A family vineyard in southwestern France makes history

by Tom Fiorina on March 26, 2013

René Péderade and his cousin Florent Péderade.

René Pédebernade with his cousin Florent Pédebernade.

His memory might be fading slightly, but René Pédebernade, a vigneron in the Saint Mont appellation in southwestern France, still works around the 12-ha (30-acre) family domain. When I visited him recently, the 87-year-old retiree was removing, with his pickaxe, roots from a tree that had died recently in his garden. He stopped long enough to take me around to the other side of the house where he was born and still lives in with his wife to visit 12 rows of vines (600 in total) that have been bringing grapevine researchers from throughout France to his small village of Sarragachies in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

These gnarled vines, some as thick around as Pédebarnade’s waist, have something in common with Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower: they’re classified as a French historic monument. The researchers estimate that the vines were planted between 1800 and 1830, meaning that eight generations of the Pédebarnade family has been tending them. The retired vigneron has his own way of estimating their age. His great-grandmother told him that her own great-grandmother had told her that the vines were already old when she was a little girl.

The Pédeberade vines were the first living substance to receive France's coveted Historic Monument status.

The Pédebernade vines were the first living substance to receive France’s coveted Historic Monument status.

It’s almost a miracle that this half-acre parcel of vines managed to survive so long. The first bullet that they dodged was the phylloxera plague of the mid-1800s when a root-destroying louse from America eradicated virtually all of the vineyards in Europe. These ungrafted vines survived on their own roots (instead of the phylloxera-resistant American root-stock that saved Europe’s vineyards) because they are planted in ten meters of sand, making them invincible to the pest, which uses tunnels to travel underground. Tunnels built in such soft, sandy soil collapse immediately.

In the 1970s and 80s an effort to improve the wine in appellations such as Saint Mont by introducing “more international” varieties (such as Chardonnay, Merlot, etc.), combined with the vine-removal program financed by the European Union in subsequent decades to reduce wine production, led to the loss of much of Europe’s vine diversity. Knowing that these vines had been worked by eight generations of his family, Pédebarnade refused to sacrifice them for an arrachage payment. And sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, researchers at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and the managers at the local wine cooperative, the Producteurs Plaimont Cooperative Winery, became aware of the rich ampelographic (ampelography is the field of botany concerned with the identification and classification of grapevines) biodiversity of this part of France.

André Dubosc, the founder of the wine cooperative, said that they began paying cooperative members to look after old, rare vines on their properties. Showing the unique diversity of the region’s vineyards, the Bédebernade plot contains around 20 different red and white grape varieties, including Tannat, Pinenc (another southwestern France red-grape variety; known as Braucol in Gaillac or Fer Servadou in Marcillac) and Muscadelle, but also including 7 others unidentified to date by France’s leading viticulture and ampelographic experts. Dubosc, a long-time supporter of forgotten grape varieties, runs a vine conservatory in Saint Mont with over 116 different varieties, making it one of France’s largest ampelographic collections.

“The Pédebernade vines,” he explained “are remarkable examples of biodiversity and genetic resilience. A recent article describing DNA analysis of grapevines by INRA researchers in Montpellier [“Genetic structure in cultivated grapevines is linked to geography and human selection”; published in the February 2013 issue of BMC Plant Biology] shows,” he said, “that many of France’s grape varieties originated in the Pyrenees region.”

Eric Fitan, president of the Saint Mont Vigneron Association, explains how pre-phylloxera vines were planted together in twos in squares. The double-vines to the front and back of him, to both the right and left, were planted almost 200 years ago, so that oxen could walk between them in the two directions. The intermediate, single vines were added in the mid-1800s, after inexpensive wire strands became available.

Eric Fitan, president of the Saint Mont Vigneron Association, explains how pre-phylloxera vines were planted together, two-by-two, in squares. The double-vines to the front and back of him, just to both his right and left, were planted almost 200 years ago. The two-meter-plus space allowed oxen to pass between them in the two directions. The intermediate, single vines were added in the mid-1800s after inexpensive wire strands became available.

Historic vine cultivation
Eric Fitan, president of the Saint Mont Vigneron Association, explained to me and others in attendance during this visit organized as part of the Saint Mont Vignoble en Fête March wine festival, that the Pédebernade parcel also allows a crucial look back to how vines were cultivated in the days before phylloxera. Rather than being planted in a row, using wire supports to control the vegetation, early vineyards, such as this one, were planted in squares, with more than two meters between each vine. Each part of this square in the Pédebernade vineyard has two vines per stake. This arrangement allowed the vigneron to cultivate the soil in either direction with his oxen-pulled plow. In the middle of the 19th century, the development of inexpensive wire strands led to the single-row plantation of vines. Individual vines were planted between one leg of the square used previously to define the vineyard, and the wire support system used to train the vines eliminated the possibility of working the soil in more than one direction.

A pre-phylloxera cuvée
The Producteurs Plaimont Cooperative released a Pre-phylloxera Cuvée this year made from predominantly Tannat with a little Pinenc. Fitan explained that the grapes come from another half-acre plot of younger vines. Everything is relative, however, as the vines in this other parcel are over 140-years-old, having been planted in 1871. Evidently, the fact that the Pédebernade parcel has such a large number of varieties, each ripening at a different time, makes producing quality wine here too much of a challenge. Only 1,342 bottles of the Pre-phylloxera Cuvée were made, but the cooperative’s technical and managing director, Olivier Bourdet-Pees, says that there are plans to produce five additional wines from native varieties available in the three pre-phylloxera plots that the cooperative has access to. One day, Bourdet-Pees said, he hopes to be able to present wines from the unidentified varieties that are found in them.

Just as seven generations of Pédenades have done, René Pédenades strides through the family's vines in Sarragachies.

Just as seven generations of his family before him, René Pédebernade strides through the family vines in Sarragachies.

These historic vines show that winemaking is a long-term agricultural activity, requiring patience and dedication. A winemaker often harvests grapes from vines that were planted by his or her father (or grandfather, or even–in rare cases such as in this small village in France’s Gers department, a great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather). He or she plants other vines for those who come afterwards. Thanks to people like René Pédebernade (and his son Jean-Pascal, who now runs the family vineyard), to visionary people like André Dubosc and others at the Producteurs Plaimont Cooperative, and to Eric Fitan and others at the Maison des Vins in Saint Mont who want to preserve the region’s rich ampelographic history, we can see how truly intergenerational vines really are.

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Alain Harvey March 26, 2013 at 19:20

Old vines is a magical term when it refers to the wines of southwestern France. Fruit grown on ancient, gnarled vines may be short on quantity, but long on quality, growing intense and flavorful grapes that make memorable wine. Great wines improve with age.

I believe the same is true for wineries. René Pédebernade and his son Jean-Pascal have a passion to grow and produce the best wines ever along with visionaries as Tom ponts out like André Dubosc at the Producteurs Plaimont Cooperative and Eric Fitan at the Maison des Vins in Saint Mont.

Tom Fiorina March 26, 2013 at 21:30

Seeing these vines and René Pédebernade does make you think that there is something special about the Saint Mont terroir. Thanks for your comment, Alain.

craig April 6, 2013 at 05:30

Thanks for this post. Very well written. The Pédebernade story is fascinating!

Tom Fiorina April 6, 2013 at 09:51

Thanks for your comment, Craig.

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