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Why Producers Are Reviving This Ancient Planting System

Why Producers Are Reviving This Ancient Planting System

When it comes to vines, everything old is new again

Biondi-Santi Estate Vineyards | Photo Credit: Biondi-Santi

In the 1980s and 1990s, vintners in Europe were on a quest. Seeking to optimize their vineyards, they replanted sites with carefully selected clones. Whatever qualities they sought —vigor, yields, concentration—there were gold-standard clones for that. But over time, and with a changing climate, these curated clones became less suited for their sites. For some winemakers, this spurred them to look into the past for a less precise—but more effective—solution to replanting: sélection massale, or massal selection. Massal selection propagates cuttings from older vineyards to preserve a diverse genetic makeup. The practice is coming back into fashion as vignerons are finding that older and varied clones—as opposed to carefully selected and purchased clones—can better adapt to the evolving environment. Some are even taking it one step further by creating living libraries of vines to help preserve genetic wealth for years to come. 

The Benefits of Massal Selection

Prior to the technological advancements that made clonal selection possible, vineyards were replanted using massal selection. Vintners would manually select vines from one site, take cuttings from those plants, and cultivate them in a different vineyard. Human senses, rather than laboratory findings, dictated which plants were chosen.

And there was a lot to choose from. Giovanni Gaja, the fifth generation of GAJA in Italy, calls these heterogeneous sites “vineyards of the population.” If a vineyard had 5,000 vines, it could contain 5,000 variants of one variety. One could produce bigger bunches, another may have stronger resilience to mildew, while yet another was low-yielding. “There was real richness in the vineyards because when you have so many different biotypes, each one expresses in a different way,” he says. “When you put them all together in the cellar, you get depth and richness in the wine.”

Giovanni Gaja | Photo Credit: GAJA

But when clonal selection was introduced, it narrowed the field: in general, thousands of clones were whittled down to just 10 or 15 selections. At first, these champion vines were seen as saviors to vintners’ biggest problems: disease pressure, low concentration, poor yields, or whatever else ailed them. But over decades, the cracks in this system began to show. Identical vines were identically susceptible to new diseases, weather patterns, and unseen challenges that vignerons didn’t originally face. 

The lack of resilience by these “optimal vines” prompted the Gaja family to start their own research into massal selection and preserve the genetic heritage of Nebbiolo. After a small in-house experiment in 2003, they enlisted two geneticists in 2016 to start a more detailed project. Taking cuttings from vines at least 40 years old (pre-clonal selection plantings), they looked at two main criteria: overall resiliency and epigenetics, meaning the vine can adapt to conditions. To date, they’ve identified 282 biotypes.

Gaja acknowledges that the clock is ticking on a project like this. Vines in the estate’s most famous vineyards—Costa Russi, Sorì San Lorenzo, and Sorì Tildin—are, on average, anywhere between 55 to 70 years old. And, and while they still have a couple of decades to go, Gaja says, “They are not immortal. Before they get to the end of their life [and require replanting], we want to make sure we make a selection of the best vines that we can replicate for the future and continue the genetic heritage.”

What Does This Mean for Marquee Clones?

Federico Radi | Photo Credit: Biondi-Santi

What happens to a region that was built on a marquee clone? Montalcino’s ascent into the world of fine wine was largely due in part to research done at Biondi-Santi and the discovery of what became known as the BBS-11 clone of Sangiovese. Other producers planted with BBS-11, and the results elevated the quality of the region overall. Today, the famed estate is experimenting with massal selection to ensure Sangiovese’s success in a changing climate. 

The research is being driven by Biondi-Santi’s winemaker Federico Radi, who joined the estate in 2017. Prior, he spent 25 years studying clonal selection and understood the need to preserve older clones. In the study, Radi takes cuttings from old vines and generates them in two spots: one next to the mother vine, and one in a young, experimental vineyard. On top of this, the team maps out parcels according to exposition, soil type, rootstock, and numerous other variables. Like any study into massal selection, it’s a multi-year, arduous process, and results won’t be fully understood for at least a decade. But Radi says it is vital if they are to keep the estate’s heritage. “Otherwise, we are going to miss out on one of the reasons why the estate is famous: the history,” he says.

And the uniqueness. Unlike BBS-11, Radi thinks they will keep some of the recovered clones proprietary. “The DNA has evolved at Biondi-Santi,” says Radi, and he wants clones that will continue to express the estate’s singular style.

Changing Climate, Changing Regions

All over the world, a changing climate drives much of the work being done around massal selection. Burgundy has long been synonymous with Chardonnay, but Aligoté, a high-acid grape, is coming into its own as conditions change. “Aligoté is seeing a renewed interest because it seems more resistant to climate change than Chardonnay,” says Pierre de Benoist of Domaine de Villaine in Bouzeron AOC—the only appellation in Burgundy to focus on Aligoté. If rumors are to be believed, Meursault may consider adding Aligoté to the wines in the future.

To better understand the potential of the variety, Benoist is collaborating with the Chambre d’Agriculture de Saône et Loire on massal selection research. From 17 different vines—the oldest being 115 years old— located in nine of the estate’s lieux-dits, they started a nursery and identified key qualities: small grapes without too many leaves; resistance to botrytis and other disease pressures; and an ability to express Bouzeron terroir. The latter is of particular interest to Benoist, who says Aligoté doesn’t express the complexities of terroir immediately because it is an aromatic variety. But, he believes the older clones can produce wines on par with Burgundy’s renowned Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs if planted in the best sites–as they used to be decades ago. “This is the reason why I created this nursery: to have the best vines in order to offer a precise expression of the terroir,” he says.

Given the success of the project thus far, Benoist decided to open the program up to other growers in the region and look for new candidates to add to the nursery.

Starting a Movement

Quentin Paillard | Photo Credit: Champagne Pierre Paillard

This spirit of collaboration drives Antoine and Quentin Paillard of Champagne Pierre Paillard in Bouzy, a village in Montagne de Reims famous for Pinot Noir. When Antoine joined the family estate in 2008, his father was already planting by massal selection, and Antoine thought it would be interesting to introduce even more types of Pinot Noir from elsewhere in the region. However, nurseries in Champagne at the time lacked the clonal material he sought. Instead, he turned to the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), which cultivated a small conservatory of vines and was looking to grow its library. 

Together, they enlisted other growers—many of whom were doing massal selection in their own sites—to donate to the project. In total, 35 growers participated and the library now boasts about 120 clones each of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. With the project near completion, the next steps will be to make these vines available to all interested producers in Champagne. “We said let’s put some diversity together and, instead of doing it alone, let’s do it together and make it better,” says Paillard.