The Art of Vine Complantation: Fostering Grapevine Harmony

A vineyard in Alsace using complantation

Complantation in vineyards involves two practices with distinct objectives. The first consists in planting young vines to replenish the vineyard, in cases where some vines have died and need to be replaced. The practice of complantation we are interested in today is particularly designed to reveal the harmony that grape varieties planted together can produce, through a more pronounced expression of the terroir. This practice, championed by iconic estates such as Marcel Deiss (Alsace), Beaurenard (Châteauneuf-du-Pape), Laroque d’Antan (Cahors) and Niepoort (Portugal), raises intriguing questions. Let’s take a closer look.

The complantation of grape varieties: An ancient art that puts the terroir back at the forefront

“Complantation refers to the art of planting different grape varieties in the same terroir. It is the earliest known form of viticulture, predating the advent of clones and the decline in biodiversity. It creates a complex, natural ecosystem to ensure regular harvests,” explained Jean-Michel Deiss

Terroir can be pictured as a whole, an entity in which different individuals evolve harmoniously. They interact, express themselves and, above all else, adapt. We can then replace the idea of the grape’s varietal profile with that of its terroir. The site itself comes into its own, offering a new understanding of how wines express themselves. The grape variety no longer takes centre stage – it’s a revolution!

The other benefit of complantation relates to the diseases that plague our vineyards. These include downy mildew and powdery mildew, which then face major challenges in developing. Instead of a single type of individual (clone), there are two, five or even sixty! The Marcel Deiss estate, for example, combines the 13 traditional Alsatian grape varieties on certain plots in the Schoenenbourg, as well as the 47 old grape varieties historically present. This technique greatly reduces the damage caused by fungal diseases, which in turn considerably limits the number of interventions in the vineyard.

In keeping with this concept of harmony, there’s another benefit of complantation: communication between plants! Grapevines are complex living organisms, as such they communicate with fellow species via root exudates or hormone secretions. These are the products of rhizodeposition, which can be broadly defined as the release of organic and inorganic compounds from living plant roots. This ensures that when one plant contracts a disease (fungal, for example), the surrounding plants naturally secrete elements that help it tackle the disease. And this harmony and communication also come into play with the different surrounding elements, creating a real symbiosis within the site.

The origins of complantation: Historically predominant cultivation method

The historical practice of planting different grape varieties in a single vineyard dates back to the days when winegrowers were farmers, and not yet “viticulturists”. In those days, in Europe, “modern” diseases (primarily downy mildew and powdery mildew) didn’t exist yet (as they were imported from the United States at a later date) and variations in harvests were mainly due ‘coulures’ in other words shot berries (failed pollination of the grape blossoms caused by rain, cold or physiology). The solution to this problem was to plant different grape varieties on the same plots, to limit losses. Some grape varieties were affected, while others were not, depending on the weather conditions, which meant that yields could be kept at a reasonable level. Back then, no winegrower would ever have risked producing wine solely from a single grape variety! Before appellations and other legal texts protecting vineyards were introduced, wines were referred to as “vins de lieu” (local wines, a modest denomination, merely tying the wine to a bit of geography) or “vins de terroir“, since it wasn’t possible to mention the many grape varieties that coexisted on the plots.

The phylloxera pest at the end of the 19th century led to the virtual disappearance of complantation. When replanting vineyards, research into grape varieties and scientific progress led winegrowers to introduce clone-derived vines. Appellation specifications were therefore tailored to these situations, authorising single grape varieties in some regions, or multiple grape varieties in others (such as in the case of Châteauneuf-du-Pape with its famous 13 varieties). The rise in industrial fertilisers (initially produced in former gunpowder factories) also considerably increased the vigour of the vines and consequently their yields. The only problem was that excessive vine vigour led to major differences in ripeness between the different grape varieties. As a result, winegrowers gradually abandoned the complantation method…until recently. Several brave and ambitious vine growers started to plant several grape varieties in their plots, bringing the practice of complantation back to life.

Leading estates practising grape varieties complantation

In Alsace, a winegrowing region well known for giving pride of place to varieties at the expense of terroir (a unique approach in France, though fairly widespread in New World countries), some winegrowers are planting different grape varieties in their plots. The Deiss family name is well known in the region, not just for its fine wines, but also for its viticultural methods, as evidenced by the Marcel Deiss estate (run by Jean-Michel Deiss) and the Rêveur estate (run by his son, Mathieu Deiss).

In Burgundy, the eminent Fanny Sabre vinifies her Anatole cuvée (IGP Sainte-Marie-La-Blanche) with Chardonnay, Aligoté, Melon de Bourgogne, Pinot Gris and Auxerrois grapes, all of which grow alongside each other. The Sœur Cadette estate, located in the Vézelay sub-region of Burgundy, vinifies its Bourgogne-Ermitage with 15% César and 85% Pinot Noir grapes produced on a single plot.

A little further south, in the southern Rhône Valley, Domaine de Beaurenard blends the 13 grape varieties allowed in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation into its cuvée, also growing them in complantation. Nearby, Gourt de Mautens is also experimenting with complantation. Jérôme Bressy, their winemaker, “appreciates the richness and nuances that are created”.

Domaine Laroque d’Antan, a few kilometres to the west in the Cahors region, is unique. It produces its white cuvée, Néphèle, from Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Mauzac Rose, Mauzac Vert and Verdanelle grape varieties that all grow side by side. As for its red cuvée, Nigrine, it is naturally produced from Malbec, but also includes Cabernet Franc, Prunelard and Negrette.

Elsewhere in northern Portugal, the Niepoort estate, well known for its Port wines, is also creating excellent wines in the Douro, Dao and Vinho Verde regions. In these regions, the many native grape varieties (Tinta Amarela, Touriga Franca, Rufete, Rinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, Baga, Jaen, Bical, Encruzado, Malvasia…) express their qualities in extremely fine white and red wines.

Ultimately, complantation in vineyards is an ancient practice. By losing the varietal profile of the grape variety, the wine can express the terroir more fully. The grape varieties that are planted alongside each other communicate harmoniously and fight disease more effectively. Having all but disappeared in the wake of phylloxera, clone research and industrial fertilisers, the practice has been enjoying a revival in recent years. The question is, will complantation eventually regain its former status as the predominant method of cultivation?

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