How can you store a vine?  And why even bother?

An ever-increasing amount of every conceivable thing is being shipped around the world.  And these shipments could be distributing some invasive pests.  Kudzu and Dutch elm disease fungus hitched lifts to Lumpkin County from China and Europe respectively.  As wine buffs will tell you, the phylloxera louse native to Eastern North America nearly destroyed the wine business as it spread around the globe.

Scary stuff – could an as-yet-unknown killer attack grape vines?  As readers of this blog know, commercial growing of grapes is focused on very small proportion of varieties.  Just 4% of the 1450 commercial grape varieties represent 80% of vineyard plantings.  With this reduction in biodiversity, the risk of a global pandemic is real. 

The best hope for the future is in finding a grape variety which is resistant to such a plague.  There are thousands of grape varieties cataloged, any one of which could be the solution. Where could the grape variety to save vines and wine be found?

Plant seeds are stored in seed banks where they safely lie dormant, waiting to be withdrawn after a future catastrophe.  For example, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a remote Arctic site, provides a secure storage for 860,000 samples from almost every country in the world.  In England, the Millennium Seed Project holds seeds of over 13% of the world’s wild plant species.  And there are other seed banks around the world, preserving plants for posterity.

But seeds don’t address the problems of grape vines.  Very few vines are grown from grape pips due to the global prevalence of phylloxera louse, which destroys tender young vine roots.  What is needed are healthy live vines (growing on their own roots, ensuring a true specimen of the variety) providing cuttings for grafting.

The largest collection in the world of vines on their own roots can be found in France at an agricultural research station called Domaine de Vassal, close to the Mediterranean Sea.  This is a living library of more than 7,800 different plants from 50 countries.  There are 2600 varieties of Vitis vinifera and 720 hybrids in the 60 acre vineyard.  The vineyard is largely sand, and the phylloxera louse cannot survive in a soil like that and destroy the vines.  To prevent diseases arriving in this special site, new vines to be included in the collection may be held in quarantine for up to two years, many miles away.

After more than 60 years at Vassal, the vine library is being transferred to a new bigger home, 40 miles down the coast at Pech Rouge.  Not only providing double the area of vineyards, the new site is less likely to be affected as rising sea levels increase flooding risks.  This precious resource could be the salvation of the wine industry across the world if an unthinkable catastrophe were to occur.

 Robin Hall

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