Ungrafted Vines: A Taste of History

Wine labels. Do you ever really look at them? Yes, you probably notice an attractive design, take in the fact that the wine is made from such-and-such a grape or comes from this place or that. But how much else? Is there anything useful or interesting on the label or is it just the result of a marketing department somewhere?

I do read labels – well, yes, I would, wouldn’t I? Often, it’s just marketing speak, but there’s usually some information about what’s in the bottle.  And occasionally, I find out something fascinating about the wine I’m about to drink. And that was the case a few days ago. I had just opened a bottle of De Martino El Leon from the Maule Valley in Chile, made from the southern French grape Carignan, when I saw the words ‘ungrafted vines’ on the label. I was tasting a piece of history! Let me explain.

In the late 1800s, a terrible disease attacked Europe’s vineyards. It was called phylloxera. It originated in America and consisted of a microscopic bug that attacked vine roots and eventually killed the vine. It was first seen in southern France but quickly spread through much of Europe and beyond. At one time, it was thought that the entire wine industry was at risk of being wiped out. It took almost 20 years for the cause of the problem to be identified, but, even then, the cure remained elusive. Eventually, it became clear that most American vines were immune to attack, only the European vine, vitis vinifera, which is genetically different, is vulnerable.

So, problem solved: let’s plant American vines. Unfortunately not. All the great wines of the world are made from European vines; Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz – all are vitis vinifera – and nothing could stop the phylloxera bug from munching its way through their roots. Except, what if you could somehow attach 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 that is exactly how virtually all the grapes for the wines we love are grown these days – attached (grafted is the technical word) to American vine roots. So, to find a wine made from ungrafted vines – vines that are still being grown on their own roots – as I did, is something unusual – and only possible in a few places in the world, in this case in Chile which, because of the isolation of some of their vineyards, means that no American vine has ever been grown there.

And what did our wine taste like? Wonderful! Intense, rich, full flavoured. And the fact that I was tasting a piece of history made it even more special.