Genetic Engineering Moves Into the French Vineyards

International Herald Tribune

February 10, 1977

Genetic studies are revolutionizing agriculture and some of the lessons are now being applied in French vineyards.

A 15-year research project, now in its sixth year, will lead to the third reconstitution of the Champagne vineyards.

The first came early this century when the traditional Champagne vines were grafted onto American rootstock, resistant to the phylloxera louse that devastated French vines between the 1860s and about 1910.

The second took place after World War II when production was the all-important consideration. Cuttings from the best-producing vines were grafted to American rootstock.

Today's experiments, in Champagne and elsewhere, will eventually lead to new grape varieties that are resistant to disease, produce regularly – good year or bad – and, most important, make better wine.

One project is directed by the Groupement Champenois d'Exploitation Viticole (GCEV), an association whose owners – Mumm, Perrier-Jouët and Heidsieck-Monopole – control 300 hectares of vines. The GCEV, with headquarters in Epernay, is run by Georges Vesselle, vineyard-master for Mumm and a grower himself (of red Coteaux Champenois, in the grand cru of Bouzy).

The genetic experiments involve creating new clonal strains. Researchers select vines with desired characteristics, take cuttings and plant them. Each cutting produces a genetic twin of the original vine – a clone. Pollination plays no part. Subsequent vines are obtained by cutting off a section with a bud and planting it to produce another identical plant.

The GCEV has a small experimental vineyard behind its offices in Epernay. Here cuttings are grown rapidly in a neutral, sterile soil. Then testing begins. Climate, soil conditions are varied to see how the plant fares. Various rootstocks – phylloxera resistant, of course – are also being put through the paces.

After the first year, about 50 per cent of the original selection was eliminated. Eventually about 2 or 3 per cent will be left. These should fulfill the requirements of regular production, disease resistance and good quality.

Another aspect of the project: questioning the idea that only three major grape varieties make good wine. These are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.

In the past other varieties, such as Petit Meslier, now largely abandoned, had a role. Such minor varieties are being tested along with the others on the off-chance that they may have something to offer.

Once the clones of various varieties have been selected, the vineyard will be replanted as quickly as possible. Fifty-liter batches of wine are made after the new strains have been tested for three years. This is the final exam: how does the wine taste?