Oscar Wilde might have drank wine from these survivor vines
In a few remote locations, vines resistant to destructive lice produce a fantastic flavour
That nasty little vine-destroying louse, phylloxera, has a lot to answer for, totally disrupting traditional wine-growing practice through almost all of Europe and continents beyond in the latter decades of the 19th century. But not every vine, everywhere, succumbed.
In a few remote locations pre-phylloxera vines still flourish on their own roots (to combat the pest, vines are now grafted on to resistant American rootstocks), and I’ve visited some of the very oldest French survivors, tended by eight generations of the Pedebernade family for two hundred years.
Those vines – uniquely classified earlier this year as a historic monument by the French cultural authorities – are not alone in south west France in pre-dating phylloxera.
Two weeks ago, the first modern bottles of wine from vines planted in 1871 were opened in Paris. The location was the hotel where Oscar Wilde (“work is the curse of the drinking classes”) had lived and, in 1900, died – a time when those very vines could have been the source of the wine he drank.
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The 2011 wine is enjoyably drinkable, rich purple-red, with dark wild-fruit scents and flavours, gently rounded by oak. Wine-making, says Olivier Bourdet-Pees, managing director and technical head of Plaimont Producteurs, has involved the minimum intervention possible, to let the historic vines show just how much character they can still impart.
The vines grow very close to the headquarters of Plaimont Producteurs, the far-sighted, quality-conscious co-operative responsible for very nearly every bottle of wine, white as well as red, from the Saint Mont appellation. The two-metre deep sandy soil is the reason for their survival – the louse can’t survive there.
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They, like other ancient pre-phylloxera vines owned by co-operative members, have been carefully tended in recent years, gradually being lifted from their ground-level ramblings onto more conventional supports. Just a few didn’t survive, and in Paris their gnarled trunks provided an evocative backdrop to the smooth, smart bottles.
But, unusually, these are not a higgledy-piggledy mix of varieties. Ninety-nine per cent are tannat, the robust, generous variety which gives Gascon reds much of their character. So the good 2011 harvest offered the right opportunity to make a commercial wine rather than use the grapes in research projects. Only five barrels – just 1342 bottles – were made. This year, the vines have delivered more grapes, so there is one barrel more.
You won’t find Saint Mont Vignes Pr�phyllox�riques 2011 on high street shelves, although a few bottles will come to England, as Plaimont deliberately shares the vintage between all the countries which buy its wines. The price is yet to be fixed, but it will reflect the rarity of the wine – in France, it is 55€.
But there are other Plaimont Saint Mont reds available, for happy drinking from somewhat younger vines. They’re wines which marry dark fruits with serious flavour and structure, are reliable irrespective of vintage and age well. Nicolas/Spirited Wines shops should have a choice, including the fine, claret-challenging Chateau de Sabazon, around �16, and En la Tradition, �8.35. At Majestic, two or more bottles of Les Hautes de Bergelle are just �6.50 each; Adnams has Les Bastions, �7; and the Wine Society offers L’Empreinte de Saint Mont at �11.50.
This is far from the end of a story of understanding, preserving and using old vine varieties which goes back already some four decades. Plaimont’s visionary leaders rightly deplore the increasing reliance on the same few varieties (approaching ninety per cent of France’s plantings now) and are already including the fruit of once-lost vines in their present wines.
Such bottles, alongside those from the 1871 vines, “are the symbol of the work which must represent the future of our appellation”, says Olivier Bourdet-Pees.