Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ungrafted Vines: It’s Not Size That Matters

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.


Henri Vasnier said...

Perhaps you just didn't think of Tarlant's Vigne d'Antan in the context of this column, because you're certainly familiar with his wines. I believe Tarlant does not make a blanc de blancs from conventional grafted vines, but perhaps you could taste a Vigne d'Antan vin clair against a "regular" Tarlant chardonnay vin clair and report back to your readers! Keep up the great work -

Peter Liem said...

I didn't mention Tarlant because, as you say, he doesn't make a conventional blanc de blancs, so there isn't a way to directly compare the finished wine as in the cases of the producers I mentioned. Tasting the Vigne d'Antan chardonnay as vin clair, there's a similar feeling of density and energy, and an extremely elevated sense of soil character. You get this in the finished wine as well, especially when it's first released and hasn't got a lot of post-disgorgement age -- it's much more about soil than about fruit, and often it's difficult to tell even what variety it's made out of. Tarlant's other chardonnays show site-specificity as well, but they generally show a lot more fruit character, even as vins clairs. I would make a similar comparison here: the Vigne d'Antan as vin clair is not necessarily a bigger wine than other chardonnays, but it's much more demanding in its personality.

Anonymous said...

Bertrand is an absolutely amazing individual. I had the opportunity to meet him back in September and I haven't been the same since. I'm bummed the ungrafted vines didn't work out well. He told me that he "just wants to taste his vineyards" and I can imagine his disappointment here, as this would have been a pretty pure way to do it.

Director Lab Propaganda said...

Peter, Very interesting. And quite disappointing. We've been on a mad ungrafted tear at the Lab. We're even thinking of writing a manifesto in our spare time.

On the topic, I'd say two things... one, the opportunity to drink grafted/ungrafted from the same or adjoining parcels is quite rare. Joguet's Varennes is the only European one I know. But perhaps there's something in the Mosel where there are more ungrafted vines than generally reported.

That said (second thing) my experience with wines made from ungrafted vines is in line with the view that the wines are generally more integrated, have richer, energetic mouthfeel (not flavor) and enormously long finishes. I think there's little question, both practically and philosophically, that ungrafted vines have an easier time conveying site character.

All of which makes Gautherot's attempt heroic, and the result so brutally disappointing.


the vlm said...


For the most part, I agree. However, I do tend to find Cappelano's Rupestris to be the more complete wine. I often find the Pie Franco to be looser and less detailed. This is most likely a multi-dimensional problem where there are more factors than just ungrafted vs not. Perhaps the Pie Franco will age into being as good as the Rupestris, I'm not sure. Like anything, ungrafted vines alone do not tell the whole story.

Is what Gautherot said about sugar levels true? I've always wondered about that. It makes intuitive sense, but I'd love to see some scientific backing.

I don't know the Tabor Gruner Veltliner, sounds like something I should seek out. said...

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