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Blattner The Swiss Valentin Blattner is a pioneer in breeding fungus-resistant grape varieties. Successful Piwi varieties such as Cabernet Jura, Cabernet Blanc, Réselle, Sauvignac and many others originate from his research. His colleagues call him an intrepid genius and tinkerer, and his work is still groundbreaking today. Raffaella Usai spoke with Valentin Blattner about his tireless search for ever better varieties.

Why did you start breeding piwi varieties?

Blattner: As a young man, I went to French-speaking Switzerland for a year straight after school, actually to learn French, but I worked for a winegrower there. I enjoyed working in the vineyard, but I quickly became disgusted with the weekly spraying of the vines. It was clear to me that I didn't want to do viticulture under these conditions. Therefore, I had to find an alternative and started to grow my own varieties.

Was that your first contact with wine back then?

Blattner: No, my great-grandfather had some hybrid varieties bred by Eugène Kuhlmann in the 1930s in his garden and also made wine from them, which was quite normal in my home region around Basel. But at some point, hybrid vines were banned all over Europe.

You live in a small village in the Swiss Jura. How did you end up there?

Blattner: In 1985 I bred my first variety from my great-grandfather's Kuhlmann vines, but I was forbidden to plant them. That's why I moved to the then new canton of Jura, where I was not only allowed to breed my own varieties, but also to grow them. I practically went to the asylum (laughs). In Jura I then made wine from my own varieties.

And you were also able to sell the wine?

Blattner: Yes, certainly! The consumer is really hungry for new products.

What fascinated you so much about the Piwi varieties?

Blattner: In the beginning, I wanted to set myself apart from the competition and offer wines that others didn't have. In addition, I could produce more cheaply with the Piwis and thus had a larger margin. I used the time that others spent on the tractor spraying pesticides to explain my wines to customers. Piwis combine many advantages: less spraying, less effort, less soil compaction, more time for other things. But of course I am also concerned with a larger goal: in modern agriculture, everything is only kept alive artificially. Without fertiliser, without pesticides, everything would die. We saw that decades ago, but nobody did anything about it. Viticulture is killing itself. And I have been fighting against this for almost 40 years. I integrate the vine into an existing ecosystem, that is, into the local plant community with all its creatures, insects, snakes and mice. In an intact ecosystem, everything runs smoothly and thus you don't need major interventions.

In modern agriculture, everything is kept alive artificially.

How do you go about breeding a piwi variety?

Blattner: Very simple! Like bees. I take the pollen and thus bring the resistance properties of a robust variety into the quality variety. Then I sow the seeds and observe which plants get sick and which do not. The healthy ones have the resistance predispositions. And then I see how good these genes are.

It takes about 15 years from the start of breeding to approval. Why does it take so long?

Blattner: Because paper is patient. It's a huge bureaucratic effort. Technically, it would be possible in three years and then the variety could be propagated in vitro in the laboratory. But you first have to prove that it's a good variety, that you bred it yourself, you have to, you have to, you have to.... If there weren't so many bureaucratic obstacles in my way, I could launch a new variety in five years.

Is it really that simple?

Blattner: If you find a resistance mechanism against Oidium or Peronospora and know how it is inherited, it is easy. Finding it is difficult. But to get a really good variety, you have to know what you are doing. The fungi are not stupid. They figure out a resistance mechanism, so we have to put up different barriers. You need at least two, three or four mechanisms to stop a fungus in the long run.

Are you constantly on the lookout for new varieties?

Blattner: Of course, it's like an addiction. You always see new possibilities. That's the only way to find ever more resistant grape varieties and also better quality. Resistance alone is not enough; the variety must also produce an excellent wine.

How do you answer critics who claim that classical cross-breeding is outdated? Many rely on cisgenetics or genome editing. What do you think of that?

Blattner: Very simple: there are different resistance mechanisms and you can cross them in. I can always cross a resistant gene into a Pinot noir without any problems. If I were to do that with genetic engineering, it would be much more complicated, the gene might be in the wrong place and it wouldn't work. How come science hasn't found anything useful yet and I have found a lot? Most colleagues work with markers that can be used to check whether the resistant genes are present. But selecting with these markers is the stupidest thing you can do. Because then you only have a selection for these certain genes. That way you don't find a new gene and you don't find new combinations. You first have to search in nature and then look later with the markers to see what's in there. In these field trials, you also find plants that perhaps don't have the desired marker, but are nevertheless resistant. Then you have discovered something new again.

Your varieties are widely used today. Where do you work everywhere?

Blattner: All Europeans come to me and want their traditional varieties to be resistant. And that's a good thing, because my own varieties are not suitable for every growing region. For example, Cabernet Blanc is ideal for the Palatinate and the Rhine Valley, but in Southern Europe other varieties are needed. Some time ago, Spanish winegrowers came to me and wanted me to cross their autochthonous varieties Xarello, Macabeu and Parellada with resistant varieties.

So you can cross classic varieties in such a way that their character is not changed?

Blattner: That is the big challenge. Xarello, Macabeu and Parellada have a relatively neutral aroma because they are used for cava production. In order to maintain this varietal typicity, the resistant variety must not have a distinct aroma, it should only bring the resistance mechanisms. The classic variety is the mother and therefore dominant.

I already said 35 years ago that the new varieties must be better than the traditional ones! Because the better is the enemy of the good!

What do you say to winemakers who are prejudiced against piwis?

Blattner: In a year like this one, you could see wonderfully what advantages Piwi varieties have. You only had to look at a Merlot vineyard where almost nothing hung anymore and then at a vineyard with resistant varieties where healthy grapes were waiting to be harvested. As a winegrower, you should think about alternatives. Many winegrowers shy away because they don't know how to sell Piwi wines. The producer has to get in touch with the consumer and explain to him that his wine, first of all, tastes excellent and, secondly, needs much less sprays. That is how he arouses interest. I already said 35 years ago that the new varieties have to be better than the traditional ones! Because the better is the enemy of the good! Both winegrowers and consumers need to be convinced of this.

Why do you read so little about Piwi wines?

Blattner: Wine journalists have failed on the subject of Piwi wines, although they would have the task of informing about new topics. In the past, blind tastings have often proven that Piwi wines can keep up with classic varietal wines or are even better. And yet few write about it. If you let the consumer taste, he often comes to a completely different conclusion than the so-called experts, because he is much more unbiased.

So you think that the consumer would be much more willing to buy Piwi wines than some vintners assume?

Blattner: Absolutely. Consumers today attach great importance to sustainability and will ask more and more often for residue-free wines in the future. Many consumers will also question organic wines whose grapes have been sprayed 15 times. An organically produced Pinot noir is a flying cow! Have you ever seen one? The trend is clearly towards residue-free wines. And you can only produce them with resistant varieties.

Photos: ©Vineyard Freytag

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