The other day I watched an interesting web-TV show by the Swedish blog ”Uppkorkat”, where Magnus Ericsson from the newspaper Helsingborgs Dagblad visits the Champagne grower Tarlant. Magnus throws himself down on the ground between the vines and digs in the soil. It is dusty. The soil flows between his fingers. There is sand, a lot of sand in the soil.
This little piece of Champagne is subsequently called Les Sables (the sand) and is located in proximity to the village Oeuilly west of Épernay in the Marne valley. Its uniqueness is the absence of the vine louse. No phylloxera vastatrix enjoys this corner of the earth. “It can’t move in the sand,” explains Magnus.
Chardonnay is the grape cultivated in Les Sables, planted in the 1950:ies. And it is ungrafted vitis vinifera vines. The grapes end up in a really dry, Extra Brut, Blanc de Blancs with the name “La Vigne d’Antan”.
When the phylloxera had settled in the south of France, where it first was spotted in 1863, it spread like a plague across the country. 1888 it had reached Champagne and it only took some years before the louse had feasted on vine roots all over the region. However, the growers of Champagne had one advantage. The solution was at that time already known; grafting on American rootstocks.
A more famous louse free setting in Champagne is found with the house Bollinger in Aÿ, just north of Épernay. Right beside the stately main building we find two small grand cru vineyards, le Clos Saint-Jacques och les Chaudes Terres. Of some inscrutable reason, the phylloxera has never found its way to these plots. A substantial amount of sand in the soil can be an explanation. Also a third vineyard, la Croix Rouge in Bouzy, was louse free until it suddenly some years ago was hit by the plague. No one knows why. The ungrafted vines had to be pulled up in 2004.
At Bollinger it is Pinot Noir which is grown in the louse free soils. The vines are propagated by offshoots and have definitively not established themselves in any straight lines. The result is as exclusive as the vineyards. Some thousand bottles of a Blanc de Noirs, with the telling name Vielles Vignes Françaises.
What a dream tasting it would be. Two stories, two styles, two houses – one common denominator. A breath of past times.
I guess most of us wine lovers know that there are just a few locations around the world not yet invaded by the wine louse. That is the phylloxera vastatrix, the little destroyer who loves to feast on the vine’s roots. When a vitis vinifera is the victim, it is sentenced to a cruel death.
I think of Chile, where the whole country is free from phylloxera. What a lucky coincidence, that the decision to bring vines from France came before France was infected.
In 1851 a Chilean entrepreneur, Sylvestre Ochagavia, in co-operation with the public agricultural school Quinta Normal, imported cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cot, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from France.
Among the Merlot cuttings where also some Carménère. But that was not discovered until almost 150 years later, in 1994 when a professor from Montpellier scrutinised the plants. Carménère is really not that found of the colder climat of Bordeaux where it has its roots, sensitive of coulure, giving low yields. But in Chile, it is happy, and has become something like the “grape of Chile”. On its on rootstock, just as its vinifera relatives.
The vines of Chile are thus grown on their own roots. No grafting on American rootstocks. So, do we feel any difference? On the nose, the flavour?
I can, at least sometimes, spot a juicy character that I associate with Chile. Especially in the Cabernet Sauvignons. But I guess that is more a result of the terroir and the vinification, than the nature of the vines.
Well, my point is not really to make this a tasting challenge. Rather to reflect about the specific nature of the Chilean grapes and the wine made from them.
One of my favourite producers are Montes. Why not pour a glass of Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon, or any other of their lovely varietal wines? Enjoy it and consider the uniqueness of its origin. Grown in a phylloxera free soil.