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The Own-Rooted Wine Revival

Why winemakers are on the hunt to find and preserve ungrafted vines

Ines Salpico By October 18, 2021
Vines in the Sebastiano vineyard of Holus Bolus in Sta. Rita Hills
Vines in the Sebastiano vineyard of Holus Bolus in Sta. Rita Hills. Photo courtesy of Holus Bolus.

When in 2019 Liber Pater became the world’s most expensive wine, many wondered what made this unclassified Bordeaux so special. 

Winemaker Loïc Pasquet had made headlines by proclaiming the $33,420 wine a rare — or maybe the only — expression of the pure flavor of Bordeaux. The basis of the claim is that Liber Pater hails from a five-acre plot in Graves planted to a mix of historical Bordeaux varieties such as Petite Vidure, Tarnay, Castets, and Saint-Macaire, alongside the better known Petit Verdot and Malbec — all standing on their own rootstocks. 

Pasquet is the most famous and successful advocate of franc de pied, the French term for vines grown on their own rootstock. Despite his star status, Pasquet is down-to-earth, approachable, and generous with his time and knowledge. He mostly uses the third person, as a representative of the community of like-minded winemakers he has rallied around the franc de pied cause. “If you are a lover of fine wine, you need to drink wines from ungrafted vines,” he says, adding that the grafting of vines acts as a filter that prevents the grapes from truly reflecting the terroir. “Grafted vines produce wines with more body, more concentration of varietal flavors, but without a sense of place.”

Does rootstock have any impact on the flavor and structure of wine? Some producers think the latter is definitely the case, and there’s growing interest, among a more general effort to preserve old vines and indigenous varieties, to understand if ungrafted vines actually make better wine.

Vineyard work at Liber Pater, Bordeaux

Vineyard work at Liber Pater, Bordeaux. Photo courtesy of Liber Pater.

Why vines are grafted

Phylloxera ranks as one of the most disruptive factors in the modern history of viticulture, equivalent to the two world wars. Even though the louse first began ravaging European vineyards in the 1860s, its effects rippled through the following century and still shape many viticultural practices and legislation. 

Phylloxera is an insect that feeds on the roots of grapevines. Brought to Europe by Victorian botanists who brought back vines from North America, the louse eventually devastated vines across the continent. While American species have the ability to secrete a sap that seals the wounds from phylloxera’s feeding channels, in vinifera these are left vulnerable to secondary infections which ultimately cause the roots to rot and the plants’ nutrient and water supply to be cut. The only solution is to graft vinifera vines onto resistant rootstock from American varieties.  

Some vineyards did survive decimation, either because they were planted on soils inhospitable to phylloxera or because they were in remote areas; such vines are among the oldest in the world. Younger franc de pied are extremely rare; most producers are not willing to risk future infections, and, crucially, law now forbids ungrafted plantings in most wine-producing countries. 

For Amy Christine MW, winemaker in Santa Barbara, California, the assumption that ungrafted vines are the true vehicle of terroir is problematic. “This is somewhat unfair to winemakers in many regions, especially in the Old World, where viticulture would be impossible without grafting.”

Christine and husband Peter Hunken also produce a franc de pied wine, part of their Holus Bolus range, made with fruit from a specific plot of ungrafted Syrah in the John Sebastiano vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. “We noticed the fruit from that specific plot had a particular, more refined profile and deserved to be vinified separately.” But they’re cautious when trying to attribute the superior refinement of the fruit exclusively to the root system, as each parcel is also planted to different clones.

“Grafted vines produce wines with more body, more concentration of varietal flavors, but without a sense of place…The history and expression of those terroirs is being lost.” — Loïc Pasquet

Ungrafted survivors

Pasquet concedes that while grafting might be needed in some regions, this is not universally true. “In some areas of Bordeaux and Burgundy for example, many vineyards survived ungrafted until World War II.” He believes the decision to replant on grafted rootstock was purely commercial and ultimately driven by legislation. “Because grafted vines produce higher yields, richer flavor, and a more recognizable varietal expression, people started grafting. But this is not needed in many terroirs.”

In vineyards where plants have survived for centuries, such as those on the volcanic soils of Etna and Santorini, rules now dictate that new or replacement vines must be grafted. “It’s a tragedy,” says Pasquet. “The history and expression of those terroirs is being lost.” Hence why he has created, together with other iconic producers, an association to promote and lobby for the recognition, preservation, and promotion of franc de pied.  

Even among those who criticize Paquet’s assertiveness — or dismiss it as a marketing stunt — there is a shared concern about the survival and appreciation of this viticultural patrimony. 

For French-born and Chile-based Louis-Antoine Luyt, working exclusively with ungrafted vineyards was an emotional decision driven primarily by social, rather than oenological, reasons. Chile is one of the few countries where phylloxera has never been reported, possibly due to the shielding effect of the sandy Atacama Desert. Yet even there, many of the old own-rooted vineyards were gradually abandoned as commercial and therefore grafted; plantings of international varieties took over. But when he ventured into Chilean soil, Luyt found an untapped wealth of old forgotten vines planted to varieties with historical affiliation to Chile, such as País/Mission, Moscatel, and Torontel, and a disillusioned community of growers unable to make a living from their land. “I was determined to make something special and give these growers a reason to keep farming their vineyards,” he said. His biggest challenge for the future is “finding young people that are willing to carry on. They all want to leave and find jobs in the city.”

horse working ingrafted vines

Louis-Antoine Luyt works with ungrafted vines in Chile. Photo courtesy of Louis-Antoine Luyt.

Ungrafted vines elsewhere

This sense of urgent recovery of the cultural and historical legacy of a country is shared by Giorgi Natenadze, a Georgian winemaker battling the aftermath of a politically turbulent period. 

Georgia was affected much later, and not as severely, by phylloxera. However, most vineyards, ungrafted and otherwise, were either abandoned or ripped out under Soviet rule. As viticulture reemerged in the 1990s, law required all new vineyards to be grafted onto resistant rootstock. Giorgi started a foraging quest to find the own-rooted vines that survived in the wild. He now makes wines from these fascinating, shamanic vines, from which he also takes cuttings for new plantings. While he is required by law to graft them, he has left some ungrafted plants as an experiment, only to find that they developed a deeper, much more complex root system, within a two-year period. 

Could this perhaps support Pasquet’s theories about terroir adaptability and expressiveness? Whether Pasquet is right or not about the impact of grafting in the flavor of wine, there seems to be unanimity about the need to preserve the roots, all puns intended, of viticulture, along with its historical and cultural context. Preserving these vines and understanding the character of the wines they produce is, as Luyt puts it, an anthropological, rather than a winemaking, project. 

3 Franc de Pied wines to try:

bottle of Louis-Antoine Luyt Maule Valley Pipeño Carrizal Blanco 2020

Louis-Antoine Luyt Maule Valley Pipeño Carrizal Blanco 2020 ($19)

Louis-Antoine has reclaimed Pipeño, the once derogatory term used for wines made by farmers for own, immediate consumption. This field blend of white grapes from 100- to 200-year-old vineyards has deep aromas of glazed apples, acacia honey, and preserved lemon, woven across a texture (1 Liter bottle).

bottle of Natenadze Wines Meskheti Meskhuri Red 2019

Natenadze Wines Meskheti Meskhuri Red 2019 ($33)

A blend of indigenous Georgian varieties, some of which from 400-year-old vines, fermented in qvevri. The palate has grippy tannins, vibrant fruit, and intense wild herb aromas. 

bottle of Holus Bolus Sebastiano Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Franc de Pied Syrah 2019

Holus Bolus Sebastiano Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Franc de Pied Syrah 2019 ($40)

An elegant and vibrant Syrah, with firm but refined tannins and taught acidity lined by delicious spiciness. There’s incredible energy in this unpretentious, crunchy wine, at once complex and dangerously drinkable.