Before delving into the information about old vineyards, we’d like to recognise the Peramangk and Ngadjuri as the Traditional Owners of the land we farm, who have been living in and caring for this special place since long before vines were planted.
In the early 1800’s the Barossa Valley was divided into sections for settlers, which were released and labelled sequentially from 1 to numbers well over 1000. Vinya Vella is found on the 57th section to be assigned in the best land available in the 1800’s. In the early days of settlement, vines were among some of the first crops to be planted and one of the longest-lived perennials to survive following importation.
Tracing back the ownership titles from present shows that section 57 was ‘granted’ or purchased on June 9th 1854 by George Freidrich Schmidt from the then Governor Edward Henry Fox. George’s son Carl Samuel Schmidt was born in 1853 and his biographical entry of the time is listed as ‘Viticulturist’ likely after his father. We assume that soon after this period the vineyard was planted making it possibly 160 years old. There are only 23ha of Grenache vines older than 125 years in Australia and all of those are in the Barossa Valley, old vines at Vinya Vella cover 4ha.
This area of Vine Vale with its deep and easy to manage sand, flat topography, proximity to the main towns of the region and nearby streams meant it was established as productive early during settlement. The current concentration of old vine material in this area is testament to that fact. It is also an indicator of the long serving quality and production, with some blocks avoiding uprooting (due to economic shifts in the wine industry and economy), especially in the transition from the demand for fortified production to fine table wine. Luckily the varieties that persisted in this area have the ability to be flexible, such as Grenache which has allowed the wines to remain in demand and in production across three centuries.
Figure 3. the Hundred of Moorooroo from 1875 with Vinya Vella highlighted. Inset: arrow indicates section 1 and points to Vinya Vella in section 57.
Grenache is a Jewel, Old Vine is a Rare Jewel
Old vineyards such as Yalumba’s Tricentenary vines, Cirillo, Small Fry and Dominion of Schell (see Vintage Journal 2023) all exist within a few hundred meters of Vinya Vella in Vine Vale. This concentration of old vineyards tells us that the conditions have been suitable for production through almost 200 years of economic changes, environmental challenges and varietal fashion swings.
Today there are approximately 600ha of Grenache in total in the Barossa Valley compared to 7700ha of Shiraz, little wonder you’ve heard more about the Shiraz than Grenache.
Why does vine age matter?
I have written a rather long doctorial thesis on this subject so this is the abridged version. Vines as they age get bigger, the larger body acts as a buffer for stress and as a reservoir for growth and production. Older plants have a greater time to exploit the soil volume and adjust to their place. If a vineyard can survive past 60 or 100 years then the quality of the site and variety are beyond that of the carer and it’s displayed a strong alignment with both the site, time, health and production.
Vines cannot move, in fact plants being rooted cannot move to avoid stress or to change their environment for success. To counter this as plants have evolved, they have developed mechanisms to adapt to changes and have a trait which scientists call ‘plasticity’ meaning they are adaptable. These adaptions are above or outside the genetic programming of the plants growth and allow it to react or adapt to stressors. For example, once exposed to a stress, if re-exposed to the same stress the vine ‘remembers’ this and stresses less. This epigenetic adaption is possibly why older vines once reaching a noble age can weather seasonal variation and produce expressive and high quality fruit if well managed.