30-05-2019 ~ 1 Comment

Velles Vinyes: DOQ Priorat releases the most stringent “old vines” definition in Spain & maybe the world

When I first started getting into wine, if it said “Old Vines” on the label I would usually buy it. Being Californian, Zinfandel had a regular spot in my shopping cart but this grew to other wines as well including Rhône and Chile. As I’ve found out in the years that followed, the term “old vines” has next to no legal definition and is a topic that talented writer and my good friend, Kelli White delved into at length recently.

What is an “old vine”? The problem is that it could be 100 years old… or it could be 10 years old, possible from a historic vineyard, or possibly not. There has largely been no stipulation as to when someone can print this on a label. I have to surmise that due to the French (our almighty arbiters of all things “fine” in wine) not really finding old vines to inherently produce better wine, forcing a legality to the term has fallen by the wayside.

A mighty footnote

In the recent announcement by the DOQ Priorat wherein they laid out a pyramid classification that consists of the new Paratge, Vinya Classificada, and Gran Vinya Classificada, there was a smaller item that I think many missed which is for “Velles Vinyes” or “old vines”. By their regulations, a vineyard must be planted before 1945 or, going forward, be at least 75 years old. The legislation allows this to be stated on all wines starting with the 2017 vintages onward.

For me personally, I had always thought of vines in DOQ Priorat to be “old” when they were from a vineyard of 50 years of age of more. My reasoning being 50 years ago was prior to the 1970s and vineyards were largely planted on slopes with the dominant grapes still very much Grenache and Carignan. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that Cabernet Sauvignon entered the region and it wasn’t really until the upward boom of the late 1980s and 1990s that scads of vineyards were carved out of the llicorella in the new style of terraces. Thus, pre-1970, the landscape was largely worked in a “traditional” manner and if you’re searching out old vines in order to find those that weren’t affected by large-scale agriculture, this is the period you would have looked to. So I viewed it more as a point of context, specific to the region instead of an absolute age by which something suddenly became “old” and thus of greater value.

Other regions have limits that are less stringent than mine however as Kelli summed up very well in her article:

Barossa’s Old Vine Charter and Chile’s VIGNO also consider a vine to be “old” at age 35, and they, too, are quick to compare vine and human development. California’s Historic Vineyard Society, on the other hand, only accepts member vineyards with originally planted vines that are at least 50 years in age. And Greek legislature mandates that in order for a wine label to proclaim “old vines,” the vineyard must be a minimum of 40 years old and planted on its own roots.

Age from above

DOQ Priorat actually isn’t the first DO in Spain to define “old vines” terms. There may be others, but the one I know of for sure is DO Calatayud in Aragón where they define the term in their official regulations as vines with 35 years or more which is in line with the others mentioned above. So, given these examples, how on earth did the DOQ Priorat come up with this age to constitute “old” vines? The answer, is war.

My fellow Americans, back in the final days of World War II were taking aerial photos of Spain and as the Americans continued to have bases in “neutral” Spain throughout much of the 20th century and they continued to do passes over the entire country, including the Priorat region. These series of photos have now formed the base of documentation as to what have been continuously-planted vines in the region and thus it can be proved that the vineyard is indeed old. Previously, it relied a lot upon anecdote and personal memory of locals which aren’t the most accurate of sources.

Moving forward, it will be the 75 years rule that will take precedence so, starting in 2021, any vineyard from 1946 and before will be a qualified “vella vinya”. They’ve also taken into account replanting, which can only total 30% of the entire area and any zone that has been replanted cannot be used in a wine labeled “velles vinyes” until that part is itself 15 years old.

While Priorat can be documented back to the 12-13th centuries as a wine-producing region due to the arrival of the Chartreuse monks, there are very few old vines that meet this classification due to the appearance of Phylloxera in 1893 that required absolutely everything be replanted on grafted American rootstock. The final total of classified old vines is now 154.32ha, or about 7% of all the current vineyards. Unsurprisingly, it’s the dynamic village of Porrera with the vast majority of classified old vines at 57ha.

Production from such vineyards will be limited to 3,500 kg/ha for reds and 4,000 kg/ha for whites. This may seem quite low but in reality, most of these vineyards at usually 1/3 of that so it’s not an issue to meet. Also, for red wines, 80% of the resulting wine must be from the Grenache or Carignan grapes which again, isn’t usually a problem in vineyards of this age.

The positives and the perils

It’s fantastic that this classification now exists as it sets a benchmark for this region as to what an “old vine” is and from what I know about the various regulations around the world, DOQ Priorat may have the most stringent old-vine regulation in the world. But, such large changes have potential pitfalls as well.

For some time people have written “vinyes velles” on the labels in an unofficial capacity to denote that the wine is from old vines. While this new regulation is written as “velles vinyes” apparently as a manner to “emulate French” where it’s written “vieilles vignes”, it means the same thing in Catalan no matter what the word order is and as I understand such items under EU law, it would preclude anyone in DOQ Priorat from writing “vinyes velles” unless it meets the restrictions. When asking for clarification, I didn’t get a solid answer on this so I’m not sure how this will play out and a number of wineries may need to remove “vinyes velles” from their labels if they’d been using it to this point.

Much like the Paratges and classified vineyards, it will be a matter of time to see how all this plays out. If anything the “Velles Vinyes” regulation will probably be the easiest for the consumer to wrap their heads around as it’s generally straightforward while at the same time, allowing for a deeper understanding of the history in DOQ Priorat. It’s important to appreciate this as I think how long wine has been made in the region is often ignored because, you know, “it’s Spain” which means Tempranillo, good value, and beach…