible concentration of flavours and aromas, enormous complexity and subtlety, and wonderful balance on the palate.
As Christophe explained, the vine age has everything to do with this. As the vine ages, it struggles to produce the same quantity of fruit it was able to in its youth. This is certainly no bad thing for the winemaker, as the vine’s considerable energy goes into fewer grapes, thus concentrating the minerals, the sugars, the phenolic compounds – all the things responsible for flavours, aromas and structure in a wine. Certainly your yield decreases, however, the resulting wine is of incredible weight, structure and harmony.
Another beneficial feature of old vines that have been well cared for is that their roots penetrate deep into the ground. This allows for the vine to be better insulated against extreme weather. In hot years, the vine can draw on water reserves to be found deep underground and thus find sufficient nutrients. In wet years, the surface rain water affects the old vine less than a young vine, as the water cannot penetrate sufficiently deep into the soil to saturate the roots. The vine’s access to a greater range of soil types found in layers under the top soil gives the resulting wine a more complex minerality.
Unfortunately these vines are slowly dying off. The current blend of Cuvée des Cadettes consists of about 50% Grenache from these ancient vines, and roughly equal parts Syrah and Mourvèdre from younger vines. A few places around the world have similarly aged vines, including the Barossa Valley in Australia, Bollinger‘s Vieilles Vignes Françaises plots in Champagne and some Sherry producers in Spain. These vines are certainly a winelover’s treasure and it is worth sampling such a wine to see what a difference the vine can make.