Day 3 of Vinisud 2014 has come and gone. But what a day it was. Knowing that by 5 o’clock, the shortened hours of the final day, all visitors – the journalist, buyers, importers, sommeliers, trade representatives – will be heading for the door gives many producers a chance to catch their collective breath. By mid-day a sense of merriment begins to replace the vigilant commercial attitude. Tasting formalities, though still evident, are greatly relaxed as winemakers and their representatives begin to shift to thinking about their families, the vineyard that need tending, their tomorrows. The tight and measured grip on immediate commercial concerns lessens to reveal the tough callouses of the hands of real farmers and winegrowers, the men and women whose steady and loving labors have coaxed from the earth wines they hope we have enjoyed.
I very much like the atmosphere of the last day of trade fairs generally, but Vinisud – this is my second visit – is different owing to the sheer scale of its ambition. The veil between customers and producers is very thin. You are very often looking into the eyes of the grower who has spent hard-earned cash to attend. He or she is doing their very best to maintain appearances, the bright confidence that their wines will be tasted and then purchased. It all comes down to this. No matter how many times you are asked to repeat your story, to explain your winery, your terroir, your recent upgrades and volume capacities, a winegrower must try to make a visitor to their booth feel that they are the very first person who has stepped out from a river of passersby. The commercial vulnerability experienced must truly be extreme, I think. There before us, as visitors, are not just wines but a livelihood. So they must be as tough-minded as are their hands for surely many visitors will suddenly disappear without saying a word.
Of course the larger corporate producer enjoys greater insulation. Their brand is already secure in the marketplace. Customers around the world know their products. They will do well for nothing succeeds like success. But for the smaller producer struggling to stay afloat in a sea of wines, to differentiate themselves with an artful label, a witty slogan, or by the sheer force of their personality, I have the utmost admiration. Here before you, the bottles lined up, are college educations or musical instruction for their children, a new piece of farming equipment, a better bottling line. That neighboring plot of land a winegrower needs for expansion ? That too hangs in the balance.
As for me, I have a number of stories yet to write about the specific content developed as my part at Vinisud 2014, stories about climate change, biodiversity, expanding the consumer palate, how to encourage folks to experiment with wines and flavors far and wide; but those stories are for another day. The occasion of this writing is to simply shake the hands, as it were, of the brave winegrowers I have met these past three days and to offer my best wishes for continued commercial success.
Ken Payton, Admin
As storm clouds closed in and a light rain fell this morning upon the Parc des Expositions, it hardly mattered for the 1000s of participants of Vinisud 2014. Safely inside the many expansive halls, for seven hours the world was to be found here. Having wandered lost on Monday, many starring blankly at a map printed for those only with keen eyesight, by this morning,Tuesday, the paths and byways to each and every Mediterranean producer and their country had been collectively understood. We now knew where we were going, and so it was that foot traffic flowed smoothly and orderly.
The South West, Provence, the Rhone Valley, the Languedoc and its sparkling companion, Roussillion; Tunisia, Crete, the Lebanon, Corsica, Spain, Italy, and countries coyly labeled as ‘other’ in Hall B4, (yes, there were more), now had the full attention of the teeming professionals all on their game.
Mystery locations still remained, however, such as a conference hall for which no current map given us showed the way. Indeed, my first responsibility today was to participate on a panel discussion hosted by Wine Mosaic, a group dedicated to the preservation of Mediterranean grape and wine diversity. The panel was to tackle the question “Why and how to preserve original Mediterranean varieties?” Not so easy, we reluctantly agreed. (Much more to come on this subject in a later post.) Meanwhile the august Andrew Jefford led a bright tasting of both experts and initiates through the intricacies of one of the Languedoc’s most celebrated regions, Saint Chinian in another hall. Elsewhere presentations concerning the nuances of Châteaneuf du Pape and the Côtes du Rhône, Orange wines, the application of smart phone and touchpad technologies to marketing, dozens of specialized tastings, all events, great and small, hummed along like high tension wires in the rain. For the spirit and energy of international marketing ingenuity on display more than overwhelmed the weather outside.
Ears glued to phones, bodies pressed close to share a latest release, noses deep in Riedel, Spiegelau, or plain glass, the day marched on. Pessimism is global; optimism is local. And today, the second of Vinisud 2014, we were optimists.
Ken Payton, Admin
Vinisud 2014, the world’s largest Mediterranean wine fair, got off to a roaring start this Monday. Traffic jams began well before the doors opened at 9 a.m. Stuck along a narrow street among a doubled ribbon of idling cars and trucks, I myself, Vinisud’s American Ambassador, was let off one of a series of buses packed with journalists, buyers, importers, you name it, to walk the remaining distance to the entrance. The acres-large parking lots of the Parc des Expositions outside of Montpellier, rapidly filled with the vehicles of winery representatives, winegrowers now off-loading their wines, merchants with their bulging attaché cases, sommeliers, importers, wine writers cradling computers, visiting dignitaries in well-pressed suits. From more than a two dozen countries they came, all making their way to the entrances.
As the day developed, the variety of languages I heard was astounding. Even in relatively quiet corners the soft tones of Mandarin could be heard. Yes, the Chinese are here too. Indeed, when out of kindness I held open yet another door onto to another expansive Exhibition Hall, it was an American voice which would give me pause. “I know that language”, I would think to myself so jarring was this brief moment of linguistic familiarity. Truly does this Vinisud event share the acoustics of the lunchroom at the United Nations. And I like it.
Badged up, ready to rock and roll, I hit the ground running.
By sheer numbers of participants alone, I’d have to say the international wine industry, certainly the sizable Mediterranean slice of it, is thriving and healthy. And this is for one reason: Value. Indeed, value is on the lips of everyone. And as those who have shopped wine stores or visited wineries in the south of France certainly know, it is the Languedoc in particular, which mother lode, that offers the finest price/quality ratio currently available anywhere. The diversity of wine styles, flavors, terroirs has no real rival, in my opinion. Perhaps only Spain approaches the QPR of wines commonly found here. So it is entirely fitting that Vinisud 2014 be held in this region’s capital. And the obstacle to greater international appreciation of the Languedoc boils down, in my view, to branding and therefore to greater international consumer recognition. For the average American wine drinker, for example, while they may recognize the names Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, they almost certainly will draw a bland with Saint Chinian, Pic Saint Loup, or Faugères.
Of course, Vinisud is about all Mediterranean wine-producing countries, including Crete, Sicily, Lebanon, Tunisia, Greece, Italy and others; and I plan to visit all of their representatives at their tables tomorrow. No doubt each country will make commercial advances; but for the sheer depth of French producers here, the Languedoc/Roussillon in particular, it is hard to resist celebrating, as I do now, the richness and competitive value of their wines on offer.
For a partial listing of events and activities here at Vinisud 2014, take a look at this.
Ken Payton, Admin
Professor Alain Carbonneau is likely an unfamiliar name to much of the wine world. But like researchers and educators everywhere, he is among the most important figures in his field. A viticulturist with a specialty in canopy management, he pioneered the widely used Lyre vine training system. With over 400 publications to his credit, he has expanded not only the science of Viticulture but of Vine Physiology and Adaptation, Vineyard Climatology, Sustainability, and he has deepened our practical understanding of terroir. And though he may have recently retired from INRA and Montpellier SupAgro, he is busier than ever, as you will read. More, I know many will find his remarks on the pending move of the treasured vine holdings at Domaine de Vassal to Pech Rouge especially interesting.
My apologies for the length of the interview, but when introducing so important a figure in the science (and the poetry) of the vine, it is right and proper to give due deference, to let him have his say. And so we begin…
Ken Payton So how are you, Professor ?
Alain Carbonneau Very well. I am a busy retired man with a lot to do ! I am still in charge of GiESCO (Groupe International d’Experts en Systemes viticoles pour la CoOpération) and I am in charge of our historical review, Le Progrès Agricole et Viticole.
Looking over your CV, I noticed you felt strongly enough to mention your lasting interest in Literature and Philosophy, Culture and Poetry. Can you tell me a bit about this ?
AC I love to write. Sometimes I use the classical Alexandrine poetic form. When I was a student I liked that form very much. And last Saturday I presented two or three poems, one was a dedicated to encouraging students to go on in their studies and another was on a grape variety, Syrah.
So Viticulture was a way of summing it all up, the poetry, philosophy, science…
AC Yes. The vine was the entrance, the door to imagination.
That would seem so with the naming of the Lyre system of vine training you pioneered. And the importance of an aesthetics of vineyard architecture.
AC We realized vineyard architecture was very important; first to control the real micro-climate of the leaves and berries and also, indirectly, to assist root development. About 30 years ago we were surprised to find the vine responds to that. We now consider that the training system, or vine architecture in general, is part of the terroir. It is not an artificial element. It is actually something like a filter of different natural elements: Light, temperature, water, wind and so on. Even the wine can be determined by this architecture. Not just the soil and the climate, but the training system also makes a difference.
Traditionally the Goblet was dominant in this region…
AC Yes. Actually the Lyre system is a very open and high goblet. If you compare the Lyre to the traditional goblet of Chateauneuf du Pape, for instance, the Lyre is more linear, more uniform in its architecture, but the general shape is similar. And in my opinion it is the best for quality, at least for temperate climates.
What is Ecophysiology ?
AC The idea is to control the response of the vine with respect to growth regulation, fertility, and above all the maturation of the berry and the different components of maturation. All those elements, what I call Ecophysiology, respond to the vine architecture. [See chapter two of the linked article]
About rootstock selection, have you done research in that area ?
AC Yes. The key point for controlling the type and quality of the wine is to find the optimal water limitation. So you play on different keys: the rootstock, soil management, the variety to some extent, and the architecture. Those elements interact with the general climate and the general water balance. At the moment there is no scientific model explaining the art, but with experience we can find some good solutions. So, yes, I work a little bit on rootstocks, but principally in terms of water regulation.
About that, there is limited use of vineyard irrigation in France. Do you believe that climate change will require a rethinking of the regulations governing organic grape growing, for example ?
AC Yes. After all, water is a natural product ! Twenty years ago irrigation was taboo because the region was trying to increase quality recognition. Most of the growers were afraid that irrigation would destroy that image. And in fact, due to the certainty of climate change, because summers are increasingly dry – for at least 20 years here – the key to maintaining a regular yield is to control the water uptake. Of course we have to control water stress. If the stress is too much then we lose the proper expression of the vine. We can produce concentrated wines rich in alcohol or with some smoky taste or cooked fruit, but in general we are not looking for that. We prefer to produce wines with better balance, with some floral and fresh fruit character, mixed with spices.
And to achieve that we have to control water. So if the water stress is too much then we have to add water. This is the same for nitrogen deficiency. Everybody agrees that nitrogen deficiency does not enhance quality. Therefore irrigation is sometimes necessary. Then there is the question of competition for water. But that is a matter of vineyard and territory management. We encourage growers to capture water when it rains and to create networks of small dams and ponds. We can also use waste [gray] water from the winery and cellar. Wineries use a lot of water. So combining these sorts of water sources we can avoid competition with other users of water such as cities.
And by using the Lyre architecture we increase the exposed leaf area and the transpiration demand. Initially we thought the Lyre was not suitable here because it can increase the severity of the water deficit. In fact the opposite is true. In contrast to VSP and other canopies, the Lyre maintains better water comfort for the plant. There was less stress. How can this be, we wondered. It turns out the answer is that we have to deal with the vine in all seasons, not just during the driest week in winter. In spring the Lyre intercepts much more light, produces more sugar and encourages the roots to grow and strengthen, to grow deeper and explore a larger water reservoir in the soil. The root growth stops between fruit set and veraison, and that corresponds to the beginning of the driest period. Now, the Lyre may then exaggerate the demand in transpiration, but because of better root development, it is able to withstand this period of water stress.
Because you want to encourage roots to grow deep, do you mean to discourage drip irrigation, for example ?
AC No no no. This is a legend. That is only true if irrigation is the only source of water for the vine. Additional irrigation doesn’t modify the root morphology or the root distribution in the soil. To be sure there are a few more surface roots under the grapes, but not too much. And this also depends on the texture of the soil. If the drainage is good then right after irrigation the water sinks quickly to the roots. So in this case you can combine deep rooting with additional irrigation. We’ve studied this in our vineyard on campus. It has a very coarse sand with stones. We use only drip irrigation; perhaps 70% of the vines’ water requirements are satisfied this way. And the root systems are deep. So I agree that we have to avoid the surface watering of a vineyard where the root system is too close to the surface, but if we handle irrigation properly, this is not a problem.
There are at a minimum two schools of thought in the organic community: one holds that biodiversity – flowers, grasses, herbs – competes with the vine for water; then there is another persuasion which encourages inter-row biodiversity precisely because it denies water to surface roots and thus forces the roots down deeper to find water…
AC Yes. The ideal, I think, is to combine controlled irrigation and grass cover. Flowers are also encouraged.
How do ‘terroir sciences’ differ from ecophysiology ?
AC Ecophysiology is a pure discipline, a holistic science. The aim is to explain how the whole plant functions. You restrict water, you increase temperatures, for example, and then you check the plant’s response at all levels: the leaves, the fruit, the roots. The final objective is to build a model which can explain this functioning of the whole plant.
I regret that in France at least, that few young scientists are working in this field. Sadly, the priority is Molecular Biology, so everybody is going into that field. It is quite easy to publish, I understand that, but I believe it is time to give a better balance between these two scientific disciplines.
Even old school hybridization, despite its historical successes, is under-utilized…
AC Yes. And terroir science is a very integrated approach, something like sustainable viticulture. So the aim is to build a new vineyard combining new varieties, new techniques for soil management, new canopy management, and to find the optimal interaction among all of these elements. So it is a science of interactions. Ecophysiology is part of that.
There are all kinds of restrictions and requirements on grape varieties within the AOP system. In a world of climate change it would seem the system must adapt.
AC Yes. To be honest, I am afraid for the future of the AOP system because it is too rigid. I think the best solution could be to tolerate inside each AOP 1% of the surface area to be free for experimentation with new varieties, new rootstocks, new training systems, irrigation, and so on. And let the experimentation go on for 10 to 15 years after which we may learn valuable lessons and thereby encourage change. Due to climate change and due to social changes, it will be absolutely necessary to utilize other varieties in the mid-term. We therefore need changes within the AOP system.
What has always puzzled me is that farmers are the ones doing the practical labor, the experimenting, everyday. Yet even as they are learning, this new agricultural knowledge is not necessarily persuading the AOP to change.
AC I agree. The representation of growers in the official AOP is important. Many people elected to the AOP assemblies are among the most famous growers so they do not really want to change all that much. They are far too conservative. But in terms of regulation and law, it is possible for any AOP to change because the decisions are coming from the growers themselves. It is a question of democratic majorities. But I am a little bit afraid because even though we are certain of climate change, too few things are changing in the vineyard.
There is the enormous grape variety resource of Domaine de Vassal, for example. They are certainly ready and able to assist with any new initiatives and experiments.
AC Yes. There is a real problem here. Domaine de Vassal’s collection is huge. But if you want to determine the adaptation potential for different varieties, in fact that collection is not well-situated. It is a very good site to preserve genetic diversity, to note the growth cycles of a given variety or something like that. But to estimate adaptation to climate change, we have to change its location. I hope this collection can eventually be re-installed in a more suitable place.
So you are hoping for the relocation of Domaine de Vassal ?
AC Yes. Personally I think it is really necessary.
Even if grafting is required.
AC Yes, of course. Grafting is absolutely necessary if you want to determine the normal behavior of a variety. We have to separate the matter of varieties preserved in sandy soils from their real world application in other soil types. We need to experiment with their potential under normal conditions, which means grafting.
Where do you think would be a good location for the Vassal collection ?
ACI think INRA has an ideal site in Pech Rouge. There is plenty of space to install that collection. Especially if we want to select the very best varieties for tomorrow, and even if those varieties are very old. We may yet be surprised ! One example: I was in Lebanon a few years ago. I observed that Zinfandel was more susceptible to high temperatures than Marselan. It was really evident. We have those varieties at Vassal, but without proper real-world conditions no one could know that. So we must work with unknown or rare varieties with high oenological potential in the real world. And I am sure in the coming years we can select some old or rare varieties to diversify the range of wines available and to as well respond to climate change.
It is surprising that with the 1000s of varieties available in the world that we seem to see the same narrow range of choices in the marketplace.
AC Indeed, we have now found a new hybrid which is fully resistant to Downey and powdery mildew – no pesticide needed – but we still have to determine if the resistance is sustainable and stable over time. Now in terms of research, depending on soil type, we try to build a new viticulture using those varieties in no need of pesticides, combined with new architectures and soil management techniques including grass cover and drip irrigation.
So you believe science can ultimately overcome traditional barriers to innovation ?
AC Yes. I have worked in viticulture for 40 years and this is the first time, in France at least, that I have noticed a strong demand from growers to be able to plant new hybrids and to experiment.
What are the greatest risks with a move from Domaine de Vassal to a new location ?
AC Time and money. In our vineyard on the campus we have over 300 Vitis vinefera varieties. And they were transferred from Vassal. So we do have experience in the transfer of at least a part of the collection. Sometimes there are some mistakes. And sometime we fail. But it is a matter of time and means. And with a relocation, here is an great opportunity to check on the sanitary health of each plant. Indeed, at Vassal a full 50% of the plants are not fully ’safe’. I do hope INRA will provide enough funding to make this operation a success. It will take a minimum of 10 years, I believe. Ten hectares are waiting at Pech Rouge.
So relocation will require grafting. Does grafting change the character of finished wines ? Does it alter the vinifera variety in any way ?
AC Grafting on a resistant rootstock may change a vine’s general vigor, its fertility and and milieu; for sure you will change something in terms of maturity. But with respect to changing the flavor profile of the wine itself, I don’t think so. The problem is not that of the grafted vine; the problem is the non-grafted vine because it is not representative of a normal adaptation in a vineyard. Even if there is no phylloxera. Take Riesling, for example, which on its own rootstock is not fertile, it does not develop very well. But if you graft it on to a rootstock then it has good fertility and so on. So if you want to extrapolate the results from the collection to the practice, then you must be as close as possible to the practical conditions. For us the collection is not only the preservation of genes, it is also a tool for studying adaptation to a particular terroir.
Are you a little disappointed than you have now retired ? there seems to be so much going on !
AC Yes! This is the reason I am still working. In fact, we have begun experimental plantings in our vineyard in Pech Rouge to discover more about sustainable models for viticulture. These vines are only two years old, so I will be involved for some years.
Do you have your own personal vineyard ?
AC Yes, but it is very, very small. It is just for the weekends. I am very pleased to practice viticulture because it is important for a teacher to appreciate directly what are the problems in the field. Now, for example, I can say that due to climate change we can control the vineyard by using only four or five pesticide applications per year. Because I am doing just that !
Returning to Vassal for a moment, how long has this question of relocating been in the air ?
AC Thirty years. I was personally convinced 10 years ago that it was necessary to relocate, and for many reasons. But this operation is so huge that people prefer to ignore it. I think that the INRA in Paris was dreaming that some new in-vitro techniques would replace a field collection. But realistically, we are not preserving genes; we are preserving plants. It is not the same. Now everybody agrees on that. And I do hope that we can give to this exceptional collection the safe and secure environment it needs and deserves, and for a very long time. This is not the case at Vassal. Apart from problems with the owners, the land rental, competition with tourism, the main problem is one of salt water intrusion into the underground aquifer, which is an invisible effect of climate change. That is the basic problem with Vassal: salinity.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal of resistance to the move. A petition was recently circulated…
AC Personally, I think it is a mistake. But I understand my colleagues: they are afraid of losing this tool. This is the reaction. But in fact, this petition is counter-productive. This is my opinion. It is a question of sufficient technicians and money. It would have been better to have begun this 10 years ago. We had money then. But in the current economy, I hope we can do it. We must be optimistic! The positive effect of the petition is to give some consciousness to the hierarchy that this is really important to many, many people.
We began this conversation by touching on your poetry. Do you plan to publish ?
AC Well, after last Saturday’s poems I read to students and our new director, they were very pleased with them. So now I am quite obliged to publish! Perhaps I will write a poem on ampelography . It could be a good way to interest people to change varieties, to explore diversity… because, like poetry, wine is part of culture. Yes, it could be important for human health, but above all it is part of culture. I have some really good open-minded Muslim friends in Turkey. They are now producing very good wines. And I help them. I have just written an article on an old variety, Papazkarasi, and they are very enthusiastic about this grape. Wine culture can improve the relations between men. This is the most exciting part of our work.
Thank you, Professor Carbonneau.
AC You are welcome.
Ken Payton, Admin
Great thanks to Louise Hurren for her assistance.
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.
François Henry has a playful, inquisitive mind, industrious and driven. Couple this with a passion for Biology, Geology and History, often seen as rather dry sciences, and you have a foundation for creative cultural expression. During my recent visit to Domaine Henry in the small town of Saint Georges d’Orques outside of Montpellier, France, François revealed particularly vivid moments from his youth that have informed his intellectual development.
As a child of 7 he recalls a task given to him by his father, Jean; he was to descend to the family cellar beneath the house and fetch wine for the evening’s dinner. In near-darkness, down the steps he would go. Standing before a locked wooden door, the child reached up for a key hanging high. Through the door he passed, and through spider webs brushing across his face, reminding him that he was not alone. He then came to a second door beyond which sat barrels of wine. The boy then would fill a bottle. Asked why he did not take a candle or flashlight, François explained it was because he wanted to prove that he was a “brave little man”.
Flash forward a few years to the work he would do on holidays for pocket money. Though he had no interest in wine then – indeed, it was only the occasional Sunday meal, he recalled, when he would ask and be given small watered-down glass – François enjoyed working the family vineyards, first picking up pruning debris, then, when older, raking around the vines. Driving the family tractor would come later. The telling detail in this is the satisfaction he felt at earning his pocket money.
Another instructive story he told concerned what was hidden in the very ground beneath his feet. His father and grandfather told the story that while grubbing up a vineyard years earlier near Tressan, that they uncovered mysterious bones and skulls, all of which were subsequently reinterred. Just where was not revealed until François one day asked his father to show him the very field. Soon after, François could be found on Thursdays, then a weekly school holiday, out in this field with shovel and rake poking around in the dirt. And then one day it happened. Eureka! The young man, too, found bones and skulls. Though an anthropologist invited to examine the remains would determine them to be of limited historical importance, it was added that François had likely stumbled upon a Visigoth graveyard from the 4th Century. Among other fragments, he had found a figure buried face down, therefore likely a criminal according to the rituals of the time, and a crypt of a child. All the remains were promptly reburied but for a shard of painted pottery François kept for himself.
Though François Henry told many other stories during our extended visit, it is through these three pivotal memories from youth that I believe we can see a solid outline of the man and the winegrower he has now become. Indeed, wine growing would come later for him when, after a year’s college study of mixed success, his father invited him back home to realize a dream: to bottle their own family wine. And in 1977 they did, besting neighbor Chateau de L’Engarran by a year, a small family victory François still takes pride in having achieved.
But a formal wine-making education still eluded François, now in his 20’s. This was made extremely clear when his father, Jean, asked that he take a break from working the vineyard and to instead market their wines in Paris. He successfully sold to a few social clubs, but during tasting events found himself quizzed by the far more knowledgable Parisians as to the making of the wine, the grapes, on the technical aspects of vinification, questions he could not always answer. So began a period of focused self-education. Over time he visited numerous wineries both in his spare time and when driving the 10 hours to Paris and the 10 hours back. Alsace, the Loire, Burgundy, these regions and others he toured extensively, meeting with winemakers, who were then, in the late 1970’s, less celerities than salt-of-the-earth farmers. This he supplemented with reading, cover to cover (”A to Z”, as he put it) as many wine books as he could find, the first of which was Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, published in 1967.
And so it was, step by step, that François Henry would eventually combine his industriousness, marketing skills, his creativity and intellectual acumen, into the founding, along with his energetic wife, Laurence, of their own Domaine Henry in Saint Georges d’Orques. This was in 1992. The town and location of the winery and vineyards were chosen not only with terroir in mind, but also because he discovered during historical research very significant praise of the high quality of the wines of Saint George d’Orques described in a 1787 travel and touring notebook kept by then-US Ambassador (and budding wine enthusiast) Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, 20 years later, in 1807, Jefferson, now President of the United States, again specifically mentions by name the quality of Saint Georges d’Orques wines and requested the relaxation of import taxes on them. (It is important to point out one detail. Wine was a less favored drink than hard liquor in those days, since so little of it commonly available was of particular quality or note. So part of Jefferson’s over-arching plan was to introduce finer wines to the American public as a way to combat the excessive abuse of higher alcohol drink. See T. Pinney, A History of Wine In America vol. 1)
The question for François then became what to do with this Jeffersonian heritage? The third President and principle author of the Declaration of Independence had visited many places and drank widely, after all. And Saint Georges d’Orques wines had maintained considerable fame since the Middle Ages to Jefferson’s time. Yet merely trading upon a place name would be of little consequence, a footnote, which is what it had largely become until François Henry hit upon what is in my view, a brilliant idea: What if you were to return to Jefferson’s era, to the time of his visit in southern France, by crafting a wine in the historical style of the period, and with the grapes then in common use? In other words, he asked whether it was possible to recreate a version of a Saint Georges d’Orques wine that Thomas Jefferson himself might have tasted. After extensive research in the historical archive, François and Laurence made another remarkable discovery, the names of the grape varieties which are said to have been widely grown for hundreds of years but have now almost entirely disappeared from the region, certainly as economically viable varieties: Aspirin noir and gris, noire and grise Oeillade, noir and gris Terret, Ribeyrenc and Morrastel.
Now, according to the magisterial text Wine Grapes, Ribeyrenc (spelled Rivairenc in the literature) is said to be “[a]ncient, once widespread, nearly extinct southern French vine. Better known as Aspiran Noir.” Oeillade Noire in the literature is described as “[d]isappearing, dark-skinned, southern French variety more popular as a table grape.” As for the tangle of names, the regional synonyms, and exhaustive DNA analysis, we can do little but trot out the old cliché, “More work needs to be done”. But as a practical matter, for Domaine Henry to realize the ambition of recreating a Jefferson-era wine, how could they possibly proceed, how to find the historically correct varieties? Enter the Institut national de la recherché agronomique (INRA) and their extensive holdings of Mediterranean grape varieties at Domain de Vassal. So from 1993 to 1998, François and Laurent painstakingly worked with the technicians at that facility, and in 1998 they successfully planted a mixed vineyard of these varieties.
The result is a blended wine called Le Mailhol (pronounced May-yol, from the ancient Oc language meaning ‘youthful or young vine’.) Buy it if you can. Domaine Henry is to be celebrated for not only resurrecting disappearing varieties – a matter close to my heart – but also for paying attention and respecting the winemaking history of the Languedoc. By no means is Le Mailhol an overly significant percentage of Domaine Henry’s income. The wine is not made every year. And the balance of Domaine Henry’s bottlings are made predominately of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, international varieties all. Still they have taken a financial risk to realize this grand historical experiment. My hat is off to them.
As to how the wine tastes, I was generously given a bottle of the 2009 vintage. I will supplement this post with tasting notes when I open the bottle on a very special occasion.
Thanks to Louise Hurren for her assistance in the writing of this post.
ViniSud is the world’s leading international trade fair tasked with the promotion of Mediterranean wines. On February 24, 25, and 26, 2014, hundreds of winery owners and their representatives from Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, to name only a few nations, will gather and mingle with thousands of buyers, importers, distributors, even sommeliers, at the Parc des Expositions just outside the beautiful city of Montpellier, France. Indeed, as was stated on the ViniSud website of 2012’s event, their 10th anniversary:
“Professionals have attended in great numbers over the 3 days and the initial feedback is exceptionally positive from producers, who are announcing that they have signed deals and done business. The visitor flows were well distributed in all the halls thanks to the exhibition having two entrances open this year, at the North and South reception areas. All those who participated are of the opinion that VINISUD 2012 has been a great success.”
At ViniSud 2012 it is said there were nearly 1,700 exhibitors and over 32,000 visitors over the three days. And I was fortunate to have attended as a US wine blogger Ambassador, part of what ViniSud called a Digital Seachange, an initiative centered on the increasing importance and utility of social media.
Then in the winter of 2013 ViniSud launched ViniSud Asia in Shanghai, their first trade fair aimed at the growing wine and spirits market in that region. From a press release at the time,
“VINISUD will be the 1st International trade show of Wines and Spirit to settle down in Shanghai, strengthened by its concept of conviviality, and its Mediterranean lifestyle, carrier and attractive concept, the wine professionals approve by a large majority in more than 90 % specialized shows with 100 % of wine offer, in mainland China.”
Successfully pulling off these events requires a team of organizing specialists, of course; but you also need an individual of unique skill and ambition, of energy and marketing savvy, at the helm. And ViniSud’s Board of Directors unanimously chose, in 2012, Fabrice Rieu as their President. I caught up with this very busy gentleman who generously granted this interview.
Ken Payton As ViniSud’s new president, how was your experience at ViniSud Asia in February 2013? Do you feel progress was made in opening up Asian markets?
Fabrice Rieu The experience of ViniSud Asia in 2013 confirmed our view that the Chinese market offers formidable potential both in terms of quality and of visitor numbers. Unlike previous experiences of trade fairs where some buyers displayed a lack of professionalism, this exhibition demonstrated to the Chinese buyers – a huge diversity of wines, the fact that Mediterranean wines are offered in all price segments and finally that the Mediterranean probably offers the finest selection of wines in terms of value for money and enjoyment. New markets have been identified, including types of wines frequently unknown in Asia such as rosés and naturally sweet wines.
How will the presentation of ViniSud 2014 in Montpellier, France differ from the Shanghai event? I am thinking of the differences between European and Asian business models and consumer tastes and concerns.
FR Even though the fairs have a similar profile as this is the most impressive gathering of Mediterranean wine producers, the approach is totally different and yet perfectly complementary. The launch in Shanghai is targeted at forging closer links with a new market; producers are making the effort to travel in numbers, leaving their vineyards far behind in order to go and meet buyers. In Montpellier, it is the buyers who travel en masse, often very long distances. Bringing them to the heart of the Mediterranean vineyards adds a wine tourism dimension and gives them a better understanding of these wines’ particular characteristics.
What proved to be among the most important selling points for Mediterranean wines and spirits in Shanghai? Was it quality and price point? The dependability of Mediterranean producers? Or the encounter by Asian consumers with wine regions and flavors perhaps less well known to them?
FR Several factors weigh in favor of the Mediterranean wines: the distinctive climate and vineyards dating back a long way result in the production of wines that are ultra-smooth, with no hard edges, ideally suited to the palates of novice wine consumers. And as a large proportion of these wines offer highly attractive value for money/enjoyment, they are certain to make major inroads in terms of sales on the Asian market.
Does the Asian buyer consider sustainably grown grapes and organic wines, proud features of Mediterranean wines, to be important distinctions when choosing a wine?
FR It seems to me that the priority for Asia buyers is to select wines that are to their taste and whose price seems reasonable to them. These are the criteria that matter most to them, and Mediterranean wines are ideally placed in this respect.
Turning to Europe, for ViniSud 2012 what was then called the Digital Sea Change was a central theme. The importance of the internet, of social media, not only for wine and spirits sales but also for consumer education, was well recognized. For ViniSud 2014 this February, what programs or initiatives do you intend to launch to build on the success of this theme?
FR Supported by the specialist wine agency, Sowine, the 2014 exhibition plans to continue its focus on developing digital communications: a dedicated hub for bloggers comparing the viewpoints of influential bloggers, coordination strategies of the various communities on social media networks, web TV and a dedicated communications area at the exhibition – to turn it into an international scale digital sounding board.
“Blogger ambassadors” from every corner of the world will also be attending, symbolic of the event’s international dimension; and this year once again, Sowine will lead a series of workshops and talks on the convergence of web and wine.
With this strategy proving successful in 2012 and 2013 at ViniSud Asia, the focus in 2014 will be on even greater ambition and innovation! The newly revamped bloggers’ hub now clearly reflects its ambitions.
Having been an American Ambassador to ViniSud 2012, a role I particularly enjoyed, what I learned continues to inform my writing. Will there be an international Ambassador program again this year?
FR Because of ViniSud’s international character and progressive opening up to export markets, in particular North America and Asia, it is vital to have an Ambassador. Their name will be revealed in the near future…
Do you believe wine and spirits bloggers have a fundamental role to play in promotion and consumer education?
?FR Bloggers today have an essential role to play as they wield immense power of suggestion. They are capable of conveying their impressions through the written word, whereas they are clearly not in a position to enable consumers to sample wines over the internet. And yet, there is a huge need to understand the wine sector.
What do you see as the most important advantages brought to the wine industry and the consumer in the Digital Age?
FR Speed in terms of disseminating information, the ability to reach out to consumers in the world’s most distant locations and establish links between all those with an interest in the wine world.
In your understanding, how does Asia differ from Europe and America in its use of the internet for wine and spirits sales?
FR In Asia, there is an even greater need for explanation as to the origins of wines, how they are produced, their specific taste characteristics and factors that may explain their price, background, awards received and so on… the basic difference lies in the fact that Europeans and Americans have unquestionably a more extensive knowledge base for wines, not least because they have been producing it for much longer. Asian people require infinitely more information and need a basis for comparison.
Lastly, how are the exhibitor figures for ViniSud 2014 shaping up? Do you anticipate increased international participation over ViniSud 2012?
FR Exhibitors have registered faster than for previous events, probably because they consider that in today’s world this is both an event and a business opportunity not to be missed.
Thank you very much for your time.
FR You are welcome.
Ken Payton, Admin
Great thanks to Catherine Bourguignon for her assistance.
The largest organic wine trade fair in the world, Millésime Bio (MB), is gearing up for its 21st annual show in January, 2014. First launched in 1993 by a handful of visionary organic winemakers from the Languedoc/Roussillon region of southern France, the number of participating wineries has steadily swelled to nearly 700 by 2013, more than double that of 2008. Though originally a French affair, the annual event now boasts an international selection of wine producers from a 2012 high of 13 countries, including Egypt, South Africa, Chile, Germany, a surging Portugal, and the United States. In 2013 more than 3,000 visitors – importers, brokers and wine professionals in the main – passed through the maze of exhibitor tables in the Montpellier Exhibition Center just outside the city.
And it makes perfect sense for Montpellier, the capital of the Languedoc/Roussillon region, to host Millésime Bio. Blessed with a temperate climate, the region has the greatest acreage (and in conversion) of organic vines in all of France. Figures for 2011 put the total at nearly 50,000 acres (19,907 hectares) farmed by 1200 winegrowers. In France, though organic wine production has experienced steady if not stellar growth – from just under 30,000 ha (roughly 75,000 acres) in 2008 to over 60,000 ha (roughly 150,000 acres) in 2011 – that still represents only about 6.5% of all French vineyards. There is ample room to grow. Indeed, as highlighted in the press kit for MB 2013:
“Available data for 2010 indicates a total area of 218,000 ha of organic vineyards in the world, that is, 2.9% of the world’s vineyards. In Europe, organic vineyards represent 4.4% of the total vineyards and the cumulative area of the three major producers of organic grapes (Spain, France, Italy) represents 74% of the global organic vineyard area.
Countries with the highest ratios of organic vines are Austria, Italy, France, Spain, and finally Germany. This demonstrates that the development of organic viticulture is primarily the result of a will and not only a question of favourable climate conditions, as we hear too often.”
And it is not just wines that are on display at the Millésime Bio events. Special agricultural exhibits present and promote the Languedoc/Roussillon region but also the international organic movement as a whole. Apart from the now obvious environmental and health benefits of organic agriculture, from olive oils and fruits to bread and vegetables, we now know that big markets are at stake. For example, in 2010 the United States, the world’s largest consumer nation of organic food products, the organic sector was worth an estimated 26 billion dollars. [op. cit. Press Kit] Yet despite the tremendous success of the concept and practice of ‘organic’ here in the US, of the three MB events I’ve been fortunate enough to attend, only one American winery returns year after year: California’s own Frey Vineyards out of Mendocino. From their website:
“There is no great secret to making wine without sulfites, it has been done for 8,000 years. The methods are essentially the same as all other winemaking, minus the use of sulfites, an industrial synthetic additive. We take this approach because we know that quality fruit and careful attention during fermentation and aging are the only ingredients needed to make great organic wine. We never use yeast nutrients or genetically engineered yeast. Grapes grown in healthy, vital soils contain all the nutrition yeast will need to complete a clean and healthy fermentation.”
So the question arises: Why is it that only one American winery attends the world’s largest organic wine trade fair ? It is not as though the United States is short on wineries working vineyards under an organic regime. California alone has dozens (caveat: I have limited confidence in the linked list). There is Paul Dolan, Parducci, Barra, Bonterra, select bottlings from Sterling, DeLoach, Cline; many more. The list is long and distinguished. Then there is Oregon, Washington, Texas, New York… well, you get the idea. Very often what is organic is also biodynamic and occasionally what is called ‘natural’, which is to say that a wine labeled ‘Organic’ may fit additional (agri)cultural and market-boosting categories. If it is a question of the costs associated with participation in a trade show, I would ask that an American winery consider this: Every January at the Montpellier Exhibition Center, 1000s of wine professionals – buyers, distributors, importers, sommeliers, and the international wine press – pass through the doors of Millésime Bio. And the one American winery name they come away with year after year is Frey Vineyards.
At the very least, I would encourage representatives from prominent American AVAs with organic wineries within their borders to simply come visit the 2014 edition of Millésime Bio this January 27th, 28th, and 29th. Come meet, network and exchange ideas with your international colleagues. You’ve nothing to lose but your anonymity.
Admin, Ken Payton
An estimated 10,000 grape varieties are known to exist. This simple fact is now widely known, but the story of the patient discovery, compiling and ordering of those varieties is not. Far from it. Yet today, from wine historians and critics to commercial nurseries and especially winegrowers, all can take for granted the knowledge a quiet science, in its modern expression, has built up for over a century: Ampelography, from the (transliterated) Greek ‘ampelos’ (vine) and ‘graphe’ (writing). Along with Zoology, Geology, Anthropology, and Botany, its parent science, Ampelography was largely dedicated in its early years to the Enlightenment’s dream of cataloguing the sum total of the natural world.
“[I]t wasn’t until the late 19th century that it was put to commercial use. When diseases and parasites like powdery mildew, phylloxera, downy mildew, and black rot were brought from America to Europe between 1850 and 1885, ampelographers were driven to search for resistant cultivars. The need to develop more complete botanical descriptions was critical; after all, there were huge investments at stake.” From The Science of Ampelography by Fred Dexheimer, MS.
Pierre Galet, the ‘father of modern Ampelography’, answered the call, though, as we will read, by no means directly. Indeed, for M. Galet and his generation, Europe was torn apart and recreated by World War ll and its aftermath. Blanketed in the darkness of German occupation as France was, of those years his story is of youth cut short, of itinerant labor, eluding the police, and the search for stable employment. More, it is nearly impossible for us, habituated as we are to domestic peace and relative cultural stability, to imagine how the simple examination and illustration of a leaf, a shoot, a petiole, could become in the post-war era a civilized gesture of the highest order, too important to neglect.
And this, I believe, is partially why he has a reputation as an elusive interview, confirmed here. He insists on telling his life story. When I met him in his tidy Montpellier apartment last month, I was clutching a series of prepared science-based questions. Initially he would have none of this. As with journalists generally, I needed him more than he needed me; so for the first of a two hour visit, he generously spoke of his personal history, as if to say, “First listen to my life, then I’ll answer your questions.” I did not hesitate to listen. We sat down in his sunny salon, at a table stacked with correspondence and books. I turned on the tape recorder, and he began…
Pierre Galet “My mother once told me a Japanese proverb: sleep on a sadness, it may become a happiness. She was of British origin, born in London, christened at St Paul’s Cathedral. But I don’t speak any English! I’m a descendant of the British monarchy, you know. I was born on the day of Charlemagne’s death, the anniversary – but I’m not his reincarnation! (laughs)
“My father died in Cannes of TB when I was eight; he had been the director of a department store. The year after his death, 1929, there was a financial crisis. We were 4 children. There was no family support, no unemployment benefits. It was a very hard time for us. My mother didn’t have a trade or any skills, and my brother was in Brest in the Navy; so my mother put us into agriculture school in Antibes. It was in fact a horticulture school, so I learned all about roses, carnations, mimosa, orange trees. I learned about grafting, all those things. That was useful for my brother, who ended up working in horticulture.
“When we finished our studies, I was top of the class. My mother came to collect me, and the General Inspector of Agriculture who was also one of the judges, said to her ‘What do you plan to do with your son?’ He offered to give her a grant so I could start studying for Engineering School. I was only 16 so they had to get special dispensation, because of my age. So I got into that school and was the youngest engineer in France, only 18 years old.
“Then the War happened. I came out of school in July. All my brothers were called up, but not me. I was young and I had to look after my mother. I went to work in the wine cooperatives and I did some harvesting. When I came back to Montpellier, I saw an advertisement for a position as an oenologist in Lyon, and in fact I later became a chemist in a very large and important winery. They used to supply wine to the troops in the 1914-18 war. We had these enormous tanks in which we did the blending, one of 2600 hl, another two that were each 1700 lh. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.
“So there I was in Lyon, and the Germans arrived. Who greeted the Germans? Me, Pierre Galet! All alone! The army had fled. My boss told me I was going to be charged with a special mission, to take away all the money we had in the office, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. So there I was, driving across the Rhone, and a Panzer division arrives right in front of me. I was only 18! And the German officer said to me, ‘Kid, move over off the pavement and we won’t mow you down’.
“In any event, after Lyon my mother went back to Paris and I went back to harvesting, in the Gard and elsewhere, because the workers hadn’t come back. They’d been soldiers. Now they were prisoners.
“Then a tragedy occurred, my elder brother died in Paris died, asphyxiated by gas. I then went to Paris where my mother said, ‘you stay here, you’re not well’. It was true. I was very thin, not really eating, no money; I must have weighed 62 or 63 kilos [135 lbs], so I became a student at the Sorbonne, studying Chemistry. This was in 1942. In 1943 I did Physics and Mechanics. Then when Adolf Hitler ordered that we should go do obligatory work in Germany [the Service du travail obligator or STO program], I skipped off to the Creuse department. There were no Germans there, and I got work as an electrician on agricultural farms, with cows and wheat… It was the summer of 1943 I did that.
“Soon I heard that the Germans were looking for me. I was working in the gendarmerie, doing odd jobs, and one day my boss said he had ‘good news’: He had orders to arrest me and hand me over, but he told me to take my bike and get the hell out. So I did.
“I travelled back to Montpellier, and as I had studied Chemistry, I ended up in a factory making canon powder in the Loire valley. By a series of happy meetings and coincidences, I eventually ended up working on a farm, with cows, milk to drink, butter, outings to the cinema; it was pretty good! The powder factory ended up exploding, but I wasn’t there at the time. The Germans took everyone away who was left…”
Ken Payton Your starred career was about to begin…
Pierre Galet “Yes. Back in Montpellier, I went to see a former employer as I was supposed to have a piece of paper certifying that I was working. But soon, in 1945, the Americans arrived in Paris, the Liberation happened. Just prior to those events, I had been hired by a former professor who was working for Contrôle des Bois et Plants de Vigne, a division of the Service de la Protection des Végétaux charged with protecting the integrity of produce. My job was to go and check up on the nurserymen. It had never been done before. After phylloxera they planted and sold whatever they liked, no official check ups. So I was one of the first people to go and do this. I didn’t know anything about vines: I knew flowers. With a friend of mine who joined me afterwards, we had to teach ourselves to recognise the various grape varieties. We had 2000 varieties of vines at our school, so we taught ourselves, we tested each other. His name was Henri Agnel. He was from Nice.
“So we started visiting the nurserymen; they weren’t very pleased to see us! They had to pay a small tax for the privilege of being checked, they didn’t like that at all! In Montpellier there was a very large nursery called Les Pepinieres Richter, the biggest in France, the number one worldwide. It doesn’t exist anymore. [A version of the company still exists.] The director was a former student of our school, and a former assistant of the Chair of Viticulture. His name was Bonnet, and his brother [Leon Bonnet] had founded the Chair of Viticulture at UC Davis.
“So we visited Richter, and on our first day I noticed that there was a mixture of rootstock in the vines. It was my first time in their vineyards, so I took samples and went back to the lab. My professor, Jean Branas, asked if everything was ok, I said ‘No! Some rootstocks are mixed together!’ He said ‘You don’t know anything. We’ll take my car and go have a proper look.’ What I’d seen was a male grape variety, but it had grapes on it. I mean, sex changes these days are common place enough (laughs) but back then – well….
“It turned out that this rootstock was called 3306 Couderc, a male; now, we’d learned that their flowers were sterile, but there were grapes on it! And someone there remembered reading that M. Couderc had once declared that he’d made a mistake and sold a mixture of rootstock, of 3306 and 3307. We found the article and that’s what it was. So I was right! And my professor, M. Jean Branas, said, ‘ok, you’re so clever, write me an article about this for my review’. And I did. This caused a bit of a stink, because all across France, people had been buying these mixed vines and no-one had noticed.
“The following year, in 1945, Branas said to Agnel and I, ‘Why don’t you write a book about root stocks?’ We were 23, we didn’t fancy it much. But Agnel said he’d do the drawings, and he did. Branas said he’d help me out a bit. Here it is.
‘No-one else in the world had ever classified grape varieties by their leaves. This is how I got into writing books. Meanwhile I’d got married. My wife didn’t like all the books! We printed 500 copies of this book, then a second printing of 1000, then we did a third edition. They were sold all over Algeria, where the French colonialists bought it. Even in Australia, where they translated it! The phylloxera service of Australia wanted it.
“I then changed jobs. I became a professor, teaching all about viticulture. I went from being a rootstock specialist to a viticulture generalist. That’s what often impressed the Americans, in California, that I knew about everything to do with viticulture, pruning, grafting, to recognizing phylloxera.”
KP Tell me a bit about your connection to America. And of your collaborator, *Lucie Morton.
Pierre Galet “Lucie Morton was my student. She’s still alive, about 62 now. We’ve lost touch. We travelled all over America looking for wild vines I wanted to see. There are 18 varieties, from Texas to Canada, and also on the Atlantic coast; but there are less and less, because the Americans kill them all with weedkiller, or they burn them. I think I might be one of the last people to have seen them. I took some US university professors with me: they didn’t even know what they were looking at.
“My first trip with Lucie was to the University of Dallas. Her father told me I had to pay for everything if I wanted her to accompany me. We travelled all over Texas. At the time I was the enemy here in France; I’d written books that had been successful, so it made people hate me, my boss hated me, they wanted me to die or disappear, they put me ‘in the cupboard’ as we say, I was ostracised – really!” (laughs)
KP Have any of the varieties you’ve catalogued over the years, disappeared or become very rare?
Pierre Galet “Yes. In my dictionary, Ampélographie pratique, there are listed 10,000 varieties. I’m working on the 2nd edition now. But after phylloxera, we didn’t replant ALL the varieties. So we lost varieties, yes. Fortunately there are collections where some have been preserved, but you don’t see them outside of the collections. We’re interested in them now because they’re part of our genetic heritage. Everyone’s interested now. At Domaine de Vassal [Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique] near Sète, there are about 4,000 varieties.”
KP Is this grape diversity important?
Pierre Galet “YES! Because there are parasites, there’s a wasp that’s very dangerous. When a new parasite comes along resistance can exist in other, neighboring species. We might need these varieties which, though have been abandoned, might help fight the new diseases. Geneticists are interested in this, but politicians don’t care at all. It’s very important. Keeping up a collection costs money, but our genetic heritage cannot be recreated once it’s gone. That’s it! In Savoie they are preserving ancient and rare varieties, that I pointed out to them… it’s a worldwide problem, for ALL plants.”
KP Should genetic material be allowed to be owned?
Pierre Galet No! It should belong to a body like UNESCO. It can’t go to to a private interest; it’ll end up in mismanagement and personal interests being served. A body like UNESCO, with money, should set up a collection, maybe in California. I’d like to have done it, should they ask me.”
KP Does the EU assist the preservation of grape varieties?
Pierre Galet “No! They’re too busy fighting against alcohol problems, and against wine. Europe for me is ZERO! Ha!”
KP Are you an avid wine drinker?
Pierre Galet “Oh yes. Often when I travelled I’d be asked if I drank. I’d say ‘oh yes, a bottle a day’; so that’s 365 bottles a year – and 366 in a leap year! (laughs). These days a bottle lasts me about 2 days. I have a wine cellar. Nothing very fancy, because I’ve never been rich, but I like wine. I never have a meal without wine.
“I don’t rate vin de cépages [mono-varietal wines]. They make them yield too much. If you make Syrah at 80 hl/ha, it’s not good wine. OK, I’m not Jancis Robinson (she has copied me! but she credits me in her book), but I’m an experienced vine expert. Cabernet Sauvignon can be ok at 40 hl/ha but otherwise, forget it. The production levels around the world are too high. Now, I only buy AOCs, blends, Pic St Loup, Montpeyroux, Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Rasteau, Banyuls, but no more Bordeaux because I can’t afford the Grands Crus, and what I can afford is no good. Burgundy is the same.
“Our wines in Languedoc have gotten much better. Aramon was what we used to make wine for the workers, and it was fine for that, 9 or 10 degrees; you don’t really get drunk. Now we’ve changed the planting. We’ve got wines at 14.5, 15 degrees. Not easy to drink everyday. We should have kept Aramon for the workers! Yes, it would be interesting to grow vines that have a lower alcohol tendency.”
KP Thank you very much, Mr. Galet.
Pierre Galet “You are welcome.”
Admin, Ken Payton
*On Sunday at this year’s VINEXPO in Bordeaux, Mr. Galet was awarded the title Commandeur de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole by the Ministry of Agriculture. By a happy turn of events, Lucie Morton, now a celebrated viticulture consultant, was the surprise guest at a dinner organised the same day in M. Galet’s honour by Jean-Luc Etievent of Wine Mosaic.
A new Pierre Galet biography is just out (June 14), published by Le Sang de la Terre, written by François Morel.
A new edition of Pierre Galet’s Dictionnaire des Cépages is being published by the same editor in autumn 2013.
With thanks to Louise Hurren for arranging the meeting and translating this interview with Pierre Galet.
Primarily a wine writer concerned with related scientific and cultural matters, I have tried on this blog to expand the conversation beyond the trivial ‘what did you drink last night’ sort. So during my many vineyard visits over the years, I have often taken note of the strengths and weaknesses of a winery’s environmental program. Whether a so-called ‘natural’, organic or industrial producer, their approach to viticulture has always been for me the single most important dimension of the art and practice of winegrowing. If we think for a moment about the contested concept of terroir, what is it, insofar as it may be found, but an expression of viticulture ? (This is one of the many reasons ‘natural’ wine holds no charm for me, for rarely are vineyards ever spoken of in any detail by its acolytes. The same is true of industrial producers, of course.) But does the hand of a winegrower also play a part in terroir ? Yes and no. Depends who you ask. Although the reflections to follow are not explicitly concerned with this question, I nevertheless believe it could benefit from a broader meditation on biodiversity.
The concept of ‘biodiversity’ has a rigorously complex and technical meaning. Made up of many interactive strands and levels, of species and ecosystem, the sum total of life forms in a biome, even the molecular, for the layperson – myself included – thinking biodiversity can appear best left to the specialist. The rest of us, we tend to shrug, “Let the scientists tease out the nuances and details; just tell us how dire is our situation.” Indeed, like so many urgent problems now facing us, from climate change to global food production, we often seem passive observers of not only the agricultural sciences, but of the implacable unspooling of Earth’s natural regulative systems at the hands of powerful industries.
Yet we have hands, too. And mouths. As first world consumers, we collectively bear much of the responsibility for the over-exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources, from our gluttonous appetite for fish and petroleum products, to water diversion schemes and hardwood patio furniture. Hardly passive at all, we are a fundamental cause of our multiple environmental predicaments, especially our populations concentrated in cities historically conceived and built as fortifications against the natural world. And of biodiversity ? Witness the homeowner policing his sidewalk and driveway with a spray bottle of Round-Up.
Except perhaps for the more recent emergence of the subject of climate change, all of the above could have been written 30-40 years ago. Here in the United States we’ve long ago swapped the bucolic mythology of the cowboy, his prairie fire and lowing cattle, for the steely reality of the meat packing plant and its oil-fired furnaces; and we have moved far beyond the near-adolescent lyricism of Thoreau’s Walden Pond to the more modest prose poem Natural History of Vacant Lots (a beautiful book, in my view). Indeed, over the decades conservation and environmentalist motifs have become common, shared knowledge; yet even though as urbanites we’ve been primed to recognize the over-exploitation of natural resources, we’ve nevertheless willingly made compromises, among which is the acceptance of on-going environmental degradation in exchange for food and energy security, what we call ‘our way of life’. The city, supreme expression of our domination of the natural world, consumes all. As in Aesop’s fable The Sick Lion, the tracks lead only into the lion’s den.
But recent grassroots developments and (slower) regional governmental initiatives have begun to alter the terms of the compromises we’ve made for a life in the city. Perhaps the most important of these, along with expanded transit systems and more decentralized local economies, has been the greening of our cities. This means far more than planting flowers and trees in a park or drought-resistant shrubs along our freeways. There is a new movement afoot that wishes to create environmental solutions for cities from the populations themselves. Take for example Detroit’s Garden Resource Program which currently supports over 1,400 gardens and farms within the Detroit area.
“Since it’s inception in 2006, ‘GROWN IN DETROIT’ has become a household name for those seeking to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the city. ‘Grown in Detroit’ produce is grown by families & youth in community gardens and urban farms throughout Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. The Grown in Detroit cooperative supports these growers by providing a space to sell at Detroit-based farmers’ markets and restaurants as well as by assisting growers with production, harvest, and post-harvest handling education and resources.”
Other examples would include The Victory Garden Foundation and Transition United States.
“The Transition Movement is a vibrant, grassroots movement that seeks to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. It represents one of the most promising ways of engaging people in strengthening their communities against the effects of these challenges, resulting in a life that is more abundant, fulfilling, equitable and socially connected.”
I am aware of an increasing number of similar initiatives springing up across America, the UK and Europe, the over-arching idea of which is to provide citizens with the knowledge to become active participants in the practical shaping their own food and energy futures. So it was with great pleasure that during a recent visit to Montpellier, France, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, that I came upon a most remarkable event, Fête de la Biodiversité. With numerous open spaces and over 150 gardens, Montpellier has the distinction of having been named the French and European Capital of Biodiversity 2011 by Natureparif and “European Capital of Biodiversity” mention awarded by the European Commission through the Life + Program.
LIFE is the EU’s financial instrument supporting environmental and nature conservation projects throughout the EU, as well as in some candidate, acceding and neighbouring countries. Since 1992, LIFE has co-financed some 3708 projects, contributing approximately €2.8 billion to the protection of the environment.
The Fête de la Biodiversité brought together numerous organizations, both grassroots and governmental, all stationed along the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle under a brilliant blue sky. For my purposes, the most interesting was Humanité & Biodiversité; for this organization has hit upon the missing dimension in virtually all discussions of biodiversity with which I am familiar: Humanity. The definition in their words from their website:
What is biodiversity ?
- The genetic diversity, each individual is unique. We are all human, but we are all different ! The same goes for foxes: all foxes and all different …
- The diversity of species is the procession of animals and plants but also fungi, bacteria …
- The diversity of ecosystems, these sets consist of different species in their environments and relationships that exist within them. Tropical forests, temperate forests, Mediterranean scrublands, savannas, polar tundra, deserts, marine, wetlands … but also a Breton grove, cultivated grasslands or urban parks.
The great innovative charm of this approach, not to mention its political and cultural relevance in our era of patentable genes, is that we may now be understood to participate in the natural world in a new way, as an irreplaceable source of unique differences. We mingle in grand the narrative the world’s Book of Life, for biodiversity lives in us.
Admin, Ken Payton
A couple of years ago, while directing a wine documentary on Pico Island in the Azores, I came upon a well-attended religious event, Espirito Santo, in the main square of a small village not far from Madelena. A heavy church bell was pealing in the gray of an early morning. Just out of sight up narrow, winding streets, I heard the echo of what turned out to be a gathering of colorfully dressed musicians tuning and warming their many and varied instruments while awaiting instruction on the proper ordering of their procession. From out of this cacophony a familiar face came into focus, my friend Vasco, a fine guitarist in a local band. A question had occurred to me while on the mainland of Portugal weeks earlier. It’s common enough to hear church bells ringing in Europe, but I had come to hear what I believed was the same basic note, sometimes an octave or two apart, repeatedly sounding, including the very bell in the square below us. And so I asked Vasco about this. Sure enough, so predictable was the note, an ‘A’, that his band would often tune their instruments to it no matter where in Portugal they might play.
This would be unremarkable perhaps but for one important detail: the manufacture of church bells, extending centuries back, has always been and remains an inexact practical science. A bell may sound the ‘A’ of the chromatic scale, but it is not necessarily a mathematically perfect ‘A’; pitch and fundamental frequency vary, not only because of differing production practices from one bell foundry to another, but also due to the bell’s age, use, and the daily and seasonal changes to which it is subject. Further, vibrating within a bell’s commanding note, practiced ears can hear a bewildering array of sub-tones, flats and sharps, a resonating signature as precise as a fingerprint. From this I drew one key lesson: When Vasco and his band tune their guitars to a specific bell, the acoustics are found only there, in that one village and nowhere else. Just as with family cuisines, neighborhood design, and social intrigue, could it be that there is difference in the acoustic atmosphere of a village as well? I think so. More, what I’ve suggested of the subtleties of bell variation et al. may also apply, again with reference to Portugal, to regional grape varieties, flavors and terroir.
Now, if cultural experience was the same, wherever one travelled, then travelling would be dull and predictable. Indeed, travel is about – or should be about – sharpened sensitivity and active immersion in difference, of tastes, architecture, dress, even the demeanor of taxi drivers and hotel housekeepers. Similar to Vasco’s band, one attunes their senses to local variations and atmosphere. Indeed, adventure begins with the willingness to surrender to difference.
But what happens when we return home, when our active immersion in difference ends and daily routine resumes? To be sure, this is a first world matter, and subject to ethnicity and socio-economic standing, but I believe that for all of us, our recently-lived differences begin to fade, overwhelmed by habit, work, the familiar and predictable. Distance is reasserted. Ambiguity creeps into memory. And for the American, we again become the more passive consumer championed by our culture. Tabouli and tangine, paella and calisson are replaced by cheeseburgers, surf and turf, and the major restaurant chain, Olive Garden; Espadeiro, Loureiro, and Kalecik Karasi, by readily available Merlot, Cabernet Savignon, and Pinot Grigio; a soundscape of church bells by Spotify in the Volvo.
Yet it can happen that upon returning one finds domestic life strange in ways large and small, their rituals and familiar rhythms now somehow arbitrary, badly in need of a shake-up and a rethink. Take wine and cuisine, for example. Returning for a moment to Portugal (though the same may be said of Turkey), her wine-drinking culture generally holds that wine without food is unthinkable, that both are enhanced, joined together in holy matrimony. Portugal’s wines are often made with food pairing in mind, and show bright fruit, acidity, and unusual flavors; they are therefore frequently misunderstood by those who insist wine is best judged as a solitary beverage necessarily divorced from any and all culinary regimes. But remember, Da Vinci painted The Last Supper, not The Last Wine Bar.
More, the styles of wine and food the traveler perhaps experienced may have opened them up to the exotic flavors of unpronounceable grape varieties and obscure spices that even if found in the neighborhood Safeway can only be purchased in tiny packages. This is the very best part of exploring the world, I believe, the healthy disequilibrium and curiosity it can set loose.
Having done a fair amount of travel myself, over the next several posts I am going to explore topics including grape and flavor diversity, culinary habits, and why these things should matter.
The media buzz surrounding our upcoming documentary, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, has been growing steadily for some weeks now. And we are very grateful for the attention and interest. Below I offer a sampling of the coverage we’ve received up until this writing. As I wrote in my previous post, the film will enjoy its premiere in Montpellier, France on the 27th of January, just days away! The Diagonal Cinema will kindly host our effort.
First up is a piece from The Herault Times.
And this from mon-Viti
And this from the Languedoc-Roussillon Film Commission, a very helpful organization we first approached when the film was but a dream and a few scratches on paper.
Jim Budd, a friend (and an excellent writer) offered this on his equally excellent site, Jim’s Loire.
The Terre de Vins offered this.
Decanter gave us this mention.
And this from the regional magazine, BBB Midi.
French News Online posted this.
And this from Portugal, Vinhos e Mais Vinhos.
Here is a nice piece from a friend and wine guru for Candid Wines in Chicago.
Here is a summation of recent wine films from WineTourismFrance, including a generous mention of our film.
For fast-breaking news, please see our Facebook page, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc.
This list is by no means complete. Over the coming days I will continue to update. Great thanks to all involved in the promotion and celebration of the Languedoc and our modest effort here to make this superb region better understood.
Ken Payton, Admin
At long last, the premiere of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc is coming into sharp focus. After more than a year of struggle, setback, joy and triumph, on January 27th in the Diagonal Cinema located in the historical section of the city of Montpellier, France, the lights will go down. The fruits of our labor will unspool upon the silver screen to the world – or at least 250 of its citizens. And I could not be happier.
Located in the south of France, the Languedoc has long been in the shadow of far better-known and celebrated international wine regions such as Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy. The reasons for this include the Languedoc’s history as France’s largest bulk wine producer, hence its oft-cited description as a ‘wine lake’. But such a cliché blunts professional and consumer curiosity and interest. For the truth is that over the last few decades quiet changes have been taking place, and a far more dynamic reality has emerged. Now perhaps the most environmentally progressive wine-growing region in the world, the Languedoc is ready to take its place on the international stage. The first feature-length documentary of its kind, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc explores the viticultural and winemaking choices of 12 diverse and creative winemakers spread across the region. What approach do they take to their respective terroirs, their vineyards, whether organic, biodynamic, or sustainable? What are the financial risks and benefits associated with farming with each of these methods? More practically, how do the featured winemakers navigate the shoals between family and profession? And do they wish their children to follow in their footsteps?
I don’t know how many winemakers I spoke with and interviewed in my previous directorial effort, Mother Vine, who did not know what was to become of their legacy. They had worked very hard to put their children through school, to clothe them and all the rest mothers and fathers do, only to see their progeny leave for the larger cities of Portugal. But of the Languedoc? The answers given by the winemakers are quite different, varied and, I believe, hopeful. And for those winemakers without children, they too must somehow find a way to preserve their partnerships and marriages through unpredictable growing seasons and fickle market trends.
The first section of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed in September during the harvest, when the reality of a year’s work was coming into sharp focus. Ultimately, the documentary is about the practical dimension of labor, of winegrowers making day-to-day decisions bearing directly upon their families’ futures. It matters less to me who triumphs among the many excellent wine regions in the world than it is to put a human face on this underestimated, rapidly-changing region, the Languedoc.
The film features (listed here in no particular order):
John & Nicole Bojanowski (Le Clos du Gravillas, St Jean de Minervois)
John & Liz Bowen (Domaine Sainte Croix, à Fraïssé-Corbières)
Emmanuel Pageot & Karen Turner (Domaine Turner Pageot, à Gabian)
Virgile Joly (Domaine Virgile Joly, à Saint Saturnin)
Cyril Bourgne (Domaine La Madura, à Saint Chinian)
Brigitte Chevalier (Domaine de Cébène, à Faugères)
André Leenhardt (Château de Cazeneuve, à Lauret)
François & Louis Adrién Delhon (Domaine Bassac, à Puissalicon)
Eric & Vianney Fabre (Château d’Anglès, à St Pierre la Mer)
Frédéric & Marie Chauffray (La Réserve d’O, à Arboras)
Jean-Pierre Vanel (Domaine Lacroix-Vanel, à Caux)
Thierry Rodriquez (Prieuré de St Sever/Mas Gabinèle, à Causse et Veyran)
For more information see our Les Terroiristes du Languedoc Facebook page.
Ken Payton, Admin
A few months have passed since I last wrote a post here. I have been very busy working to complete a new film and on the building of a photography portfolio, about both of which more will be said. Much has happened in the wine world during my absence; its pace rarely slows, except, perhaps, through a long, hot summer. We may rejoice at clear skies, but for the agricultural sector of all national economies, especially in our era of climate change, the weather has become a source of puzzlement, mystery, and concern.
Nevertheless, whether early or late, the time of a harvest is as non-negotiable as childbirth. Now or never. Indeed, even in blessed growing regions, those favored by abundant heat-days, rich soils, climactic temperance and deep agricultural histories, the full compliment of cultural, botanical, and geophysical elements of what we call terroir, will be, and often are, mis-aligned, they go their separate ways, follow trajectories informed by an internal logic not always completely understood. This is true at all scales, whether macro – where is the rain? – or micro – why has disease stricken this cluster and not that one? – and at every level in between. I am reminded of the beautifully complex illustrations found in Bill Mollison’s magisterial book, Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual. There he painstakingly shows how a single tree well placed, a source of running water diverted, how planting a buffer of bee and wasp-loving flowers, or the harnessing of a katabatic wind, can dramatically alter the fortunes of a farm. Subtle, complex, serious; in often urgent ways does a domesticated natural space demand our concentration and attention. But even a well-designed farm only works as a holistic, integrated biological system provided the social and environmental inputs remain stable over time.
I have recently finished principle photography for my new film (a collaborative project, actually), Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, a feature-length documentary about the choices and approaches 12 diverse and creative winemakers take to their respective terroir. Organic? Biodynamic? Financial risks? How to navigate the shoals of family and profession? These questions were also asked and their answers constitute the core of the film.
The first section of the film was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed during the September harvest – as conditions allowed – when the reality of a season’s work was coming into sharp focus. And conditions were as diverse as the winemakers themselves. Who can fully fathom why one vineyard of Grenache and another, just a 100 yards away, would be ready for harvest on different days or weeks, especially when the reverse was true in 20XX? The Carignan was over-ripe one year; this year it struggles to ripen. Or that the tractor needs an expensive engine rebuild. Powdery mildew was nowhere to be seen here, while just over there, over the next rise, zephyrs off the Mediterranean pushed sufficient moisture to spoil fruit. Within a vineyard it is as often a discrete accumulation of very tiny differences and incidents, only noticeable to the best winegrowers, as it is larger events, wind and hail, for example, that determine whether a harvest will be successful. So did I approach scheduling a shoot the weeks and months prior to the harvest season in the Languedoc: I depended upon the keen observation, harvest records and reliable memory, of the winegrowers on the ground.
Yet there is another, equally important dimension to a growing season. We might call it human terroir. How does a winemaker, or a winemaking family, make a living? How do they prepare for hard times, should they come? It has been observed that a winemaker has at best 50 harvests to a lifetime; so does greater experience translate into a deeper viticultural wisdom? Or, knowing how impressive first efforts of young winemakers can be, is the older winegrower trapped by a knowledge that their youthful counterpart considers irrelevant? And of family life, how do partners share domestic responsibilities? Did they have to delay a harvest because of the illness of a family member? What future career do they hope their children will pursue? How do farmers protect the health of their agricultural lands for future generations?
Behind or beneath the popular understanding of wine, its noisy consumerist dimension, where wine functions as fetish and status symbol at least as much as it does a gustatory pleasure, beneath, there is the practical dimension of labor in a broad sense, of winegrowers making day to day decisions bearing directly upon their futures and that of their families. Though a bottle magically appears in a shop, and we may be greeted in a winery tasting room by a well-coifed staff, should we truly care about wine, then we must care about human terroir. My film, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, is about these things.
For more information on Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, please follow us on Facebook. And on Twitter @TerroiristesLR.
It is a pleasure to be back writing on Reign.
Ken Payton, Admin
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It is not often a first feature-length documentary film made by a novice director meets with critical acclaim; but such success is much easier to grasp when the finest colleagues are chosen before a single frame is shot. So it was with Mother Vine, my loving exploration of the winemaking history, generational succession, and the challenges of modernity in Portugal’s astonishingly diverse world of grapes, terroirs, and wine-making traditions.
Mother Vine was initially born from numerous conversations with celebrated microbiologist, winemaker and cultural conservationist, Virgilio Loureiro of the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon (now retired), to which I added a young though accomplished cameraman and editor, Nuno Sá Sequeira, and a very capable producer, Liliana Mascate. The right team was in place.
Shot over the course of a year on a budget of promises and good will (modest funding arrived after principal photography had concluded), the documentary therefore faced numerous financial challenges and set-backs which threatened its very completion. People have to be paid, after all.
But there are far worse things in this world than falling into debt for a country and cause in which you deeply believe. Such is my love of Portugal and of the winegrowers whose resistance to (vita)cultural evisceration I was honored to document. The stakes are very high. The loss of grape biodiversity and the increasing marginalization of family farming tragically receives a helping hand by dogged international naïveté and indifference, both governmental and from within a wide segment of the wine profession itself, an attitude which holds, by default, that no more than 10 grape varieties need exist in the entire world. Indeed, without – perhaps equally naive – push-back, an insistence on diversity and difference, Portugal might yet come to suffer in the not-too-distant future a homogenized viticulture, sacrificing an august patrimony on the altar of Cabernet, Chardonnay and mass production. To be sure, commercial realities are what they are; but let us consider that a ‘commercial reality’ may itself very often be a fantasy, a mythology created by an army of small gods: of marketers, advertisers, and wine influencers. These are among the many themes my documentary, Mother Vine, seeks to open up to informed, enlightened conversation.
So it was with great joy that our rag-tag crew received news from the 19th Annual Oenovideo International Film Festival On Wines and Vines that Mother Vine had won recognition in two categories. From the festival’s site:
Deux Mentions Spéciales ont été décernées
— Mention spéciale « Patrimoine » pour le long métrage tourné au Portugal « Mother Vine » du réalisateur américain Ken Payton
— Prix Paysages et environnement décerné par Bayer CropScience à « Mother Vine » long métrage portugais du réalisateur américain Ken Payton
Beyond being among the 12 distinguished writers and filmmakers so honored, there is to take place an official Films Documentaires, Fictions & Photographies sur la Vigne et le Vin award ceremony on Friday, September 28th, 2012 at the Palais du Luxembourg, in Paris, France. I most certainly will be in attendance. I would not miss the occasion for the world.
The timing of the award ceremony could not be better. My next documentary film project (yet to be titled) has taken me to the French wine growing region of Languedoc-Roussillon. Just weeks ago, in May, I completed the first half of the shoot. This documentary will chronicle a year’s work of twelve dynamic and creative wineries, each in its own way seeking to re-imagine and redefine what is an accelerating movement throughout the region: an insistance on very high quality wines coupled with environmentally responsible viticulture. Languedoc-Roussillon is emerging as among the most progressive grape growing areas in the world. This is cause enough for a feature-length documentary; but add to the mix the compelling biographies of the very diverse group of winemakers I have selected and you have in place the fundamentals of one hell of a film.
The spring shoot complete, the promise of bud break explored, next up is the harvest season in September. I will return to Languedoc in the first weeks of that month to discover the commercial and viticultural fates of these twelve apostles of the vine. From their vineyards to the Palais du Luxembourg, such humbling joy may a life sometimes experience.
For further reading about this new documentary, please see my Languedoc-Roussillon, The Genesis of A Film
Ken Payton, Admin