Friday, May 18, 2018

Hard graft

I’ve been in Tuchan now for 25 years and last week I witnessed something I’ve never seen before – how to graft a vine.

Jean-Marc wanted to rejuvenate a neglected Syrah vineyard and the whole process was totally fascinating.  Back in December, Jean-Marc had booked up one of the few  ‘grafters’ in our area.  They are a Portuguese family and we were the first vineyard they were doing this season.   As there is a limited window in which you can graft vines they already had bookings for a further 30 000 vines over the next 6 weeks.  

However, when they arrived they almost turned around and went back home again as we had failed to dig out the earth around each vine.  Jean-Marc had hoped that given the recent rain this wouldn’t be a major task and the grafters could do it themselves.  But the soil had set like concrete - three pickaxes, a lot of muscle power and sweat later, Jean-Marc had to agree that he had been slightly optimistic.

Once the area around the root is cleared the grafter uses a powerful pair of secateurs to cut through the trunk of the vine. 

He then makes an incision and taps in two scions and binds them with raffia before covering the whole graft with soil.  This technique is called cleft grafting and the skill is not only in preparing the rootstock but also in whittling the scions so that there is the maximum amount of cambium (single layer of cells just below the bark) to ensure a successful graft.

It took the team of five grafters and four last-minute labourers eight hours to graft 430 vines but by the end of the day, Jean-Marc had a brand new vineyard.

All of the vines in Tuchan are grafted.  Phylloxera devastated most French vineyards in around 1890 and the only cure was to plant phylloxera-resistant American rootstock and graft the scion on to the roots.

Grafting was commonplace and French farmers would plant the American rootstock in year 1 and graft on the scion in year 2.  

From the 1970s, it was easier and much less time-consuming to buy prepared plants from specialist nurseries.  The prepared plants have the American rootstock and the selected graft all ready to be planted.

So why would you still bother to graft today?  Jean-Marc says that it can take up to 20 years for a vine to establish its root structure because our soils are so stony and dry.  If you graft vines on to the existing rootstock then you can harvest within two years because of the vigour from the roots.  If you plant a vineyard from scratch you have to wait four years to harvest. 

It also means that if you have the trellising wires in place then you don’t have to take them up and put them back.  And believe me, taking up and knocking in posts in our stony hard soils is no mean task. 

I did get very excited about the idea of being able to change the grape varieties overnight at Domaine Jones so that I could up my production of Carignan Gris and Lledoner Pelut but Jean-Marc was very quick – in fact extremely quick - to point out that it will only work on younger more vigorous vines!

See the whole grafting process in this video.