Wakeup Call from the Nursery: Fighting Against the Dying Vine

By | 21 February 2024

Our viticulture week continues with a review of Un Point C’est Tout, a new film from radical French nursery, Pépinière Bérillon.


Jamie Goode

In the second piece in our week-long series on viticulture and viticulturists, Jamie Goode reviews Un Point C’est Tout (“That’s All”), an urgent new film produced by the radical French nursery Pépinière Bérillon and featuring contributions from a starry cast of winegrowers, which sounds the alarm about the decline of vineyards in France.

Viticulture special: Marco Simonit—A lesson in substance and style

Back in August 2021 I did something I’ve not done before. I visited a vine nursery, a pépinière. But this was no ordinary nursery. It was a name everyone was talking about in the wine world, part of an industry that’s vital to vineyards worldwide but hides in the background: Lilian Bérillon.

This lean, slightly wiry 50 year old is doing to nursery practice what Marco Simonit has done for pruning: making it sexy. Just as Simonit has carved a name for himself telling the wine world that they’ve been doing pruning wrong, and that this could be a cause of widespread vine decline, Bérillon is pointing out that we are in danger of losing old vines because of poor nursery work, using the wrong type of graft, and our dependence on just a few clones of rootstocks and varieties. Bérillon has been working with leading winegrowers to create massal selections of each variety, and has then been growing them up and grafting them using an older technique called the greffe à l’Anglaise (known in English as whip and tongue) that he claims creates a much better graft union than the ubiquitous (quicker and cheaper) omega graft that was introduced in the mid-1970s. He has also been working on rootstock selections, but here his hands are tied because legally only a few clones of each rootstock type are permitted. But he grows his rootstock on trellises and farms biodynamically, whereas most use herbicides and allow the rootstock canopies to trail on the ground.


Now he has released a documentary film exploring these issues in more detail, called Un Point C’est Tout. The film begins with a roll call of some of the great and the good of the French winegrowing world, who are all clients of Lilian Bérillon. They introduce the two main themes that this documentary is focused on. We begin with Anselme Selosse (Champagne Jacques Selosse), in his cellar, who somewhat philosophically states, “Now we’re at a point where we realize we’ve come to the end of the journey suggested to us.” [The film is in French, but is subtitled, and all quotes here are from the subtitles.] We then quickly switch to Jean Louis Chave in his vineyards in Hermitage, which interestingly, as well as being planted sur echalas (vines on individual stakes, normal for the Northern Rhône), now also use tressage, where there is no trimming, but pairs of vines have their shoots braided together forming a two-vine arch. Chave raises the point that with clonal selection, “the terroir was no longer able to transcend the grape variety: in other words, the grape variety predominated.” We then head to another luminary, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon of Champagne Roederer. “Our crusade is a quest for taste: the idea is to really seek out in this genetic diversity, in the terroir, in the plots, in the soils, the taste of great wine.”

The narrative turns towards the Northern Rhône where we meet Christine Vernay and her daughter Emma as they explore the vineyards of Condrieu. The pair discuss the lifespan of a vine. Thierry Germain from Saumur believes that when a vineyard is planted, it’s not for the current generation, but rather for the future ones such as grandkids and even great grandkids. Lalou Bize-Leroy, who at 91 still has a spark, claims she has never uprooted a vine. Circularly, Peter Sisseck of Pingus brings up the issue of costs and sustainability concerning replanting vineyards every 20 years. Selosse adds his thoughts, contributing to this theme. The discussion occurs within the first two minutes and twenty seconds of the hour-long documentary.

Two prevailing themes emerge within the documentary, namely the crises affecting viticulture currently. One crisis concerns the loss of genetic diversity in vineyards due to clonal plantings while the other focuses on the drastically reduced lifespan of vineyards because of poor quality nursery work. This leads to the introduction of Bérillon who brings his thoughts to the table on how these issues can be addressed.

“A tenth of French vineyards are dying”, says the narrator, “and the cause remains unknown”. While trunk disease ESCA is often identified as the main problem, could other aspects play a role? The lack of diversity in plant material, which is mass-produced and unable to age, in conjunction with people not understanding or caring for the material, could be contributing factors.

Caroline Chevallier from Château de Villeneuve in the Loire Valley echoes the narrator’s sentiments. She worries about the declining lifespan of the vines, stating they barely last two decades. Contrarily, vines from the mid-twentieth century appear to have a longer life. Jérôme Bressy, of Gourt de Martens in Rasteau, can no longer continue with his clonal plantings from the eighties due to their poor performance. So, he has gone back to massal selections, where he sees a significant improvement. Interestingly, government subsidies aren’t given for massal selections, only clonal. Lécaillon also brings up the point concerning the resilience of the vineyard in changing and extreme climates due to its genetic diversity. Being in varying stages of growth means the vines aren’t all affected at the same time, giving insurance of sorts.

Alain Deloire, a respected wine scientist, discusses the importance of the graft union in vine propagation. This is when the scion and rootstock are cut and fused together to align their cambial layers – a layer of tissue beneath the bark that is responsible for creating the xylem and phloem, the vine’s conductive tissue. Following this, a callus forms, consisting of undifferentiated cells, from which cells differentiate to link the conductive tissues of both partners. The effectiveness of the graft relies on this union being tight. The majority of vines are grafted using an omega grafting method, developed by a German machine in the 1970s. This allows the scion and rootstock to be fused in a single move, accelerating the process.

The union is shaped like the Greek letter omega, which is how the graft gets its name. Deloire has assessed the quality of the union and the fusion of the xylem and phloem, noting that while there is no ‘perfect’ union, the whip and tongue method allows for a better link between the conducting systems. Despite being solid when leaving the nursery, the omega graft is considered solid due to mechanical reasons, not because of a good fusion between the scion and rootstock. Bérillon and their team manually test the plants they sell, discarding any that show signs of instability. Many nurseries don’t rigorously sort their vines after lifting, often resulting in a waste of resources and labour. Consquently, Bérillon’s acceptance rate is only 50 percent compared to the 78 percent industry average.

Noted wine producer Sisseck believes that omega grafting is one of the most significant issues in viticulture today. His sentiments are echoed by Bressy who states, “Our ancestors used slit grafts for a reason,” arguing that the omega method is not suitable for growing old vines. In contrast, Bize-Leroy highlights the importance of age in vine culture, stating, “you need at least 30 years for the vine to start saying something. A vine has to be old.”

This documentary examines the consequences of omega grafting and other issues relating to viticulture. It explores the decline in vineyards, particularly in France, attributing some of the responsibility on omega grafting and environmental factors like climate chaos. However, it’s not just these issues causing the decline – limited vine genetic diversity and a lack of quality planting material is also a probable contributor.

The cost factor is certainly a significant issue. Grafted vines can be bought for as low as €1.2-1.4, according to Bérillon, while his vines cost around €6 each. This greatly increases the expenses of planting a vineyard. However, if you are planting for future generations, it isn’t an area that can be compromised on.

No doubt this documentary will be seen as controversial by some, but it may prove to be a wake-up call to the wine industry at large—or at least those who have some interest in their vineyards growing old. Personally, I find the arguments presented convincing, after visiting Bérillon and seeing what he does first hand.

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