In the 4 years since the first Bristol Wine Blog, I’ve written about many subjects, some popular, others less so. But one theme regularly features high on the list of readers’ searches: ‘Ungrafted Vines’. And even though my last blog on the subject was well over a year ago, several people every week still look for it. Clearly it’s time to revisit the topic.
Firstly, what do we mean by an ‘ungrafted’ vine? It’s a vine where the whole plant – including the roots – is a single entity. You might think that all vines are like that, but, actually, the vines used for most of the wines we drink today are not. We need to look back over 150 years for the reason why.
In the 1860s, phylloxera hit Europe’s vineyards. It’s a microscopic bug that attacks vine roots and eventually kills the vine. It originated in America and was first seen in Europe in southern France but quickly spread throughout the continent and beyond. At one time, it seemed that the entire wine industry might be wiped out. And even when the cause of the problem was identified, it took years before a remedy was found. Eventually, it became apparent that most American vines were resistant to attack, only the European vine, which is genetically different, is vulnerable.
So, problem solved: plant American vines! Unfortunately not! Sadly, American vines don’t, in general, produce good wine. In fact, all the great wines of the world are made from grapes from European vines (which include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and many more) and nothing could stop the phylloxera bug from munching its way through their roots. Finally, someone had the idea of attaching a European vine to the roots of an American vine. The roots would be immune to attack and you would still have the Chardonnay or Merlot or whatever grapes that you wanted.
And it works! So, today, virtually all vines are attached (‘grafted’ is the technical word) to American vine roots. ‘Ungrafted’ vines – those that are still being grown on their own roots – are quite unusual. There are a few places in the world where you’ll still find them; most are either so remote from other vineyards that the bug has never spread there or the soil is very sandy (which the bug doesn’t like). Parts of Chile, Portugal, Malta and Cyprus are among the places you’ll find vines that are a single entity from tip to root, but everywhere else, grafted vines are the only way to produce the wines we want.
So, do wines from ungrafted vines taste differently from those from grafted vines? It’s hard to say, but it’s fascinating when you find one – it’s like tasting a piece of history.