The term “old vine” has a fairly obvious meaning, but what is the actual difference in the taste of a bottle of plain-old zinfandel and one that boasts the old vine label?
In sum, zin vines are as sturdy as oak trees and are able to age for decades or longer. Some vineyards boast vines over a century old. The twisted vines also grow a deeper root structure that changes the size of the grapes, and more importantly it modifies their flavor and sugar content. The most common taste description of zinfandel is that of brambles. Think blackberries or a blueberry you’ve had with a bit of the stem still attached. A well aged vine will produce a deeper fruit flavor to balance out the earthy tones.
I decided to try a regular zinfandel alongside an old-vine variety. They are different vintages and from a different area, but they are both fairly standard examples of their vines, and both were under $10, so why not? The younger vine version was the Grayson Cellars 2009 from St. Helena. Blackberry was strong in both the nose and flavor, and a nice pepper accented the wine well. I tasted a slight bit of kiwi and chalkiness in this wine that I found undesirable but things rounded out a bit after letting the wine sit overnight. After another 2-3 years, this wine would certainly be worth the $8 investment.
The second wine I tried was the 2008 Three Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi. Fellow-writer Eric first introduced me to this amazing area, and I pretty much purchase anything I can find from there. This is a high-alcohol offering, 14.8%, but it is well balanced and subtle. It still has plenty of a blackberry profile in both nose and flavor, but it also has plenty of cherry and spice to keep things interesting. I enjoyed this wine a great deal. This young wine from old vines is a good cost-performer at $9.
Either of these wines would pair well with a spicy steak or seared tuna. Be adventurous, though, and try one with a gumbo or a Cajun dish.
As an addition to this post, I’d like to look at another wine as a tribute. A friend of mine recently gifted me several cases of wine from her father, who was an avid collector. His favorite wine was the Summit Lake Zinfandel from Napa. I was fortunate to receive 1994-1999 vintages from this wine, and I quickly realized why this oenophile enjoyed this vineyard. I opened a 97 bottle to compare with the two above. This was, simply put, an amazing wine. The bramble flavor mellowed after 14 years, and the spicy and fruit-forward notes prevailed. The wine still had plenty of acidity and will likely be drinkable years from now.
The Summit Lake is not readily available anymore, but you can find some more recent vintages online. For the Grayson or Three, just check your local wine store or snooth.com, but I would just recommend finding any decent zinfandel and old vine zinfandel to try out for yourself.