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Old Vines, Bush Vines, Dry Farmed, Why Are Vineyard Management Terms on My Wine Bottle?

There are thousands of wine producers in the world, each making a handful of labels, creating a very busy and nuanced market. Each and every one of these wineries needs to prove to buyers that their wine is not only good but unique enough to be worthy of purchase. There are a variety of ways that this is achieved, either through the history of the producer, or a unique grape or combination thereof. One of the most common and quickest ways is through the label that appears on the bottle. With most consumers only spending a couple of minutes looking at the entire wine shelf at their preferred location of purchase, a lot needs to be conveyed in that short period of time. 

Wine

There is a lot of terminology that can be added to a wine label to try to grab attention, many of which are concerning how the grapes were grown. This is particularly true among producers outside of Europe. Some of the more common terms that end up on labels are Old Vines, Bush Vines, Dry Farmed, and ungrafted. So what do these mean, and why is it appealing that they are on the label?

Old Vines

This is probably the most labeled term in the bunch. At the very least this labeling implies that the vineyard that the grapes were grown on is at least of a certain age. The term isn’t protected in the United States, so there isn’t a true guarantee of a specific age, but typically speaking there is a rule of thumb that the vineyard is at least 20-30 years old. Vines can grow for over a century if given the proper care and management, so this provides a large window for a vineyard to be deemed “Old”. 

The benefit to a winery labeling their wine as an Old Vine vineyard is that there is a public perception that older vines produce better wines. There is debate whether or not this is factual. As a vine gets older, yields naturally start to drop, and lower yields are often perceived as higher in quality. Additionally, an older vine will have deeper penetrating roots, which will potentially hit different sediment layers and provide the vine with different nutrients. This could potentially alter the complexity of the finished product. 

Dry Farmed

Dry Farming is a common term used throughout agriculture, not just in grape growing. In essence, it is growing a crop without irrigation. The benefit of vineyards that are dry-farmed is that the vines need to push their roots further down into the soil to find water. These deeper roots make for a more stable plant and more access to a wider range of minerals and nutrients.

This very well may be the most implemented on this list that doesn’t see printing on labels. There are large swaths of vineyard land throughout Europe that isn’t legally allowed to irrigate and do not differentiate whether they do or not on the bottle. In contrast, the large majority of vines that are grown in the new world are irrigated. This is exactly why there is value for a new world producer to say that they are dry farming, it offers a point of differentiation from the competition.

Bush Vines

Bush vines are a pruning style that has been slightly out of favor with the modernization and mechanization of vineyards. The difference between Bush vines and Cordoned vines (which you may think of as a more stereotypical vineyard) is the way that the foliage of the vine is managed. Bush Vines are head-trained and more often than not, these vines aren’t attached to any trellising. This provides the vine a more dense top canopy which provides shade for the grapes and the base of the vine. Head training is more common in hot growing areas as the shade is required to prevent the grapes from being heat and sun-damaged. The heavier Foliage load also allows for better implementation of dry farming by, again, providing shade at the base of the plant. Popular grape varieties and locations that are cultivated as Bush Vines include Grenache and Syrah in Southern France and Spain, Zinfandel in California, and Pinotage in South Africa.

One of the main downsides of a bush vine vineyard is that nearly all of the work needs to be done by hand as the vine size and shape can be fairly irregular. This manual labor requires skilled and experienced vineyard management and plenty of hands. This increase in overhead also increases prices on the final product.

Ungrafted

This is also labeled as own roots or some other variation to that extent. What the winery is trying to convey with this type of labeling is that the vines have not been grafted to a rootstock. At this point in viticulture, the vast majority of grapevines are grown grafted to a different rootstock. There are advantages to having a grafted vine such as disease and pest resistance,  as well as a control on how aggressively the vine will grow. The argument is that grapes grown from a vine that hasn’t been grafted are superior to those that have. The idea behind this superiority is that the ungrafted vine will produce a more varietally true grape. As a matter of taste, this is all subjective. What is special about these bottles is that they are very rare in today’s wine market and in theory, there is a difference in flavor between these vines and a grafted vine that would be grown in the same location.

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