Timing is everything
What prompts the decision to uproot a vine? How does it work? A discussion with Eric Kohler, technical director of Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Duhart-Milon.
For more than twenty years, Eric Kohler’s slender figure has been roaming the vineyards of Château Lafite Rothschild and Duhart-Milon. In all seasons, he observes, prunes, tastes, and compares.
Technical Director of the two Châteaux, he has been working there long enough to have seen plots of land uprooted before being replanted and, twenty years later, regain their full powers.
What prompts the decision to uproot a vine? How does it work? To find out, we met up with Eric.
“As a vine grows older, it is less and less productive… but the risk is early retirement!”
Hello Eric, thank you for this interview. Let’s start by talking about ‘Mamizelle’, the plot on the Lafite plateau which will be partly replanted in the winter of 2023/2024…
Mamizelle is a pretty name, well deserved for one of the stars of Lafite. It is the plot to which we are all, without doubt, most attached. It’s one of the oldest. It was planted in 1946 on the highest point of the plateau. Every year, its harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon is excellent and makes a place for itself in the blend of the Grand Vin. Unfortunately, a small part of this plot has been deteriorating for several years and will soon have to be uprooted.
Uprooting a vine is never an easy decision to make. As a vineyard grows older, it becomes less and less productive, but the quality grows exponentially… The risk lies in getting too far ahead and uprooting a plot that can still produce good quality grapes.
For all these large and old plots, it is a real dilemma to choose between complantation and uprooting.
“It takes almost twenty years between the uprooting of a vine and its return to its highest potential.”
Complantation? Can you explain what that is?
There are two ways to renew a vineyard. The first is not to uproot, or rather to do so on a case-by-case basis. That is called complantation or re-broaching: in a plot of several thousand vines, we replace the vines that are dying or declining sharply and let the others live.
The second is as the word says: all the plants in a plot or part of a plot are pulled out and replanted after a few years of rest.
How do you replant them?
We uproot the vines after the harvest, at the beginning of winter. The land is then left to rest for three or four years, sometimes longer. During this fallow period, we don’t abandon the land, it’s never good to leave the soil bare. On the contrary, you take care of it so that it can regenerate. Depending on the characteristics of the plot, grasses or legumes are sown. They are not harvested, but their production is gradually buried, creating a plant cover that will then nourish the plot.
After this resting period, we replant. After about three years, our young vines start to produce fruit. But it takes at least ten years, sometimes fifteen or twenty, before the harvest reaches its optimum quality. In the first few years, as with a growing child, we pay close attention to the development of the vine, making sure that it has enough water and that it is not damaged.
Almost twenty years pass between the uprooting of a vine and its return to its highest potential. Uprooting a vine involves a heart-breaking decision and long wait.
“We are in the process of setting up a massal selection. We are selecting our best plants in each plot, marking them, and monitoring them over several years to ensure their resistance.”
At this point, it is probably useful to review some definitions: What exactly is a vine?
Everyone thinks they know what a vine is. We all remember its characteristic shape and its planting in rows. Since the end of the 19th century, most vines are composed of two parts: the rootstock and the scion.
It is the scion that produces, according to its variety, the grape varieties that we all know: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, etc. The rootstock, on the other hand, is more anonymous. Often only the winegrowers know about it. But it is essential. It is the rootstock that is rooted in the soil and allows the vine to develop. If you look closely at the trunk, about 10 cm above the ground, you will see a small bulge, like an old scar; this is the junction between the rootstock and the scion.
Why aren’t the vines planted directly into the ground, without rootstocks?
Because of phylloxera! This little aphid ravaged French vines in the middle of the 19th century. Until this plague, the vines were planted without grafting. However, many of them were ravaged by this aphid. To make them immune, it was decided to graft them onto American vines that were resistant to phylloxera. The rootstock was thus invented.
Where do these rootstocks come from today?
There are a few dozen rootstocks, of which about twenty are commonly used. Each of them has its own characteristics, more or less adapted to a type of soil, climate, or scion.
An illustrious rootstock, “Riparia gloire de Montpellier”, has been the pride of the Médoc’s great terroirs for years. The problem is that it is not very resistant to drought. Global warming has forced nursery growers to develop more suitable rootstocks… and sometimes with less poetic names. At Lafite, we have for example the “420-A” or the “101-14”. The task of the nursery growers is to produce them and link them to the scions.
Can you tell us more about these scions?
For a long time, we bought vines originating from clones. Today, to continue to improve the quality of our vines, we have implemented a massal selection by choosing our best vines from each plot. We mark and monitor each of them over several years to ensure their regular quality. When this is confirmed, we “take cuttings,” from these star plants and send them to our nursery grower who will ensure their reproduction.
Does it work?
There is no reason why it shouldn’t work! But I won’t be able to answer that question for another ten years. In 2027, we should be able to replant part of Mamizelle with plants from our massal selection. In 2033, we can start to get an idea of the quality of these young vines. And in 2047, we may make a Lafite from them.
Do you have your diary with you? Should we set a date?
Absolutely! Just say when.