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Provignage at Domaine de la Bergerie

I’ve written about the old practice of provignage – gardeners may know it better as ‘tip-layering’ – before (it’s hard not to with wines such as Provignage, from Henry Marionnet). Well, in truth, there is more to provignage than there is to tip-layering, with many variations on the theme. The technique in Burgundy, for instance, often involved excavating soil and then burying the entire vine with only the growth tips showing, a little more drastic than merely layering a shoot. But the basic principles behind these techniques are the same. When used as a straightforward method of propagation, the new vine is generated by securing the growing tip of a pre-existing vine beneath the surface of the soil. The tip will form roots, and once established the newly-rooted plant can be separated from its genetically identical parent with a swift cut of the knife. The result is one healthy (provided the parent was healthy, of course) young vine, on its own roots. These days, however, because vines on their own roots are vulnerable to attack by phylloxera, propagation using this technique is rare. Nevertheless it was once very common, and it was a good method by which a peasant vigneron could expand his vineyard and thus enhance his income.

This week and next I am reporting on a series of tastings at La Table de la Bergerie, featuring not only the wines of Yves Guégniard but also Claude Papin and Vincent Ogereau. But before the tasting began we took a walk among one of Yves’ older vineyards, next to his house and cellars. I found what I saw there to be fascinating; first, some of the vines there had been propagated by provignage, and were thereby planted on their own roots, and yet – looking at the thickness of the vines themselves – they had seemingly been thriving for many decades. That in itself seems unusual, in a region where ungrafted vines (such as those planted by Pithon-Paillé on the Coteau des Treilles) quickly succumb. But, in addition, these provins (as they are known) were still attached to their parent plant by the original shoot, now thickened with age. I had naively thought this would be severed once the plant had rooted.

I had time to shoot a quick video of the vines in question. It is less than half a minute long, so don’t blink:

I found myself with two questions. First, why not sever the provin from the parent? Second, could the apparent phylloxera resistance of the provins, and this lifelong connection between parent and offspring, be in any way related?

Dealing with the first of these two questions requires a little knowledge of history, and how viticulture today differs from what was carried out in the past. The concept of a vineyard full of distinct, individual, neatly arranged plants is a modern necessity, brought about by (a) increased use of horses and then vehicles in the vineyards through the 19th and 20th centuries, requiring planting in neat rows, and (b) the need for vines to be each planted on their own phylloxera-resistant roots. Prior to these two major changes vineyards were not collections of many individual plants, but a heterogenous, amorphous mix of vines and roots, interconnected and densely planted (a side effect of provignage – the shoots only reach so far from the parent vine, so vines were propagated close to one another). New vines were established by layering the pre-existing vines in one direction. As such vineyards tended to ‘migrate’ along the ground, eventually new vines would have to be taken to the now barren end of the vineyard to replant there.

ProvignageThere are a few such vineyards still in exstence today, of which perhaps the most famous belong to Bollinger, and are the source of the Vieilles Vignes Françaises cuvée. One of these is the Chaudes Terres vineyard, behind the Bollinger headquarters in Aÿ (shown right). The pictured vines are not individual plants but stem from a network of underground roots; the soil (as can be seen in the picture) is sandy, and this has deterred the phylloxera from attacking. As the old-timers noted, the vineyard ‘migrates’ (in this case, up the slope) and every few years fresh vines are planted at the bottom to maintain production. It sounds ridiculous, but this system – with the vineyard planted en foule, a mix of tightly-packed, randomly-positioned vines – was once the norm.

So, with memories of an era when vineyards were very different to how we see them today, it is of no surprise that the provins were left attached. What benefit would there be, after all, to their separation? The whole vineyard used to be like this, why worry about a handful of vines? The vigneron of fifty years ago would have regarded it as unnecessary work. Or perhaps they knew better to separate the vines? Perhaps they saw that provins separated from their parents did not thrive so well? I’m hypothesising wildly here, by the way.

And this brings us to my second question; how have such vines survived in a phylloxera-infested environment? Is it just chance? That seems unlikely. Or is it that, despite having their own phylloxera-susceptible roots, they receive sufficient nourishment from the parent plants (which were grafted vines), in order to remain healthy? Unfortunately, a trawl through what is written on provignage did not yield many clues; the literature does not seem extensive, especially literature concerning provignage in the post-phylloxera era. I don’t have an answer to this question, but here are a few interesting points I picked up along the way.

In his Treatise on the Vine (T. & J. Swords. and other publishers, 1830), William Robert Prince wrote the following of provignage: “…in vineyards where this course is practised, new vines are not required, for there, as is the case in Burgundy, the provins not being separated from the parent vines, the plants can be preserved for centuries, which is favourable to the quality of the wine“. Prince was an American, concerned mainly with phylloxera-resistant American vines, and he was writing before the disease had swept across Europe (before the disease was even known of, or understood), so naturally he makes no mention of phylloxera resistance of the ungrafted vines. Nevertheless he seems to have noted some qualitative advantages of leaving the provin attached, implying that the attached vines are certainly different to those that are separated. Healthier? More disease resistant? Prince doesn’t say.

More recent (and we would have hoped more relevant) references to provignage do not provide any clues; describing the process in Viticulture: An Introduction to Commercial Grape Growing for Wine Production (Lulu, 2007), Stephen Skelton writes of the provin, “[t]his shoot can then be trained up a support and in due course the new vine can be separated from its neighbour and – voila – the empty space has been filled“. There is no suggestion anywhere that the vines may be left connected, or that this may aid the battle against phylloxera. And I could find no mention elsewhere of whether provignage from grafted vines might be different to provignage from ungrafted vines in terms of how the vines cope with phylloxera.

There were a few other interesting references to provignage I uncovered, from James Busby (also writing in the 1830s, pre-phylloxera again), but not much else new. So ultimately my question remains unanswered. I would be delighted if readers can come up with any thoughts or hypotheses on whether ungrafted vines connected to a grafted vine might survive in a vineyards where phylloxera is endemic, or if you know of any other writings on the subject I should check out.

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