Expo Links Vineyard to Quality

Experts say grapes from aged or diseased vines may still produce fine wines

by Kate Lavin
Napa Wine Grape Expo
Vince Tofanelli of Tofanelli Family Vineyard discussed how he makes planting decisions based on vine age and virus status Thursday at the Napa Wine Grape Expo.

Yountville, Calif. -- A trio of experienced winegrowers took the stage Thursday at the Lincoln Theater, and each offered different opinions about making great wines from vines that are old and/or affected by viruses.

The Napa Valley Grapegrowers organized the session as part of its daylong Napa Valley Wine Grape Expo, which drew grapegrowers and winemakers for five seminars, vendor exhibits and a trade show. Jill Durfee of NVG said that 100 people attended the Expo’s Spanish Seminar Program, and 300 attended the full program in English. David Beckstoffer, vice president of NVG’s executive committee, said, “The program today is designed to make the connection between vineyard practices and wine quality.”

What makes older vines so great?

Diana Snowden-Seysses, the winemaker for Domaine Dujac and Snowden Vineyards, who has been living and making wine in France since 2001, said being asked to speak on the panel prompted her to look deeper into the commonly held theory that vineyards older than 40 years or so produce better wine.

One possible reason, she said, is that older vineyards have a better balance of vigor. Whereas young vines often try to expand their shoots in every direction, thereby shading fruit too much and promoting disease, older vines are trained to keep dimensions in check, expending less energy and resulting in more concentrated fruit.

Another key point, she said, is that older vines have more fully developed root systems, and their penetration deep into the vineyard soil provides better expression of a region’s terroir. Plus, deep roots make older vines less prone to the effects of drought. “Remember,” she said, “irrigation is illegal” in many appellations in Southern Europe.”

As for which attribute makes the most difference when it comes to wine derived from an older vineyard, Snowden-Seysses emphasized that older vineyards have more genetic diversity -- from variation in leaf shoot to flowers per cluster and berry size -- and that this difference results in more complex, interesting wines.

Snowden-Seysses’ husband, Jeremy Seysses, belongs to a group trying to preserve genetic diversity in Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region. “They went out, tagged clusters that were nice and loose with tiny berries.…Vitis vinifera is genetically changed in response to environment.”

Making the most of diseased vines
When it comes to propagating vines that are proven to produce good wines, no one takes the practice more seriously than Vince Tofanelli of Tofanelli Family Vineyard, whose oldest vines date back to 1930, when his grandparents planted them. (The Calistoga vineyard’s most recent planting is from 1994.)

“Rather than go out and look for virus-free nursery stock, I tend to go into the vineyard…and seek out vines that interest me -- ones that don’t exhibit a lot of virus -- because I know everything will be accelerated in that next planting,” Tofanelli said.

He then grafts the new cuttings onto St. George rootstock planted the previous year. Because new plantings have to fight better-established neighboring vines for water, Tofanelli gives new rootstocks a drink from a 5-gallon bucket about three or four times during their first summer, “to try and get them through that first year.” After that, it’s dry farming all the way.

Tofanelli said that in 1995 he began making two different wines: One from his oldest vines (at that time they were 65 years old) and another wine from newer vines in production, which “at that point exhibited very little virus.” The resulting wines “were strikingly different, as you can imagine.”

The grower and winemaker said the young vines made a wine that was very aromatic but lacked body. “It was a simple wine, and I wouldn’t consider it a stand-alone wine,” he said. “The older wine “had a shy aroma.…This is a wine that kept opening up as it sat in the glass. That, to me, is what I want to find in a Zinfandel.”

In the ensuing years, Tofanelli has continued to make small-lot wines from both of those blocks, the “newer” of which is now 21 years old. “Virus that was inherent in the parent stock is now manifesting itself in that stock, but the profile of the wines is becoming more and more similar,” he said.

Whether that similarity in profile is inherent to virus or the vineyard’s terroir, however, is difficult to determine. “I’ve also made wine out of vines that were really in decline,” he said. The vines don’t photosynthesize as well, and wines end up being more astringent.

Still, Tofanelli isn’t ashamed to admit that, “I love those virused vines. I want them as a component of the wine that I make.”

Message to viruses: Get out

Tofanelli’s love of virused vines is lost on Cary Gott. The fourth-generation wine and grape specialist recently finished his 40th harvest, and when it comes time to start bringing in trucks full of lugs, “What I want to do is take good, clean, flavorful grapes out of the vineyard.” In other words: no viruses.

Diseased vines, he said, force a winegrower to decide between harvesting before the crop is ready and waiting until virus sets in. Gott said that many of his vineyard clients are dealing with leafroll virus this year. When the virus sets in, sugars stop rising and grapes stop maturing. The ideal situation, he said, would be to ripen grapes before the virus sets in for the rest of the season. When the virus has progressed enough that grapes can’t reach the desired sugar levels before the virus sets in, difficult decisions must be made.

“I would guess that in the vineyard, probably 20% of vines have leafroll virus, and I wonder how the wine would be if I didn’t have to deal with those vines,” Gott said. “For me, standing back and looking in a vineyard, I’d be very suspicious that I’m going to make very good wine” from virus-affected vines.

He told the audience that years ago, when he was working at Sterling Vineyards, the organization was very focused on planting vineyards without virus. The vineyard team “green-grafted” clean, virus-free vines from G.H. Mumm. “Those vines are still big, beautiful and healthy, with no appearance of viruses,” he said.

“If you have to replant a massive amount of vineyard, and you’re not sure what to plant…I would definitely go for the most virus-free wood that you can get,” Gott said. “The biggest challenge is when you get late in the season and the vine collapses. There’s not much you can do, and it’s really tough on the winemaker.”

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