Beast and the Beauty: Cline Cellars Old Vine Wines

old vinesYou’ve never seen an uglier excuse for plants. They’re stunted, and twisted, and gnarled, and – dead looking! And they’re “growing” out of something that should be on a beach somewhere, or in a desert…

These unlikely-looking plants are in fact Old Vine Zinfandel vines, and they’ve been gnarling and twisting for anywhere from 80 to 100 years in Contra Costa, California.

Back when these vines were young, Contra Costa was a booming farming community about 50 miles east of the San Francisco Bay area. Now there are strip malls and subdivisions threatening the vineyards, but they still somehow push out green leaves every spring and purple fruit every Fall. And Cline Cellars turns the purple fruit into some amazing wines.

If you wonder how really old plants can make great wines, let me explain that Old Vine grapes are particularly prized for the intensity and complexity of their fruit. Because they’re grown in this really lousy, sandy soil, the roots have to dig very deep – like 10 to 30 feet – in search of nutrition and water. They pick up lots of flavor components along the way, and in turn produce fruit with bolder and more complex flavors. They are “stressed”, as they say in the industry, and for grape vines that’s a good thing…

Mind you, they don’t produce a lot of fruit. But the winemaker doesn’t want a lot of fruit: vines with fewer grape bunches can concentrate more flavor in each bunch. And these Old Vines certainly pack in the flavor.

We tasted several Old Vine wines, starting with Cline Ancient Vines Mourvedre 2009. Almost inky black in color, it starts with a mouthful of blackberry fruit and a hint of something mushroom-y, with notes of spice and pepper. The body is very rich, but it’s saved from being “flabby” by some pretty good acid and tart cranberry fruit coming in at the end.

Then there are three single-vineyard Old Vine Zins, each named for the road that abuts the vineyard. Cline Bridgehead Zinfandel 2008 was my favorite. It had the deep, dark blueberry nose and palate that I look for in good Zin, with lovely hints of spice and vanilla. And did I mention that it’s 15% alcohol? This is typical of Old Vines, and can make them way too “hot” on the palate, but Bridgehead manages to stay in balance to produce a big, but not overpowering taste experience.

Cline Big Break Zinfandel 2008 shows much the same base flavors, but with more spice. And jumping right out at the end is a hit of eucalyptus. If you wonder how this herbal component gets into Zin, just look at the tall stands of eucalyptus trees lining Northern California’s vineyards. These monstrous trees with their peeling red bark and long, narrow, gray-green leaves literally drop their flavor (in the form of pollen and oils) onto the vineyards.

Cline Live Oak Zinfandel 2008 showed more of a fleshy nose, with blackcherry elements to the fruit and a soft fleshiness on the palate. It had more weight and less balance – I wanted something to lighten it up at the end. But of course, after tasting four of these big boys my palate could have been just a bit fatigued…

Unless you’re one of those purists who believe high alcohol is a sin against the Wine Gods, you’ll find this to be a really fun flight of wines. It’s like tasting Big, Bigger and Biggest! Just make sure you do it in the privacy of your own home, or in the company of a Designated Driver. Enjoy!

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