One of France's greatest wine treasures lies off a dead-end road on a wind-swept strip of Mediterranean coastline.
Here, Blaise Genna, 60, sporting a white handlebar mustache direct from central vigneron casting, greets wine pilgrims (scientists, viticulturists and other professionals) who come for the world's greatest collection of vine stock: 2,600 separate grape varieties—7,500 genotypes—from 50 countries.
"If you love wine," Genna said with a grin, "eventually you will pass through here."
Personally, it's taken me many years and innumerable bottles to arrive at Domaine Expérimental de Vassal, aka the "Louvre of the Vine," 30 miles southwest of Montpelier in Marseillan Plage.
Like any wine lover should be, I am concerned about the tentative future of the collection, caught in a lease dispute after 65 years at this site.
Vassal is an only-in-France place. Its collection dates to Montpelier in 1876 when agronomists sheltered vines and searched for a solution to phylloxera, the root-destroying insect that ravaged Europe's vineyards. In 1949, the French agricultural research agency (INRA) moved the collection to Vassal, where vines were planted directly (without need of disease-resistant rootstock) in sand, which prohibits the spread of phylloxera and deadly viruses.
Since then, Vassal has helped modern growers resurrect heirloom varieties, led genetic mapping that has aided world researchers, and preserved a phenomenal gene pool for future generations. It has also produced new promising hybrids like Marselan—a Cabernet Sauvignon-Grenache cross now allowed in Côtes du Rhône blends.
From its modest building with a staff of 10, Vassal accepts and catalogs about 80 new varieties every year and also conducts the world's edgiest winemaking—vinifying hundreds of obscure varieties in 2.5-gallon jars.
At the root of Vassal's problems is money. Since 2011, its 66 acres have been entangled in a lease dispute with the landlord, Domaines Listel, the producer of a mass-market rosé from vines planted in coastal sands, now owned by Champagne's Vranken-Pommery. In three years, annual rent has climbed 66 percent to about $108,000. INRA challenged the increases, and a court is scheduled to take up the case in June.
But while Listel says it remains open to negotiations, INRA announced in December it would move Vassal's collection 50 miles southwest to its public-owned Pech Rouge site.
The move would be a Herculean task—the equivalent of regenerating a forest from twigs—taking up to eight years and costing more than $5 million. Genna's staff has started taking cuttings from each of Vassal's 40,000 vines to repropagate at the new site.
Unsurprisingly, many vignerons are outraged. An online petition, led by Alsace winemaker Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss, appeals for mediation in hopes that the collection can stay put and a private foundation be created to help curate Vassal. "The risks lead us to doubt the willingness and the capacity of INRA to succeed," Deiss wrote via e-mail.
The rub with the new proposed site is that only a portion of its soil is sand-based. The collection is destined for a hillside of limestone-clay soils where the vines would be grafted onto rootstock.
"A heresy!" Deiss protested, saying grafting compromises the authenticity of the vines.
Complicating matters is the fact that many of Vassal's vines are sick: They arrived in the collection with viral infections, but were never treated because there was no risk of spread in sand. Planting those vines in new soils would expose the entire collection. So, INRA plans to regenerate contaminated vine stock with lengthy laboratory heat therapy—also controversial to purists like Deiss.
For now, all roads lead to one question: Do French functionaries have what it takes to pull off a move and preserve this piece of the world's vine heritage?
The answer, even among officials charged with carrying it out, is a classic French "oui et non."
"The only risk is the haste," Genna told me. "When you do things in haste, it's dangerous."