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Thoughts on Old Vines and the joy
of becoming a member of the Old
Vines Conference

by the Van Zeller Family

2 November, 2023

We would gather outside on the terrace as the day
got cooler, around 5:30 pm. I don’t recall feeling
the heat at all, and I must have been oblivious to it,
because I have more memories of being outdoors
than indoors during the harvest months.

This was the time to come to where all the adults
were gathering, round glasses of Champagne and
white Port. In those days, the Douro wasn’t
producing white wines in any decent amount.
Being under 7 years old, I don’t think I noticed
what people were drinking, but I would join in
rather for the roasted almonds that would be
served as an aperitif. They were toasted and
crunchy, and so savory for all the salt that would
cover them. A handful of them, and I was off. They
were just the boost I needed for the last hours of
play that day.

Growing up in the Douro, I became accustomed to
tripping on schist stones as I ran through rows of
vines. They were closely planted, which provided
just as much space for playing hide and seek with
the rest of my cousins. The scorching sun heat up
the slate rocks and, as the sun set, the schist gave
off an unmistakable scent.

I would crouch down to hide and peek through the
thick green leaves hoping not to be found. The
vines would be my support as the minutes ticked
by. Time and their stunted attempts to branch out
and grow, had made their trunks thick and
ligneous. Little did I know that these closely
planted old vines were part of the secret to
produce some of the world’s greatest wines.
After all, this was an ungrafted vineyard that made
my family’s property gain global acclaim.

30 years down the line, I am more and more
intrigued by the existence of Old Vines and
insistent on their preservation. I am just starting
down this path, so I was quite overwhelmed to
come across the Old Vine Registry, documented
for over 15 years by Jancis Robinson MW and
Tamlyn Currin on a simple spreadsheet.

This registry has since grown and now the
spreadsheet has transformed into a website,
where wineries, growers, investigators,
educators, students etc. may have a more
user-friendly and open-access platform (Old Vine Registry).

Moreso, the Old Vine Registry brought me to The
Old Vine Conference, a movement, or organization,
founded by Sarah Abbot MW, Leo Austin, Alun
Griffiths MW and Belinda Stone, which purpose is
to create more value to old vines around the world,
through a membership program, conferences and
field trips to different wine regions.

As an enthusiast of this project, I quickly jumped
on my keyboard to email Sarah Abbot and Belinda
Stone to understand how Van Zellers & Co could
become a member and support their work. I am
happy to say we are part of the membership of this
incredible project!

So, what is it with Old Vines?

As The Old Vine Conference puts it, “old vines are a beacon for talent, innovation, and connection. The best
old vines yield uniquely transcendent wines, incomparably rich in savour, symbolism, and heritage.
The genetic material of ancient varieties, often retrieved from forgotten old vineyards, is proving vital in
adapting to climate change.” My father and I tend to agree, so I decided to record a conversation with him.


[Francisca] Dad, when was it that you understood that old vines
made a difference in the quality of wines?

[Cristiano] As soon as I started making wines in the 80’s, I experienced what types of Port wines would be
produced from younger and older vines. I also began experimenting with DOC Douro wines between 1985
and the early 1990’s at Quinta do Noval, and from 1994 onwards produced wines at Quinta do Crasto,
Quinta do Vallado and Quinta Vale D. Maria from old vineyards.
At Quinta do Noval, we only had old vineyards and the grapes we bought came from younger vineyards.
There was a clear difference in quality, and the wines varied in terms of complexity and variety. The first
vineyards in the modern “patamares” at Quinta do Noval were planted in the 70’s and 80’s.
In the region, vineyards started to be planted by grape variety in the 80’s and it was believed that this was
the best way forward for the region. However, the crucial point of the Douro is the mixture of grape
varieties in a field blend. Today, we plant in a more controlled way, less random than what used to be the
plantings in the early 20th Century. We now decide the varieties that will be planted on certain slopes and
what percentage of each variety will be planted, but we preserve the mixture and high density of the old
way of planting.

[Francisca] What do you think is so important about old vines?

[Cristiano] Old vines have a magnificent capacity to resist to climate changes and fluctuations, which has
been proven throughout time. I am referring to vineyards planted before 1975, where the mixture of
different grape varieties was one of the fundamental characteristics. This blend of different varieties is
what gives wines an amazing complexity. There is a more homogenous maturation of the grapes when they
are mixed in the vineyard. Therefore, we can pick all varieties together. This allows wines to have added
layers and aromas, which would not be possible if we blended the same amount of varieties after
fermentation. Old vineyards in the Douro are then characterized by this diversity and mix of varieties, by
the low productivity of each vine due to their age, and therefore the added concentration that directly
influence, positively, the quality of the wine throughout the different stages of production and ageing.

[Francisca] What has been your greatest challenge in working with old vines?

[Cristiano] Keeping them alive and keeping the diversity; Making sure that when we replant, we maintain the
diversity that originally existed in the vineyard; Guaranteeing that they have a long and healthy life;
The manual labour that goes into their preservation. The old vines are found in high density plantings,
therefore, to work through the vineyard is a challenge and can only be done by foot.

[Francisca] You’ve said that some of the greatest vintages of the 20th Century
were produced with young vines, and not vines over 40 years of age.
The vineyard you planted in 2004 also started producing one of
the Douro’s most acclaimed wines in 2016.
So, is age the main factor in quality?

[Cristiano] Age is one of the factors, not the main factor. When the vineyard is very good at its base, and this means, in the soil it is planted, the density of planting, the care that has been given to the plants,
the varieties that are found in that parcel, age enhances the quality.

[Francisca] When you decide to preserve old vines, does sustainability factor into the decision, or is it an economic and quality concern?

[Cristiano] I would say the answer is both. The Old vineyards in the Douro have an immense biodiversity. If we maintain them, we are preserving biodiversity. The regeneration of the soil where vines are planted is fundamental to be able to preserve the vines and the ecosystem around them. In this way, we can preserve the old vines, therefore the maintainance of these vines, that guarantee the high quality of our wines, calls for sustainability, or, in other words, practices that can sustain nature, the natural environment and the ecosystem where these vines survive. One does not exist without the other: Sustainability guarantees the existence of old vines and old vines are the proof that sustainability exists.

[Francisca] Let’s reset everything. You are starting a new project.
You find a 100 year old vineyard called Silvas, that we know that today produces CV, but didn’t produce any wine yet.
You can only make one wine from it.
Would you make a red Douro DOC or Vintage Port? And why?

[Cristiano] That’s a good question, but I would have to say both. I would use half the grapes that the
vineyard produces to create a Douro DOC red and half to produce a Port wine and try to make Vintage
Port. In fact, that is what I have always done in the projects that I started in the Douro region. I still believe
that the magnificence and beauty of Douro Old vines, is their capacity to produce both great red wines and extremely well ageing Ports.

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