Illegal grape vines and award winning wine

When Academy students are not in residence we like to make our rooms available to paying guests who are offered bed, breakfast and evening meal. One such guest stayed last night, an English lady with impeccable French, who has been living in the Chinon area for many years. It was during a pleasant meal, comparing notes on life in France and swapping amusing anecdotes, that we were introduced to the concept of illegal grape varieties.

She had tasted a wine made from the grape Clinton (we finally arrived at the name after considering a number of American presidents), a variety reputed to drive drinkers mad but which clearly had not done so in her case. All of this was completely new to me and sounded quite unlikely, so today I have been investigating with increasing amazement at what I was reading. Politics, big business interests and horticulture can make for a heady mix.

Firstly, the botany. All European wine grape varieties are derived from a single species: Vitis vinifera. The United States has sveral grape species including Vitis aestivalis, Vitis rupestris, Vitis riparia, Vitis rotundifolia and Vitis labrusca. An Asiatic vine Vitis amurensis, is also of interest. Both naturally occurring hybrids and deliberate crosses have been made between the species and varieties and Clinton is one of these, a spontaneous cross between the North American species Vitis riparia and Vitis labrusca dating back to 1835 when it was discovered in New York State by High White.

In 1840 European vineyards were ravaged by Powdery Mildew disease and the search was on for hybrid varieties combining the qualities of the European grape with the disease resistance of the American species. While early in America’s history the trade was in European varieties to grow in the new lands, gradually the trend was reversed. In 1873 it was discovered that Phylloxera had been imported along with the American plants. This root pest went on to wipe out the European vineyards. At the darkest hour for European vine growing it was discovered that some American varieties were resistant to Phylloxera, in addition to protecting against Powdery Mildew and Mildew. By grafting the “noble” European varieties onto rootstocks of American hybrids, total disaster was averted at the last moment and the wine production industry saved. In addition to Clinton, varieties included Noah, Othello, Oberlin, Baco, Herbemont, Jacquez and others.

Sauvignon Blanc

By the 1930’s the population of France was 35 million; wine production was around 91 million Hectolitres! There were huge problems associated with overproduction alongside alcohol related health issues and the French government were unsure how to deal with either. The result was a carrots and sticks approach, grants and propaganda on the one hand and series of poorly thought out laws which, amongst other things, banned the growing of the American hybrid vines. As late as 1950 posters were produced suggesting the wine made from these varieties was inferior and there was dark talk of Methanol and other dangerous chemicals found in the wine. The myth of poisonous foreign varieties undoubtedly helped protect the interests of large producers, while discouraging home production and folk memories persist in tales of “mad wine”.

While mad wine is not a feature in any of the Garden Design Academy courses on viticulture, quality wine production is. This afternoon a Christmas fete was help in Saint-Romain-sur-Cher and we took the opportunity to visit the village wine co-op. We tasted a few and bought a few boxes, discussing their wines and the growing season with very knowledgeable staff. A white made from Sauvignon Blanc had been awarded a gold medal this year and was very good. We also tasted their Gamay primeur and asked them about our recent observations of this wine at the Montrichard wine festival.

Single guyot training system

We had identified a taste we were unhappy with in at least half of the dozen or so wines we sampled at the festival and we were told that it was a production problem, caused by the late rains initiating disease and a lack of due care in harvesting. Here they harvested only a small part of their Gamay crop for the Primeur, picking by hand and selecting only the best fruit. There was no “off” taste in this wine; something else we have learned this week.

At the end of our visit we walked the dog amongst the vines where pruning was well underway, single Guyot style. The soil was very sandy but with flints derived from the limestone beneath.

Wine production is a complex process involving both plant culturing and manufacturing and we have students in the UK and as far away as New Zealand studying the subject with us. I admire their courage and hard work and celebrate the result when it is a good as the wines we tasted today.

Cut flowers, nuts and berries.

We have been working hard to provide new courses and add them to the Garden Design Academy web site. The latest batch fills me with nostalgia and reminds me of the beginnings of my horticultural career as a boy in south-west of England.

My Father was a highly skilled tool-maker and precision engineer and still, in his eighties, makes skeleton clocks as a hobby, starting with sheets of metal and transforming them into a unique timepiece over the course of a year or more. Dedicated though he was to his work, his passion was gardening and his dream was to own his own nursery.

An opportunity came his way when a couple of elderly ladies who ran an organic smallholding wanted to retire. They liked my Dad (everyone does!) and decided to help him fulfill has ambition. An arrangement was made whereby he paid a lump sum and the remainder from future earnings; we were the proud owners of a house and 10 acres of Cornish countryside, with crops in the ground including bulbs, foliage plants and strawberries. All the machinery and equipment was left in the barns and sheds and at the age of fourteen the ladies taught me how to plough and showed my father how to grow the traditional crops organically.

Our Cut Flower Bulbs course would have been useful to Dad. We understood so little and the learning curve was steep. We made hugely expensive mistakes out of ignorance of the most basic techniques, but made up for it in enthusiasm and share determination. At harvest time it was not unusual for me to work until midnight and go to school the next day.

Daffodils were the major crop in our region and features prominently in the course. One year, I remember, we went out to check on a field which should have been close to picking, to discover the whole crop of nearly two acres had disappeared; they had been stolen over night and we were not surprised to see cheap Daffs for sale on the streets of Truro that weekend. We also grew Anemones, Dutch Iris and Kaffir Lilies outside and had a try with Freesias in the glasshouses we built together. These flowers were packed and sent by train to the markets of London, Birmingham and other cities; sometimes they fetched a good price but on occasions they made nothing. The trick was to have flowers for Mothers Day.

The other major inherited crop was strawberries. These were grown in the fields with a proportion protected under glass cloches to produce earlier crops. Ladies from the village used to come to help with the picking but Mother could outperform all of them, cutting them carefully with scissors and arranging them in punnets. The fruit were sold at the farm gate, in local shops and through wholesalers, where the price was lower but the volumes far greater. We grew other berry fruits to sell locally in small quantities, currents and gooseberries especially and these and many more feature in our new Berry Fruit Production course. We learned the hard way about Gooseberry Sawfly larva, which can strip the leaves from a whole plantation in just a few days if you are not attentive.

The Nut Production course reminds me not so much of my childhood, but of my current life in France, where we regularly pick sacks of hazel nuts, chestnuts and walnuts from local trees and bushes, storing them in the cool of the cellar for use throughout the year. Walnuts are grown here commercially, both for the edible nuts and for the oil, pressed at several mills in the area and in France generally, many nut crops are important to the local economy.

During forty years in the industry I have worked in most sectors of the horticultural industry and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to pass on what I have learned to students of the Garden Design Academy. Many more exciting courses are in the pipeline and I am enjoying working with students through the existing range. The RHS qualification courses are always stimulating and the vast subject of Garden History is fascinating, especially now that I can easily compare the English tradition with the French. Living in the Touraine with a Bordeaux-born wife gives an extra edge to our Viticulture courses, with one of our students owning a boutique vineyard in New Zealand. Garden design and landscaping courses involve art, craft and science in creating the gardens our clients demand and are hugely satisfying both for students and ourselves.

I have been saying for years that you never stop learning in horticulture and gardening. I get back as much as I give while teaching these subjects and trust this will continue for many years to come.