What's so special about "own-rooted" vines?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I work at a wine store and recently came across a label that read "Made from 100 percent vinifera rootstock." Umm...why would one put that on their front label? As opposed to, say, "Our vineyards are totally susceptible to phylloxera?”

—Shelley V., American Fork, Utah

Dear Shelley,

For those trying to follow along, let me briefly explain that most grapevines in the world today are grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Phylloxera is a root-sapping aphid that can be devastating to vineyards. It's attracted to certain grapevines (Vitis vinifera, the species of most wine grapes), but not other rootstocks. Grafting is the method of transplanting a young vinifera vine onto a phylloxera-resistant rootstock.

It’s rare, but some vineyards survived phylloxera, while other regions have never had to worry it due to their remote locations or other geographical extremes. So while the vast majority of grapevines are grafted, so there are some vinifera vineyards that are "own-rooted."

Why brag about this? It’s certainly a distinguishing feature, and if you work in a wine shop, you know that’s never a bad thing when you’re trying to have your wine stand out on a wine shelf. More important, many winemakers believe that grapes grown on original rootstock will be more intense and flavorful, and could have a longer life than their grafted counterparts.

I’ve seen this phrase most often on bottles of Chateau Ste. Michelle wines from Washington. Columbia Valley’s dry summers and chilly winters make the region phylloxera-resistant. I asked winemaker Bob Bertheau of Chateau Ste. Michelle what makes vinifera rootstock wines so special, and he said, “Having vines on their own roots helps us maintain the health and longevity of our vineyards and preserves the grape variety in its natural state, with no influence from the grafted roots.”

—Dr. Vinny

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