The Lodi region of California is a treasure trove of old vines planted on sandy soils, especially those near the Mokelumne River. According to the Lodi Winegrape Commission, there are more plantings over 50 years of age in the Lodi AVA than in any other region in the U.S.
The best-known of these old-vine varieties is zinfandel, but I’m particularly enamored of the cinsaut (also spelled cinsault) in the Bechthold Vineyard, planted in 1886.
Bechthold Vineyard, owned by Greg Burns of Jessie’s Grove Winery, is farmed by the Phillips family of Michael David Winery. It’s a 25-acre vineyard that’s dry-farmed (except for a thorough irrigation after harvest) and farmed organically. The Phillipses took over the farming in 2008 and rejuvenated it to the point that Kevin Phillips said he sometimes has to thin the crop – pretty extraordinary for such old vines.
Most grapevines in California are grafted onto rootstock that’s resistant to a vine louse called phylloxera. The Bechthold vines are on their own roots, because really sandy soils are inhospitable to phylloxera. The vineyard, Phillips said, is a “complete and total sand pit.”
The Michael David Winery has been buying the fruit since 2003; Phillips said that, on average, 16 to 18 wineries buy the grapes each year, with each buyer getting its own designated section.
The 2018 Michael David Ancient Vine Cinsaut ($25) from the Bechthold Vineyard is bright and juicy, with red berry, some floral notes, a hint of white pepper and just a slight tannic edge on the finish. It’s a really pretty wine that’s easy to drink.
Michael David is known for big, dramatic wines, and Phillips acknowledged that this cinsaut is a departure for the winery. At first, it was made more in the style of the winery’s other bottlings, but that has evolved to where “it’s a very unique product for us,” he said. “You really want to let the vineyard show itself.” Phillips talked about the vineyard and the wine during a recent virtual tasting of old-vine Lodi wines.
Sadly, a lot of old vines in Lodi have been lost over the years because they’re often not economically viable for the growers. Farming costs are high, yields are typically low, and grape prices don’t keep up. A number of prestigious wineries from outside Lodi, such as Turley Wine Cellars, Bedrock and Birichino, buy old-vine grapes from the area, which has helped raise these vineyards’ visibility. And the Lodi Winegrape Commission recently launched its “Save the Old” campaign to raise interest in these historic vineyards. Randy Caparoso’s blog at lodiwine.com has a number of interesting posts on Lodi’s old vines if you want to learn more.