Almost all vines are now grafted onto rootstock to prevent the return of the deadly phylloxera louse. In the Loire Valley, Henry Marionnet has chosen to try to do without this usually necessary precaution in part of his vineyard. David Cobbold reports on the results of his experiments.

The Touraine region of the Loire valley, apparently so calm and peaceful, also harbours the occasional mystery, but we are not talking here about witches on broomsticks. One of these mysteries is a small plot of 1,5 hectares of un-grafted Sauvignon Blanc vines that were planted from cuttings in the year 2000 and which have since been producing a remarkable wine without having, so far at least, been touched by the dreaded louse phylloxera vastatrix. The man behind this very unusual phenomenon is Henry Marionnet. He now works with his son Jean-Sebastien on the family estate, Domaine de la Charmoise, at Soings, where they produce a range of wines not only from Sauvignon, but also the rare Romorantin white grape, as well as a majority of reds from Gamay and Cot (aka Malbec).

Henry & Jean-Sébastien Marionnet

The soils provide no clues
So what on earth prompted Henry Marionnet to fly in the face of what seems to be self-evident to most vignerons: ie that phylloxera is endemic and will, sooner or later, kill any vine that has not been grafted onto a resistant rootstock. And it so happens that this is true, as some of Henry’s vigneronfriends have discovered to their cost when they attempted to follow his example. So I asked him, why does his plot of un-grafted vines survive the beast? He does not know, and nobody has so far found the answer! There is nothing special about the soil. In other words it is a fairly common version of limestone clay with some flint content. It is neither sandy nor under water, both of which conditions would prevent the louse from tunneling its way to the roots during that part of its life that is spent underground, and when it findsvitis viniferaroots particularly tasty. Henry wonders whether there is not an explanation to be found in the field of aromatics, such as some local plant that secretes a natural repellent. But he confesses that the mystery remains.

A self-taught wine grower
So, back to the question of why? Henry told me that he was essentially curious as to how wines might have tasted before phylloxera struck Europe in the late 19thcentury. It should be emphasized that he created his own vineyard as, when he inherited the estate from his father back in 1969, the vines were all hybrids. So he progressively ripped these out and started from scratch, trying all kinds of things bit by bit. His father had prevented him from studying winemaking so he is entirely self-taught. Maybe this explains why he has been so bold throughout his career? For instance he was the first to make some of his wines without using any sulfites, back in 1990, and so long before this became fashionable. And they last very well as I can testify having tasted a bottle of the very first vintage. He planted his first un-grafted Gamay vines in 1992 and these are still healthy. Sauvignon was given the same treatment in 2000, using massal selection cuttings from his own vines. Malbec followed. But the Marionnet family is not foolhardy. The firm would cease to exist if ever phylloxera returned here, so these un-grafted plots lie side-by-side with larger ones on resistant rootstocks.

I also asked Marionnet whether he found that the un-grafted wines behaved differently in any way. He mentioned a slightly lower yield in most vintages and a marginally later date of ripening, but no differences in terms of disease resistance for example.

A unique comparative tasting
The result of this means that, chezMarionnet, one has the unique opportunity to taste, side by side, Sauvignon Blancs from grafted and un-grafted wines that have been made in the same way and from almost identical vineyard plots. The un-grafted cuvée is named Vinifera and it tastes quite unlike the standard, grafted version. To attempt to summarize the difference, the Vinifera version is fuller in body, richer and deeper in its flavours, with perhaps less of a marked “Sauvignon Loire character” and apparently lower acidity. The 2016 that I tasted seemed both warmer and more rounded than the grafted version, and altogether fuller in its flavours. I have never been a great smoker but I would liken the difference to that between a cigarette with filter and one without, the un-grafted version naturally being equivalent to a cigarette without a filter.

I am pretty sure that we have lost quite a lot with this imperious necessity, in the vast majority of situations, to graft our vines. And maybe someday we will find an explanation for the Marionnet mystery. Meanwhile one can taste the difference for a fairly modest investment, as Marionnet’s Vinifera Sauvignon retails for just under 20 euros, whereas the standard version costs just €12.