Driving past a vineyard in summer, one could be forgiven for thinking that not much goes on. A sea of vines gently fluttering in the breeze, maybe a person or two tending them, the odd tractor, and not much else. As we have often written in this newsletter, however, there’s plenty to do – but as most of the manual work is done vine by vine, and tractors can cover a few hectares in a day, there’s not much apparent activity at any one time, in any one patch of vines. But it’s clear enough that, somehow, the vines must be tended and trained in order to have good quality grapes at the end of the season.
One thing that is not often thought of, though, is how the vines get there in the first place, or how vines are replaced. Visitors to the vineyard here at Chollet often ask about this; for example, how long do vines last, and what happens when they are too old? Also, what if you need to change things – can they be moved from one place to another? Can you take cuttings?
The answer, of course, starts with ‘it depends what you want to do’. First of all, it’s best to picture a vineyard not as one large field of vines going on seemingly forever, but as a patchwork of separate small fields, called ‘parcelles’ in France. These parcelles are normally different grape varieties, of different ages, and often planted in different orientations or densities. This, of course, is strictly controlled and administered via what’s called a ‘plan cadastral’, where a vineyard (indeed pretty much all of France) is divided into small, numbered, patches of land.
In the picture below left, it is possible to make out the ‘patchwork’ of vines to one side of Chollet. The two by the house are running north – south and the other one west – east. Pathways separate the parcelles.
The picture on the right shows all of Chollet’s vineyard, with the parcelles of vines outlined. Each of these has a reference number (not shown) and each is treated as its own separate entity when it comes to planting and maintaining the vines within. To give you an idea of scale, the largest parcelle (on the right side of the picture) is around 2 hectares (5 acres) in size, and contains around 11,000 vines.
Back to the questions; vines typically last anything between 30 and 60 years in Bordeaux (there are older ones, but not many). As they get older, they generally produce better quality fruit, but there comes a time where quantity and quality fades and in that case, the whole parcelle is grubbed up and replanted. During the life of a parcelle, vines are also replanted but to fill in gaps where vines have died, become diseased, or been damaged.
As for whether vines can be moved; no, the roots are way too deep. Also, taking cuttings is forbidden – only vines purchased from a specialist nursery, certified free of disease and with the correct rootstock, can be used. A vine costs just over a euro ex VAT, and costs of digging up and replanting run to another three euros or so. So, to maintain a parcelle like our large one, there’s not a huge amount of time or cost in keeping on top of things; say about 1%, or approximately 100 vines per year, to replace. However – and this is what we have done quite a bit of here at Chollet over the decade or so we have been here – when a parcelle is end-of-life, no longer meets the ever-changing Bordeaux appellation rules, or is no longer wanted (for example, the wrong grape variety for your needs, planted at the wrong density, or of poor quality generally), it needs completely replanting.
Each replantation is quite a project. Firstly, we remove all posts and wires that hold the old vines up, then prune each vine to a stump, grub them up using a deep plough, clear the patch of vines and roots, cultivate the soil, then leave for a fallow period – during which we plant nitrogen-fixing plants like broad beans over winter and prairie flowers for the insects in the summer – then, when ready to replant, cultivate the soil again, work in some compost, and finally plant the new junior vines in a precise grid pattern. See the two photos above to see vines ready to plant – either bare-rooted or in biodegradable pots. Once planted, each vine needs its own little post to cling on to early in life, and watering during dry weather (5 litres per vine per week). Weeds are a huge problem at this stage – we do not use weedkillers here, so it is a manual job – but it is crucial to keep the weeds down to allow the new vines to grow. Next – install new posts and wires, and over a 3-year period maintain, prune and train the vines to the correct shape such that, when they officially enter production at the end of the 3 years, they are strong, already producing grapes and no longer need watering (which is forbidden from this stage on). We shouldn’t (as if we could) forget the formidable administration that comes with replanting a parcelle either. Phew!
See below on the left for a newly planted patch, a few weeks after planting. Already needs some weeding!
Since 2006, when we arrived here at Chollet, we have replanted several parcelles. In the picture above right, the area outlined in red was all one grape variety – sémillon – and pretty ancient at that. This was OK for the previous owners who sold the grapes to a cooperative, but for us, it was too much of one variety, limiting production of others.
We kept the best, smaller parcelles of Semillon and replanted some others as below left, which shows the configuration at the end of 2011 – replacing Semillon with Cabernet Sauvignon (outlined in blue), Sauvignon Blanc (green) and Muscadelle (gold).
This year, we will continue by planting some more merlot (shown in purple above right). We’ll also grub up the areas outlined in light blue, and replant those in a couple of years, when the soil has recovered and we have paid off the last lot!
As you can see, quite a different mix of grape varieties from 10 years ago. Lots of work and expense – but necessary, and as a result the vineyard will be producing what we need, very efficiently, hopefully for many years to come.