Phylloxera is native to North America and arrived in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Over the following decades vine disease and death became endemic across Europe’s vineyards, causing concern, bordering on panic, that winemaking could be wiped out by an unknown enemy. Once the culprit had been identified the search for a solution began.
The answer lay back in North America, where native vines such as Vitis rupestris had evolved in the presence of Phylloxera and had developed a thick enough “skin” on their roots to resist the attentions of the pest. All was not plain sailing, though, as these native American vines differed from European varieties, producing wines with what we politely call “foxy” flavours.
The eventual solution was to develop hybrids of these natives and to use only their rootstocks, allowing growers to graft their familiar Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay and indeed any Vitis Vinifera variety onto them.
Without the sturdier, hybrid rootstocks based on the native American vines, I gathered, not a single vine of the European Vitis vinifera would be left standing.
Grand tastings of ancient and rare wines sometimes trumpet “pre-phylloxera” vintages of claret, Port or Madeira – providing a fleeting glimpse of wine as it used to taste before the technique of grafting changed it forever. For most of us, it’s a taste we can experience only vicariously by reading tasting notes of the lucky few who have tried them.
But then I began to come across to exceptions to the American rootstocks model, such as the ungrafted vines found in Colares, Portugal. There, the incredibly sandy soil is a barrier that the Phylloxera louse has never been able to cross, avoiding the need to graft the vines onto protective rootstocks. Bollinger Champagne also famously has its tiny walled vineyards of ungrafted vines in Äy, producing its “Vieilles Vignes Françaises” cuvée. There are also vineyards in Chile where ungrafted vines flourish, because natural barriers (the Pacific Ocean, the Andes, snow and ice to the south and arid desert to the north) as well as strict quarantine on imported vine stocks have kept the country Phylloxera-free.
Once you start looking, it seems, there are ungrafted Vitis vinifera vines almost everywhere, from Australia and Argentina to China and Crete.
Recently in Touraine in the Loire Valley, I was intrigued to discover a producer, Henry Marionnet, who has 6 hectares of ungrafted vines, including Sauvignon Blanc and Gamay, as part of his 62 hectare Domaine de la Charmoise estate. M Marionnet is not blind to the risks he is taking and is fully aware that Phylloxera is as prevalent in his vineyard as it is anywhere else. Currently, however, the fungal-based diseases eutypa and esca are more pressing concerns for winemakers in the Loire, where they are currently responsible for vine dieback and death on a worrying scale. While Henry Marionnet has no plans to increase the proportion of ungrafted vines on his estate, thus far disaster has not struck and he has succeeded in making delicious wines from his ungrafted vines, sold under the label Viniféra.
While I have grown used to stumbling across ungrafted vines at almost every turn nowadays, it is unusual for a winemaker to make a wine purely from such vines. My inner wine geek rejoiced as I was treated to a tasting of two wines – made from the same variety and from the same vineyard and vinified in exactly the same way, but one from ungrafted Sauvignon Blanc and the other grafted onto a rootstock in the usual way. While the grafted wine made perfectly textbook Touraine Sauvignon, with plenty of herbal, blackcurrant leaf flavours, the ungrafted wine was a revelation. It had greater intensity, more pronounced fruit and with a broader range of flavours – a more substantial wine in every way.
The same experiment with M Marrionet’s Touraine Gamay provided a different illustration of the role of rootstocks. The ungrafted wine had more structure, but also more elegance and delicacy than the grafted one.
Henry Marionnet’s Viniféra wines are not widely available in the UK, but you can find his Gamay Viniféra at Caves de Pyrène of Guildford for £15.97 a bottle or at Exel Wines for £90.09 for six bottles. His Provignage, made from ungrafted vines of the very rare Romorantin grape is available through The Wine Society for £42 a bottle.
Heny Marionnet’s wines were a fine illustration that the world of wine is not static and will always contain more complexity and contradictions that you will ever find in a text book. The wine world, as with real life as a whole, is often messier and more interesting than the theory. Those working at the margins are often the people who propel the world of wine forward into other, more interesting places, enriching it for us all. Even if sometimes they make us despair of ever being certain of anything ever again.
Maybe not everything you think you know about wine is wrong – but it seems there is always something new to learn. Sadly, I hear we are now supposed to refer to Dactulosphaira vitifoliae instead of good old Phylloxera vastatrix. Is nothing sacred?