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The wine nursery, a little-known activity that contributes to the quality of the French vineyard

The air is brisk on this February morning in the heart of the Loire Valley. In one of the workshops of the Duval Voisin wine estate, the two operators who work around the disbudding and cutting machine have kept their jackets, hats and gloves. But the branches do not wait: it is in the first days of spring that the grafts will have to be planted. For these winegrowers who have been established for several generations in Ingrandes-de-Touraine, a small town in the Côteaux-sur-Loire group inserted in the Bourgueil appellation, the wine nursery has become an important outlet in the post-war years.

But the practice of large-scale vine grafting, of which France is one of the jewels, developed from 1880. Twenty years after the appearance, in the Gard, of the famous phylloxera, this aphid unfortunately arrived from the United States and attacks the root of the vine.

In record time, the insect had devastated almost all the French vines, before reaching all of Europe and finally the whole world, making light of all the treatments tested. Until it was observed that American vines on the east coast were resistant to the disease. Destroying all the vines to plant this single species everywhere would have made it possible to eradicate the evil, but would also have destroyed the immense diversity of grape varieties.

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Developed in a few years at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Montpellier, the rootstock technique represented an intermediate solution: it consists of using American plants, resistant to phylloxera, as vines, to graft the chosen grape variety – merlot, cabernet… – thus protected from aphids.

This method has been going on for nearly a century and a half, with the only risk, far from being negligible, of rejection of the transplant. “Our margins, we achieve them with the success rate of takeovers, in other words grafts”, explains Jean-Paul Duval, who transmitted the orders of the domain to his niece and nephew Florence and Laurent Voisin.

In view of the some 220 million plants used in France each year, the farm, which produces around 500,000 plants year after year, remains modest. But the orders arrive as well from the neighboring domain as from Russia, Mexico or Portugal. The recognized quality of French vineyards undeniably benefits this market: in 2021, the sector exported 670 tonnes of plants, up 25% compared to the previous year, with significant demand from the United Kingdom and the Emirates.

jigsaw piece

Essentially a labour-intensive activity, the wine nursery occupies its operators for a good part of the year – eight seasonal workers with the Duval Voisins, present from November to the end of June. “The mother plants, intended to serve as rootstock, do not require too much work or special treatment, apart from insecticides”, comment the uncle and his nephew.

Supplied and very strictly controlled by FranceAgriMer, the National Establishment for Agricultural and Seafood Products, these mother plants produce vine leaves, but not grapes. They grow at ground level for several meters, are uprooted between January and March, and then grow back on their own, for twenty or thirty years.

The cultivation of the mother vines, which will provide the scions, is more delicate. First, they must be replanted each year: between each production, the land must rest for four or five years, during which time cereals can be grown there, for example. It is also necessary to select the right grape variety, according to the requests of the customer and the terroir for which the vine is intended. Then protect it from mildew, this parasite very fond of young plants. “The cut, finally, must be meticulous, because it is necessary to check the alternation of the eyes, in other words the buds, which must appear on one side then on the other of the branch. However, there can be up to 60 eyes per branch of a vine…”

Once the graft and the rootstock are ready and well sized, that is to say about ten and thirty centimeters respectively, the decisive stage of the graft itself can begin. “Everyone gets in on it, sitting side by side around long tables, and it’s off for several weeks.” In Ingrandes, as in many nurseries, the small Omega machine then comes into play, operated by a pedal: a notch in the rootstock, pressure on the scion which fits into it like a puzzle piece…

In a few seconds, you’re done. But the story is not over. The plants will still go through paraffin baths, to consolidate the assembly, before being pricked into the ground, one by one, by hand.

It remains to face the moment of truth: “Will the transplant take? You can never be 100% sure, says Laurent Voisin. Rejections are always possible. Sometimes, in such a year, a grape variety does not take at all. There are also the vagaries of the weather, the temperature or the hail that coats the plants…” At around 1.45 euros for the selling price of a plant, failures can quickly weigh down a season. A few months later, the plants are uprooted and stored in bundles in large fridges kept at around 1 degree, until they are delivered to the customer. They will flourish there for about thirty years before giving way to new grafts.

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