The Sarragachies vineyard in southwestern France may well be the oldest in the world. Its most ancient vines were planted when Napoleon was in exile on the island of Elba, 200 years ago. It is pre-phylloxera, its sandy soils thought to be the reason it is resistant to the louse that devastated the vineyards of France in the second half of the nineteenth century.
That is amazing enough, but more astonishing still is how this vineyard – a designated national monument in the Gers – is still commercially viable. The Tannat vines (one hundred years old and more) produce grapes with the same vigour as plants a tenth their age. ‘We actually have to work to reduce the yield,’ says Nadine Raymond, viticultural director for Plaimont, one of the most dynamic cooperatives in France.
Plaimont was created in the 1970s by the visionary winemaker André Dubosc, who took on a dying region (its mass-produced white wines were distilled for Armagnac), galvanising his Gascony neighbours to produce better and better wines and uniting them in a cooperative which now numbers 800 growers and ten chateaux working 5,300ha of vineyard.
What sets Plaimont apart from most other cooperatives is its long-standing commitment to the revival of forgotten or lost indigenous grapes. The Ampelographic Conservatory of Saint Mont, which was set up in 2002 at the Saint Mont appellation in the Gers, maintains an experimental vineyard with 42 varieties, twelve of which are completely unknown (ampelography is the science of identifying and describing grape varieties).
Three new ‘disappeared’ varieties have been discovered since the vineyard was planted, including Tardif and Manseng Noir, both of which are now on the market.
The Plaimont story is well-known but it is only one of dozens of similar initiatives around the world: operations like Rosa Kruger’s Old Vine Project in South Africa, the Torres ‘ancestral vines’ initiative, which has been running since the 1980s, or the long-established Portuguese national vine-preservation society PORVID, which to date has some 250 native varieties under observation.
Those are the high-profile projects – but wherever wine is produced there are passionate makers saving grapes from extinction. The Lyrarakis family in Crete has revived the Dafni grape – a wine that was drunk in classical times by King Minos of Knossos; Moutard in Champagne is working with the Arbanne and Petit Meslier grapes; Caprettone and Catalanesca are being revived on Mount Vesuvius, Tintore on the Amalfi Coast, Agostinella in the Beneventano appellation in Campania; in northern Italy the producer Marchiori is working on the Prosecco varieties Verdiso, Grapariol, Perera and Bianchetta.
There are projects in Greece, in the Peloponnese, in Cyprus, on Etna, in Rioja, all working with an alphabet soup of ancestral varieties
The list goes on. There’s Genouillet in the Loire appellation of Reuilly, while the Centre d’Ampélographie Alpine in Montmélian in Savoie is dedicated to preserving ‘the forgotten cépages of the Alpine region’, rediscovering Bia, Onchette, Sérénèze, Peloursin, Servanin, Mondeuse blanche, Chouchillon, Mornen… There are projects in Greece, in the Peloponnese, in Cyprus, on Etna, in Rioja, all working with an alphabet soup of ancestral varieties.
The problem with all this activity is that there’s little coordination between these disparate groups. Sarah Abbott MW, founder of the Old Vine Conference, says it’s striking how individualistic the old vine movement is. ‘There are lots of people in Europe doing great things, but it’s hard to get them together. My challenge is to connect these organisations. The New World producers are far more connected.’
Abbott makes the point that revival of ancestral varieties and care for old vines are two sides of the same coin, and that both are bound up with the drive to find vines that are resistant to hotter climates. Heritage vines are the source of highly adaptive biotypes: vines pick up memories – of how to cope with the stress of drought, for example – and adaptations are passed on, through what is known as epigenetic programming, when the vine is propagated.
Understanding of old vines and rediscovered varieties requires a change in thinking, Abbot says. ‘They come with a certain way of thinking about agriculture. Vineyards must be planted and looked after with the intention they will grow old.’ The convention that a vineyard becomes commercially unviable at around 30 years, and should be replaced, is out-of-date. ‘You might know what the market needs now but not what it might need in the future.’ Nadine Raymond used the example of Cinsault, once the workhorse of the South of France and South Africa and considered only good for blending and distilling: ‘It now makes major, important wines. Twenty-five years ago, who would have predicted that?’
At the experimental vineyard in Saint Mont each grape variety has 20 vines, enough for a 50-litre vinification, which is done within a sparkling new chai with its rows of small tanks. ‘We vinify then taste with a panel from the research institute – we’re looking for finer tannins, fruit, roundness and complexity,’ research manager Elodie Gassiolle explains. They are also looking for ability to withstand higher summer temperatures and drought.
The process of discovering and reviving an ancient variety is a long one. How many of Plaimont’s experimental vines will finally make it to the shelves is an open question. But, as Raymond points out, it’s difficult to predict how the demands of the market will evolve. New varieties like Tardif and Manseng Noir ‘like Cinsault, might become success stories that change the shape of the wine world.’