Catering to Connoisseurs: The Paris Louvre has a Rival … the Louvre of the Vine at Marseillan

While the Louvre in Paris houses many of the most famous artworks in the world an equally important and lesser known “Louvre” in the south is the now-endangered home of the world’s most important collection of vines.

World reknowned Louvre of the Vine at Domaine de Vassal is in danger (Youtube)

World reknowned Louvre of the Vine at Domaine de Vassal is in danger (Youtube)

And while the Paris artworks to all intent and purposes are safe, the 138-year-old Marseillan collection in the south managed by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) faces serious disruption, according to some reports.

Plans are advancing to move this valuable biological and genetic heritage from its protective 27ha sandy site near Marseillan Plage 18kms south of Sète where it has been preserved since 1949.

The move set to cost some €4 million, follows a threatened eviction from its current home, the Domaine de Vassal owned by Vranken-Pommery the Belgian drinks firm following a dispute over renewal of its 30-year lease at a present annual rent of €70,000. Vranken-Pommery seeks to hike this to €700,000. But relocation, a highly complex operation, is likely to take decades to complete and mean much of current research may be put on hold. Additionally it involves grafting existing vines onto US root stocks and replanting not in beach sand but in limestone soil a detrimental move in the view of some scientists.

According to a recent Nature Magazine report: “The relocation, which should get under way this year, will be technically complex, says Jean-Michel Boursiquot, a vine taxonomist at Domaine de Vassal. Many specimens were collected as urgent rescue cases and carry diseases, but are protected from full-blown infections at the Domaine de Vassal because they are grown in beach sand. The sand shields against root infestations of phylloxera and nematode worms that can spread devastating viral vine diseases… At (its new location) Pech Rouge, the plants will grow on higher ground in limestone soils. This will leave diseased plants susceptible to root infestations, so INRA intends to render the collection disease-free, a laborious process that involves repeated culturing and then propagating each plant until it is without pathogens. ‘It’s an enormous job, which to our knowledge has never been done on such a scale,’ says Boursiquot.

“He thinks that this cleaning process — equating to half the move costs — will take 5–10 years. Mark Thomas, a grapevine researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Waite campus in Urrbrae, Australia, says that the Domaine de Vassal is one of the few grapevine germplasm collections to have been extensively characterized genetically, using DNA fingerprinting. This makes it an international reference source, and allows researchers to explore the genetic relationships between varieties, and their origins.”

The Domaine de Vassal is unique because the soil is beach sand making it a safe repository for more than 2,300 different grape varieties and 7,500 plants housed there. These have been gathered since the time of the devastating accidental introduction in 1863 of the phylloxera plague which virtually wiped out most of Europe’s wine industry.

The collection from 47 different countries, is preserved for research and reference and housed on this plot of beach sand owned by Domaine Listel (part of Vranken-Pommery) – a safe harbour for the vines and widely recognised as of national and global importance. The sandy soils of Marseillan mean that neither the aphid that causes Phylloxera nor the nematode, another aggressive disease vector, can survive in beach sand.

The affair is causing much concern in France where the wine industry remains the second biggest export earner behind only the aeronautics industry.  A Facebook page has been set up here to try and prevent the move which supporters fear may put the world’s most important living museum of the vine in danger of survival.   There is also an online petition in French and English calling for support and signatures:

In defense of the greatest collection of grapevines in the world, French Domaine de Vassal
The greatest collection of vines in the world, an international living heritage, is in danger! Add your signature to this
petition by filling the form —this will take only 30 seconds of your time. Thank you so much for your support!

Pascal Tillard, director CGT INRA (National Institute for Agronomic Research) told La Marseillaise newspaper  that what annoyed him most “are the crocodile tears that everyone sheds today now the planned closure of the site has been announced. Threats to this unique area are recurrent. Since 1980, every five years I have had to plead hard to avoid the destruction of the collection. It would seem the authorities are slowly losing interest in it. Rent reviews have been a constant problem, he said. In 1949, the land was leased for a symbolic one French Franc; INRA should have bought the site a long time ago.”

Watch this very recent video reportage by Fabrice Tessier:

According to a report by Ken Payton on the Reign of Terroir website: “Domaine de Vassal’s official title is Domaine de Vassal Experimental Unit, Grapevine Genetic Resource Centre. It is the world’s most expansive and deepest collection of grape genetic resources, with 1000s of Vitis vinifera varieties and clones, 200 V. vinifera subsp. sylvestris (wild grape varieties such as V. ambrosia, V. riparia, and V. aestivalis), 480 rootstocks, 1100 intersp. hybrids, gathered from 50 countries.

“INRA has created 30 new grape varieties at Domaine de Vassal over its 65 years of existence. And others are in development. These include 15 white and black table grapes varieties (three without seeds) and 10 new wine grape varieties: Chasan, Clarin and Aranel for white; Caladoc, Marselan, Chenanson, Portan, Ganson, Gramon, Monerac, and Ségalin for red. All but for Clarin may be found in the magisterial Wine Grapes by J. Robinson, J. Harding, J. Vouillamoz… Domaine Henry winemaker François Henry recounts that the necessary historical grapevines for his project could not be found in any nursery, so they turned to Domaine de Vassal. Years of patient research, development, and propagation paid off with the successful planting of a vineyard, largely because of Domaine de Vassal’s openly available resources. Indeed, according to Vassal’s figures, approximately 530 varieties are given out each year to researchers, students, amateurs, associations, teaching bodies, and yes, winegrowers such as Mr. Henry. Roughly 3/4 of the requests come from French petitioners and the balance to international destinations, to the Americas, South Africa, China, Europe etc”.

Here is a gallery of images related to the fight to save this unique corner of world heritage:

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For many observers it probably seems hard to believe that a research centre of such vital economic interest and global importance is allowed to suffer such disruption over a rent review! Its defenders hope wine growers and wine connoisseurs will step up to the plate as patrons and secure its future.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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