At lunch the other day with Bertrand Gautherot, we started talking about ungrafted vines. Gautherot had planted some vines on their own rootstocks in 2006, in the parcel of Les Biaunes (pictured), where the Blanc d’Argile comes from. As the name of the wine suggests, however, the soil here is Kimmeridgian marl with a high proportion of clay, and two years later the vines already show signs of phylloxera.
Needless to say, Gautherot is disappointed that it didn’t work out. As am I. Ungrafted Vouette et Sorbée? That would be amazing. It’s generally assumed that ungrafted wines give a bigger, richer wine, but in my experience this is rarely true. I think that in the case of richly powerful, ungrafted wines such as Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises or Forstreiter’s Tabor Grüner Veltliner, there are other factors at work that are often overlooked, such as vine density, low yields and late harvesting. Ungrafted vines, in and of themselves, are not necessarily prone to making large, powerful wines.
Gautherot says that ungrafted vines generally tend to produce less alcohol, not more. “Much of the sugar produced by the leaves goes towards the root system of the plant,” he explains, “but when you graft the vines, it prevents the sugar from descending into the roots, so it stays in the upper part of the plant system.” The result of this is that the grapes grow larger in size and concentrate the sugars, causing the level of potential alcohol to rise. “This is why in the past, French wines were around 10.5 to 11.5 degrees alcohol, generally under 12,” he says. “After grafting, they’re now much higher.”
This is actually quite evident if you taste grafted and ungrafted versions of a similar wine. If you compare a wine like Bernard Baudry’s Chinon Franc de Pied against its grafted counterpart in the Clos Guillot, the grafted wine always feels larger in body and more obviously rich and dense. What I love so much about the Franc de Pied is not its girth, but its purity, clarity and detail. The same could be said about comparing Teobaldo Cappellano’s Barolo Piè Franco with the Rupestris—the Piè Franco has an inner resonance, a feeling of energy that cannot be duplicated in the other wine. Even at Quinta do Noval, the Nacional is not a great wine because it’s bigger or more powerful than the vintage Noval, but because it exhibits such a stunning sense of purity and expression, with a remarkable elegance of texture.
Are ungrafted vines better? It depends on how you define the term. I think that they produce a more interesting wine because they accentuate the qualities that I appreciate in wine: purity, finesse and expression of place. If it is gobs that you seek, you may not always find them here.