Grafting New Vines

Depending on weather and other variables, new plantings in Graham’s Douro vineyards are usually done anywhere from January to March.

All grape vines for wine production in the Douro, as in most of Europe, are grafted vines, meaning local varieties of grape vine are grafted onto an American rootstock.  The reason for this is historical:  in the 1860s American vines, of a different variety from European vines, were imported to England and the Continent.  With those American vines came a microscopic insect which lives in and feeds on their roots, and which rapidly spread throughout Europe.  American varieties have developed a tolerance for the presence of this pest, phylloxera, but European varieties which had never before been exposed to it sickened and died, nearly wiping out wine production in Europe.

The solution was ultimately identified in the late 19th century:  graft European wine grape varieties which thrive in their respective regions, onto American rootstocks which can tolerate the presence of phylloxera, now widely spread throughout Europe.  The practice continues to this day.

When we plant an entire new vineyard, we can purchase bench-grafted vines – in other words, the work of grafting has already been done, using our choice of rootstock and scion material, and the plant matured and the graft healed.  New plants of this type are very susceptible to drought, and so for the first year or two we have to carefully monitor water levels and if necessary (which it usually is!) water the entire plantation by hand, as irrigation systems are not permitted in the Douro except in strictly regulated areas and circumstances.  A new plantation like this will be producing harvestable grapes in year four after planting.

But what about replacing a few odd vines, scattered here and there, which have died off or been removed for some reason?  Locating and watering individual vines – across, for example 70 hectares of vines in 108 hectares of land at Quinta dos Malvedos – is an impossible prospect.

Instead, to replace these falhas, or missing vines, we plant just the American rootstock, which by itself is quite hardy and does not require any special attention for the first few years.  When that plant is two or three years old, it will be well-established and the trunk sufficiently thick that a Douro variety can then be grafted into the rootstock right there, in the vineyard.  These grafts are best done in March, at a time when the worst weather is hopefully behind us, and the sap is beginning to rise in the vines – which is important to help the new graft fuse and heal quickly.  Because the root system is mature, no special care is needed in regard to watering, and we can begin to harvest good grapes from that vine in the third year after grafting.

Hand grafting in the field is a specialist skill.  Click into the first thumbnail below to open the photo full size in a new page, then click the hyperlinks at the bottom of each photo to move back and forth through the gallery and follow Fernando Claro as he grafts Touriga Francesa scions into rootstocks already in place at Graham’s Quinta da Vila Velha.

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