Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The INRA/Vassal collection: 7,800 items in one morning.

A Slotovino visit to the world's greatest Grape Collection was always required and the kind INRA* people at Domaine Vassal, Marseillan-Plage near Sete and Montpellier, France allowed us a private view although normally visits are for groups only. We were particularly grateful because incredibly, the 7,800 accessions including multiple samples of 2,700 Vitis grapes, 1,100 interspecific hybrids, 400 rootstocks, 350 wild varieties and 60 species of Vitaceae will be moved to the Pech Rouge Experimental Unit (Gruissan, near Narbonne, Aude) over the next few years because the owners of Domaine Vassal have decided they would like to use it for something else.

The collection has been built up since 1876 by the Montpellier Agricultural School (now Montpellier SupAgro) and has been at Vassal since 1949. The sandy site is inhospitable to Phylloxera and the Xiphinema Index Nematode. the collection has been built up from exchanges with other collections all over the world, private gifts, discoveries by their own researchers, viticulturalists, vine nurseries and hobbyists.

Getting to Domaine Vassal involved a potentially hilarious detour thanks to a confusion between the terms Naturaliste and Naturiste on the map and a brush with the Gendarmerie for driving past the property and stopping on a beach to try to get our bearings.

Nevertheless, the patient Cécile Marchal and Sandrine Dédet-Lalet were waiting to recieve us very cordially.

Sandrine, a Technicienne of the institute, had personally made the 10 bunches of cuttings for us back in March and Cécile was to show us round. Cécile is from St. Remy de Provence and is a highly qualified Agronomist. She is 'Responsable du CRB Vigne (Centre de Ressources Biologiques de la Vigne).

First stop was the nursery for new plants.

They are planted in surprisingly small pots filled with a kind of volcanic grit. they receive water and nutrients via a watering system. The method seems to work 100%.

different species of vine
with knobbly cane
Here we soon understood the collections range with not only grapevines but ornamental vines and plants of all kinds, some of which looked more like ivy which is not suprising as ivy and vines arefrom the same family of species.

After 2 years, these plants are planted outside in 500 metre long stretches separated by bamboo curtains.

Bamboo curtain
Cécile told how the site had originally consisted of dunes that had to be levelled. The protecting bamboo helps to stabilise the sand as well as providing a windbreak but amazingly, with all the other work they have to do, the sand still has to be managed every year as it still tends to drift.

There are only 8 full-time staff with 5 administrative personnel including the director. The domaine extends over many hectares. As well as all the work of catalogueing and raising the plants, there is an ongoing programme of creating new varieties.

Hybrid collection
Famous successes in the past have included Marselan, Caladoc, Chenancon and Chasan. They also breed table grapes of all kinds. For safety, duplicates of all accessions are sent to the INRA station at Colmar!


A Japanese vine
Yes, it's a vine.

Our tour took in vineyards dedicated uniquely to Rootstocks, Hybrids, Ornamental varieties and the different species.

A 20 year old vine from Russia
Each type has 5 examples. When a single plant arrives, cuttings are made to provide copies. If plants are virussed, they are replaced with clean examples when possible.

All these plants need to be labelled, fed and watered. They also need to be pruned and most of that has to be done by hand. Even experimental micro-vinifications are made although none was on offer. This must be difficult given the fact that no variety has many examples and they all ripen at different times.

In the offices, records are kept of every variety including dried leaves, photos, descriptions, records and notes of the most painstaking and accurate kind. As service for identification is offered free of charge unless DNA profiling is required in which case the charge is around 80 Euros.

Hernàn Ojeda, Director
It's all pretty incredible. Our visit left us wondering if so much had ever been achieved by so few. Amazing that they agreed to give us a private tour for which we are eternally thankful.

*Institut National pour la Recherche Agriculturelle

Marseillan Plage

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