My Favourite Lesson

I used to hate History and Geography lessons when I was at school; I could see no point in learning about things that had happened long ago or in places I was never likely to visit.  Of course, as the years passed, I’ve realised how wrong I was and how much history and geography influence so many aspects of the world we live in.

Take wine for example. 

I opened a bottle of Gérard Bertrand’s Saint-Chinian recently (Grape & Grind, £14.25) and my attention was drawn to the date 1877 on the label.  Clearly that wasn’t the vintage but, turning the bottle round, I found the explanation: 1877 was the year that the first railway line opened linking that part of the south of France with Paris.  Suddenly, the market for the local growers expanded enormously although the boom was short-lived as the deadly phylloxera bug was already wreaking havoc among the region’s wines.

Recovery was slow and erratic and it’s only in the last 30 years or so that the wines of the Languedoc (of which Saint-Chinian is part) have moved from being simple cheap quaffers to something more interesting, like Bertrand’s example.  Made from a blend of 2 high quality grapes, Syrah and Mourvedre, both of which thrive in the hot, sunny conditions of the south of France, this is, undoubtedly, a big wine – the label says 15% – but it’s so well balanced that you would never realise how alcoholic it was.  Lovely flavours of blackberries, herbs and a hint of chocolate together with some smokiness from part barrel-ageing make this an attractive rounded wine to drink.  It would pair particularly well with a robust casserole or grilled or roast meat and benefits from decanting to soften the tannins.

If only history and geography had been explained this way while I was at school!

Ungrafted vines – revisited

Some time ago, I wrote a blog titled “Ungrafted Vines: A Taste of History”. It has since become the most read of all my blogs. Even now, 21 months later, several people every week hit on it. So, perhaps, it’s time to revisit a topic that’s clearly of interest to many of you.

Firstly, what do I 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 most vines used for the wines we drink today are not – and we need to look back over a hundred years for the reason why.

In the 1860s, phylloxera, a microscopic bug that attacks vine roots and eventually kills the vine, was found in a vineyard in southern France. Over the following four decades or so, it spread quickly and devastated many vineyards in Europe and beyond. At the time, no-one knew what it was or how to deal with it. It was feared that the world’s entire wine industry would be wiped out. The cause of the problem was finally identified in the 1880s, but the solution took far longer to discover.

Phylloxera came to Europe from America where the native vine has developed resistance, but the European vine, which is genetically different, has not, so all our familiar varieties are vulnerable to attack. One solution considered was to plant American vines in place of European, but the wine they produced was not found to be of the same quality.

Fortunately, it was eventually realised that, by using the roots of an American vine and grafting (attaching) a European vine to them, you could have wines from Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or whatever and protection from phylloxera. Problem solved!

So what about ungrafted vines? There are a few places in the world where you’ll still find them. They 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, a small area of Portugal and parts of Cyprus are among the places you’ll find that little bit of history – a vine that is a single entity from tip to root, but everywhere else, grafted vines are the only way to produce the wines we like.