The Saviour of Terroir?

Is Marco Simonit one of the modern viticultural heroes of our time? Working with the likes of Domaine Leroy and Chateau Y’quem, Marco grew to understand that vine age is central to vineyards expressing their terroir. Without age, the vineyards produce more generic varietal characteristics and not what is particular and special to the region. According to Marco, terroir characteristics only become truly apparent after 25-30 years.

 

The issues currently causing winemakers to have sleepless nights are the fungal diseases of Esca and Eutypa which are killing vines off prematurely, often before they reach 25 years of age. These diseases have increased dramatically over the past ten years and are in real danger of destroying some of the world’s greatest terroirs. If the average vine age of a Grand Cru vineyard in Burgundy drops below 25 years of age, are we in danger of losing what makes that site particular and unique?

 

This is where Marco (almost accidentally) became one of the most important and influential figures in wine culture. It was in his homeland vineyards of Fruili fifteen years ago that he first recognised that something was wrong – and was determined to understand what. On cutting open an infected vine he could see the damage caused in the capillaries of the trunk and realised if he could minimise the cuts through pruning he could minimise the effects of funghi on the vine, prolonging the lives of the vinesand thus ultimately saving the terroir.

 

He now works with some of the top wine producers (including Latour, Ornellaia, Louis Roederer, Leroy, Pichon Comtesse, Pape Clement, Haut Bailly, to name but a few) as well as having set up Simonit&Sirch Italian School of Vine Pruning in 2009 and creating the first degree in grapevine pruning at the University of Bordeaux in 2016. Together with his team of “Pruninguys“, he is responsible for saving some of the greatest terroir sites in the world.

 

According to Marco, the real issue is that premature vine death means the end of terroir. And he is not the only one to voice this concern. Lalou-Bize Leroy who has worked with Marco for the last 25 years still regrets pulling up 30 year old vines due to disease because she soon realised that it takes that time for the vines’ root systems to reach deep enough to respond more consistently (therefore being less susceptible to climate conditions of a specific vintage) and to draw characteristics specific to that sense of place – the very definition of terroir. Marco believes a 30 year old vine from Ribera Del Duero produces wine consistent with Ribera del Duero character, while a 5 year old vine in the same place produces a wine that could be from any central Spanish region.

 

This is not a radical position amongst viticulturists. On the contrary, many winemakers throughout the world have a strong belief in older vines expressing their terroir. The new laws in Rioja regarding vine age only further support such a claim. The problem lies in the fact that many winemakers are struggling to make their vines live long enough to even start expressing terroir.

 

The main culprit is fungi entering into the vines through pruning cuts. Once inside the vine, the fungi starts to block the capillaries in the vine and reducing its ability to store sugars and nutrients necessary to help the vine when under stress. Eventually the vine becomes so weak it dies. But why only now is it having such a devastating effect? There is no universal agreement, but the banning of sodium arsonite in Europe (used to paint the wounds on the vines) is thought to be a key offender. The great news is there is a natural cure and it comes from adapting one’s pruning methods.

 

It was a long time before the world listened to Marco and his ideas, but there were some central characters in the story that helped along the way… it is not easy to get viticulturists to trust anyone getting close to their vines, let alone cut them open. It was Denis Dubourdieu who, upon demonstration, was immediately convinced that Marco knew what he was talking about. Denis Dubourdieu, being one of the most respected viticulturists in Bordeaux, was a great ambassador of Marco and his techniques and it wasn’t long before the top chateaux were more than happy to have made his acquaintance.

 

Thanks to Marco Simonit and his team setting up the world’s first pruning school and teaching techniques to viticulturists all over the world, the grape vine diseases that have ravaged the great terroirs of the world might finally have met their match.