Ξ February 10th, 2014 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History |
Upon my arrival at Domaine de Vassal, the 27 hectares of vineyards and research station located on the sands of the seaside town of Marseillan, France, I was politely asked to refrain from asking questions about the spirited controversy surrounding the highly probable relocation of its treasure trove of vines to Pech Rouge. The reason was simple. Too many rumors and incomplete, distorted reportage had already entered the public sphere as truth. Besides, as our guide Blaise Genna, the Director of the research station, gently explained, the important decisions will ultimately be made in Paris, from within the Ministry of Agriculture. All else is speculation, however earnest. Fortunately, I had not come to harvest inside information or to research an exposé; instead, my purpose was to understand Domaine de Vassal’s mission, methods and practices put in place by its supervising authority, the National Institute of Agronomical Research (INRA). More, for Blaise Genna, working at Domaine de Vassal since 2009 is the realization of a childhood dream. So for me here was the perfect opportunity to learn what it is Domaine de Vassal actually does.
First a bit of history, a brief summation of Domain de Vassal’s formation gleaned from diverse sources. Phylloxera was introduced to Europe in 1863. A tiny aphid was secreted under protective cover in the wood and roots of botanical samples of American vines brought into England from the Eastern United States. The consequent devastation of English vineyards was soon followed by those of France. Some estimates put a total loss of vineyards in France as high as 90%. Those lost to this single malady were exclusively Vitis Vinifera vines. At the time there was no understanding of the mechanism, agency, or source of the infection. However, it was noted that plantings of American vines were largely immune. Hence, as wine made from dying Vitis vinifera varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc, – disappeared, there were broadly speaking two responses: The founding in 1876 of the first Vitis vinifera collection – essentially a rescue mission – under the auspices of the School of Agriculture in Montpellier; and secondly, the rapid propagation of hybrids, the crossing of what was left of European grape varieties with American vines. And these hybrids were wildly successful, for these new vines, planted in 1000s of hectares across France, offered both a general immunity to Phylloxera and an abundant grape crop. So while research went apace to find a solution to an epidemic threatening V. vinifera with extinction, countless small growers rushed to plant hybrids and to make wine from them.
After years of research at Montpellier’s School of Agriculture and elsewhere, the tiny sap-sucking culprit was discovered, its complex life cycle understood, and a solution found. Unlike inhospitable non-Vitis vinefera native American varieties, the aphid lived a comfortable life in the roots and wood of V. vinifera as they destroyed them. The solution was to graft V. vinefera scions onto one species or another of American rootstock. By this historical path was the core, approximately 10%, of Domaine de Vassal’s current collection created; for in 1949, now under INRA’s jurisdiction, all of the vines were transferred from the Montpellier site to the sandy soils of Marseillan. Why sand ? Because the aphid responsible for Phylloxera cannot live in sand, neither can another aggressive disease vector, the nematode.
Parenthetically, now that the V. vinifera-based wine industry was on its way to recovery, in 1935 the French Government banned the sale of hybrid grape wines (with a few exceptions, Baco Blanc, for example, used in the production of Armagnac). The reasons are too complex to explain here, but among them involved tax collection, over-production and the discovery of trace amounts of methanol in the wines of some hybrids. Banned vines included Clinton, Jacquez, Isabella, Lenoir, Noah and Herbemont. History lesson done, we now turn to the current state of affairs.
Domaine de Vassal’s official title is Domaine de Vassal Experimental Unit, Grapevine Genetic Resource Center. It is the world’s most expansive and deepest collection of grape genetic resources, with 1000s of Vitis vinifera varieties and clones, 200 V. vinifera subsp. sylvestris (wild grape varieties such as V. ambrosia, V. riparia, and V. aestivalis), 480 rootstocks, 1100 intersp. hybrids, gathered from 50 countries. According to INRA’s charter, Domaine de Vassal’s mission is threefold:
1) The conservation and management of the genetic resources of the Vitis vinifera grapevine, including clones, but also hybrids, rootstocks and table grapes
2) The study and characterization (or extrapolation) of the genetic resources of these grapes
3) The valorization of grapevine genetic resources
Conservation and Management
Domaine de Vassal accepts grapevines from virtually any source. Both domestic and international contributions are welcomed. From winegrowers and research centers to the gardener with a curious vine snaking up a wall, no contribution is refused. Of course, quarantine protocols must be followed. Currently they average some 79 new arrivals per year. But that figure obscures an important fact: since the elaboration of the grapevine genome in 2007, Domaine de Vassal has experienced a doubling of annual contributions to its collection. Indeed, occasionally they are surprised at a received vine, Mr. Genna explained, that turns out to be an old forgotten variety not yet in their data base. Once a vine has been accepted, has passed through quarantine, if it turns out to be a duplicate it will be discarded or given to another institution. If a question remains as to its identity, it will be planted and observed over a series of years to see how it expresses itself.
In addition to the exchange of grapevine resources and information with an extensive domestic and international network of universities, research institutions and winegrowers, Domaine de Vassal also plays an active role in acquisitions. When they are alerted to the existence of an ancient vineyard (85 to 100 plus years old) by local partners, properly trained staff will travel and search the vineyard for the rare survivor. Thankfully, years ago growers were not so rigorous in their choice of plantings. Mixtures would and did occur. Hence, treasures remain to be found in these old vineyards. Sadly, owing to their age and the grubbing up of them for plantings of more popular varieties, scientists estimate that these reservoirs of grapevine diversity will likely disappear in 10 to 15 years. So the heat is on to find them before simple economics consign the remaining rare and unusual varieties to extinction.
Apart from Vassal’s vineyards themselves, they have greenhouses dedicated to nursing diseased vines to health, to growing replacement vines, the propagation of experimental commercial varieties, and on-site cryopreservation of pips and pollen under Nitrogen. (Mr. Genna said that preserving buds is not yet working as well as desired.)
The Characterization of Grapevine Genetic Resources
This is the primary directive of the three technicians at Vassal, Thierry Lacombe, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, and P. This. In this capacity, a full description and identification of each and every vine is required. I was told one hundred and fifty criteria are used. And every criteria is studied 5 times (for confirmation). Berry size, for example, varies from year to year, so five measurements are made from which is extracted the average. All records keeping is done by hand. Indeed, each variety has its own folder wherein leaf samples are saved (when possible), and grape bunches, flowers, leaves and individual berries are photographically recorded. (The photo example is from 1966.) The contents of the folder are very fragile and only one copy exists, hence the dossiers are in the process of being digitalized for broader sharing. About half of the archive has now been so preserved. Importantly, all files are openly available to the public, to winemakers, researchers, universities, students and journalists. And yes, they have fire alarms and fire-resistant doors.
Drilling even deeper, beyond the scope of traditional Ampelography, genetic relationships among and between grapevines are explored and mapped, of course with the assistance of networked institutions. Genetic research also extends into locating disease resistance markers. Equally important is Domaine de Vassal’s micro-vinification program. Agriculturally promising varieties, those showing climate change flexibility, disease resistance, drought tolerance, lower alcohol levels, or possessing potentially desirable flavor profiles, are harvested each Autumn and small quantities of wine are made from them. Hundreds of such micro-vinifications are done each year. It must be remembered, Mr. Genna explains, that the INRA, through its many stations, Domaine de Vassal prominent among them, exists at the service of the wine industry writ large, which is to say, the maintenance of its wealth of diversity and health of this commercial sector.
An interesting aside during our discussion was the question of just who gets to decide which grape varieties are grown in France ? Theoretically, anybody can put in a request to grow any variety, say for example, one discovered in Australia. Though I suspect the process is far more burdensome in a country famous for its bureaucracy, the short answer is that you would make a formal request to the Ministry of Agriculture which would, in turn ask the INRA to grow parcels of that variety in several regions to determine whether it is safe and feasible. Such experimental plantations must follow official protocols which includes not selling any wine made of the grape. After 4 or 5 years of official observation, if everything checks out, then you’re allowed to commercialize the vine and sell wines made of it. For those interested in which grape varieties are permitted to be grown in France, check out the official book Catalogue des Varietes et Clones de Vigne Cultives en France or visit this extremely valuable resource from INRA partner Pl@nt Grape.
The Valorization of Grapevine Genetic Resources
A recent story I wrote about Domaine Henry perfectly illustrates this last aspect of INRA’s mission at by Domaine de Vassal. In that story winemaker François Henry recounts that the necessary historical grapevines for his project could not be found in any nursery, so they turned to Domaine de Vassal. Years of patient research, development, and propagation paid off with the successful planting of a vineyard, largely because of Domaine de Vassal’s openly available resources. Indeed, according to Vassal’s figures, approximately 530 varieties are given out each year to researchers, students, amateurs, associations, teaching bodies, and yes, winegrowers such as Mr. Henry. Roughly 3/4 of the requests come from French petitioners and the balance to international destinations, to the Americas, South Africa, China, Europe etc.
Are you a winemaker tired of growing run-of-the-mill Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon ? Perhaps you are in search of commercial distinction and want an unusual, forgotten, or rare variety, but find local nurseries lacking. Then Domaine de Vassal is the place to turn. More, apart from its formal holdings, the INRA has created 30 new grape varieties at Domaine de Vassal over its 65 years of existence. And others are in development. These include 15 white and black table grapes varieties (three without seeds) and 10 new wine grape varieties: Chasan, Clarin and Aranel for white; Caladoc, Marselan, Chenanson, Portan, Ganson, Gramon, Monerac, and Ségalin for red. All but for Clarin may be found in the magisterial Wine Grapes by J. Robinson, J. Harding, J. Vouillamoz.
But the process is laborious. Take Marselan, for example. An homage to the commune of Marseillan, this Cabernet and Grenache cross was initially bred in 1961 as an initiative to improve the reputation and image of wines from the Languedoc. But it was not commercially available until 1991, 30 years later ! In November of 2007, Marselan was at last accepted into the catalogue of official grapes for making Pay d’Oc wines. Then in 2011 it was permitted to be a variety in the Côtes du Rhone AOP.
In the Vineyards
After departing the conference room, we visited the on-site winery where the micro-vinications take place, the complementary wine library, and we saw abundant donated canes stored in the refrigeration unit; and after a brief tour of the greenhouse ‘hospital’ where they struggle to bring diseased vines back to health, we went for a leisurely walk in the vineyards, void of vegetation for it is winter.
Mr. Genna explained that most of the vines are not planted to produce wines but to preserve examples of them. Only 0.5 per cent of the vines are grafted. The bulk of the collection is not grafted because they didn’t have to; they are grown on sand. But if one day they had to grow a vine, or a farmer wanted to grow a certain vine, on soils other than sand, then they would have to graft. Mr Genna insisted grafting would change nothing, not the morphology, flavor, or vigor. This was a distinct echo of the unspoken controversy surrounding the likely move of the vineyards to INRA’s Experimental Unit at Pech Rouge where, with due deference to predicted rising sea levels, the vines would not be planted in sands near the Mediterranean but on higher ground, here in limestone soils.
Mr. Genna added that if the collection does move, contrary to what has been reported, nothing will be lost, not a single vine grape variety, clone, hybrid, or rootstock. INRA protocols require that before a given vine can be grubbed up at Domaine de Vassal, the successful planting of that same vine will have to be confirmed at the new site. A project of this magnitude would take, he believes, at least 10 years.
“We know what we are doing”, Mr. Genna insists. And by ‘we’ he does not mean only the 10 people currently on staff at Domaine de Vassal. He also means the extensive community of dedicated people discussed above: the institutional networks of researchers, viticulturists, geneticists, agriculturists, winegrowers, professional and amateur ampelographers, nurserymen and women, and university students. All of these partners, both international and domestic, will keep alive and thriving the cultural and natural treasure that are the vineyards of Domaine de Vassal.
And I believe him.
Great thanks to Louise Hurren for her invaluable assistance.