Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ramps and Esca

I’ve been in the Loire Valley this week, first at the Renaissance des Appellations tasting in Angers, then at the Salon des Vins de Loire. Then, you know, drinking.

Last year on a visit to Clos Roche Blanche in the Touraine, proprietor Didier Barrouillet told me about his experiments with planting wild leeks in the vines as an agent against esca, one of the most serious vineyard diseases facing France at the moment. Esca is a fungal disease that attacks the woody portions of the vine—sometimes it will kill the vine slowly, taking several years, but in esca’s most pernicious form the vine simply ceases production and dies within 12 months. Vines that are infected need to be uprooted and burned, and care must be taken to isolate them from contact with any other vines or vine material.

Vines, presumably esca-free, at Clos Roche Blanche

On another visit to Clos Roche Blanche this week, we talked about leeks some more. Up until now, sodium arsenite has been the only treatment against esca, but it’s so toxic that it was actually banned in 2001 as a carcinogen, and anyway, the use of such a product would be completely against Didier’s natural philosophies of viticulture. He cultivates a wide variety of plants in his vineyards, and among them are these little ramps, or wild leeks, that have traditionally grown in the area. “In the old days, everyone used to have leeks in their vineyards,” says Didier. “You would find them anywhere vines were grown.” These wild leeks put out an extensive network of micro-rhizomes, tiny tendrils that interact with the roots of the vines and exchange nutrients, and in addition, they appear to neutralize the three types of fungus that are responsible for esca, inhibiting their ability to spread. For the moment Didier is still cautious, noting that esca can retreat and attack again, and it takes time to observe the long-term effect of these leeks. “But so far,” he says, “they seem to be working. As long as they don’t get eaten by the hares, that is.”

Esca is particularly a problem in the southwest of France, but it’s spread around the rest of the country as well, and it’s estimated that five percent of France’s vineyards could currently be affected by the disease. Champagne is no exception, and it’s becoming increasingly more common when walking around in the vineyards to see the occasional dead vine here and there. Last year, Nicolas Chiquet of Champagne Gaston Chiquet even showed me an entire block of vines in Hautvillers that needed to be pulled out and burned. I haven’t yet seen anyone planting leeks, but as more and more Champenois are moving towards an increasingly diverse array of cover crops in their vineyards, maybe someone ought to give it a try. Historically, vineyards have been part of a complex system of polyculture, and it wasn’t until after the Second World War that vines began to be grown in complete isolation from other plant and animal life. One wonders what has been lost in the process.


Ian Black said...

That's very interesting if true. Do you happen to know which species is involved? - it's just that "ramps" is the usual name for a N. American species (Allium tricoccum). I guess the nearest european equivalent would be the ramson (A. ursinum), but I think that plant prefers somewhat shadier conditions.

Brooklynguy said...

much has been lost, i'm sure. ecosystems are way too complex to allow for something like vines to be cultivated in isolation, and for them to remain healthy on their own.

how did Didier come up with the ramps idea?

Will said...

I'm interested in this historical polyculture. Is there a source you could recommend?

Jim Budd said...

Fascinating – I knew Didier and Catherine were growing a variety of plants in their vineyards but we hadn't talked about leeks and esca.

lars said...

Thanks for your report. I remember being at last year's Salon and tasting Clos Roche Blanche and seeing photos of their vineyards. Coincidentally, in Nov., Ulli Stein showed me while walking through his Palmberg vineyard a couple vines infected by esca. So, this fungal disease has slowly begun to spread on the Mosel, too. As you explained, he mentioned both acute and chronic forms and that the vines have to be removed and burned.

By the way, I like your shots at Clos Rougeard.

Peter Liem said...

Hi Ian,
I know, they're not really ramps. Just a mental association. I don't know the exact species -- I would leave that up to Didier to determine.

Didier does a lot of research on viticulture and vine health and the like, and I imagine that somewhere along the line he found out about this micro-rhizomization or whatever it is, and realized that people always used to have these wild leeks out in their vines.

The best source, I suppose, is simply to ask any Old World vinegrower. In most regions, you'll find people telling you that their grandparents used to have a farm with animals and vegetables in addition to vines, and that vines would never be grown in isolation as they are today.

Jon Hesford said...

ESCA spores are transmitted by the wind to pruning wounds. I don't get how microrhiza in the soil could have an effect against them. Wild leeks grow in many vineyards that are infected with ESCA so I would suggest that this story is just a story with no evidence to back it up.

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