Mendoza, Argentina—"Once they get to be about 50 years old, we cut 'em off at the knees." Or more like at the ankles.
That's the way Argentine winemakers describe how they rejuvenate their old-vine Malbec. Almost sounds like a knee replacement for a vine!
Once the vines reach middle age (they can age well into their 100s), they are chopped off at the base of the trunk, a few inches above ground.
That allows the vine's root system to remain intact underground; the stump of the vine is then retrained by taking a new shoot and reshaping it into a revitalized vine, where it's attached to the trellis. It takes a couple of years before the vines are productive.
Santiago Achával showed me the technique as we walked through one of Achával-Ferrer's old-vine vineyards in Mendoza. He stumbled upon the vineyard after driving around Mendoza for years looking for old vines of this caliber.
Cutting the vines off at the knees may be a common practice in areas where old vines are common. But it was the first time I'd heard and seen the practice discussed, and with such enthusiasm.
The "old guys" are revered in Argentina. Vintners take better care of their elderly vines than many countries do with their senior citizens. They are always seeking ways to sustain their vines' lives and productivity. The thinking there, as well as with many vintners who cherish old vines, is the old guys tend to moderate their own growth and crop productivity and they produce more consistent if smaller yields. Either way, no one I met is in any hurry to hasten the old guys' demise.
Another thing vintners readily discussed were ant problems. Forget phylloxera. That may be a grapevine's greatest threat. But here the energetic, industrious black leaf-cutter ants are a real-time headache.
As Achával explains, these pesky ants can damage or destroy a large portion of a green, leafy vineyard overnight. I accidentally stepped on top of an anthill and within seconds they were swarming over my shoes and into my loafers.
While in Colomé, visiting with Donald Hess, he explained that he wouldn't let visitors walk through his vineyard for fear they might bring phylloxera into the soil. The microscopic vine louse can attach itself to a shoe or tractor tire and be introduced into a vineyard. Hess has set aside a small vineyard near his winery where visitors can tour and examine a couple dozen different varieties, from Pinot Noir to Merlot to Chardonnay. It's a sort of petting zoo for wine lovers.
While he fears phylloxera, he has a real disdain for the leaf-cutters ants. Because his Colomé property is so remote and isolated, it's impossible to stop the ants' assaults. A couple of his vineyards had lost a dozen rows of vines. The ants mobilized and attacked, eating all of the green leaves, which effectively wipes out a vineyard.
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