Pédebernade vines planted in Gers 200 years ago have been declared a French historic monument.
French pensioner Réné Pédebernade knew that the gnarled and weathered vines that eight generations of his family had tended were something special.
He even remembered his grandmother telling him that her own grandmother, too, had remarked that they were very old.
Now, the Pédebernade vineyard in the Gers region of southwest France has been listed as a historic monument by the French authorities, the first time a living thing has been classified.
The vines are believed to be at least 190 years old and are among very few to have survived the phylloxera disease which devastated European vineyards in the late 19th century. It is thought they were saved by the sandiness of the soil in which they are planted, which kept the sap-sucking phylloxera louse at bay. They include some 20 different grape types, seven of which are unknown anywhere else.
"This kind of listing was until now restricted to old stones," said Olivier Bourdet-Pees, head of Plaimont cooperative that campaigned for the Pédebernade vineyard to be listed.
"It's quite simply an exceptional site. It's not just the age of the vines, but also the extraordinary number of grape varieties, above all there are seven grapes that are completely unknown and exist nowhere else on the planet. They have completely disappeared. We don't even know their names."
The 600 plants are set in 12 rows in a small plot in the village of Sarragachies, which sits in the alluvial plain at the foot of the Pyrenees.
In the 1800s it was common to plant different grape varieties together, and the vines are positioned to allow for the passage of yoked oxen that once tilled the soil.
Among the grape varieties identified include tannat, a red wine grape whose origins lie in the Basque country on the border between France and Spain, and fer servadou, a dark-skinned grape used primarily for red and rosé wines. The seven unidentified grape types have been baptised Pédebernade 1 to 7 in honour of their owner.
Eight generations of Pédebernades have tended the vines here.
Réné Pédebernade, 85, spent his life working on the vineyard, but handed it over to his son Jean-Pascal, 45, two decades ago, although he still helps tend the vines that are quite literally on his doorstep.
At present, despite the uniqueness of the vineyard, there is no particular "Chateau Pédebernade", as the grapes are too mixed. Instead, fruit from the vines is sent to the local wine cooperative at Saint Mont and blended with grapes from other sites.
However, the Pédebernade family have now asked the cooperative to make a special wine commemorating the vineyard's historic listing.
At the time the vines are believed to have been planted around 1822, Napoleon Bonaparte had been dead for only a year - and Gustave Flaubert and Charles Baudelaire were recently born.
As the plants were yielding their first harvests in 1827, Victor Hugo published Les Orientales, one of his earlier collections of poems.
Dominique Paillarse, head of the Gers region cultural affairs department, said: "We usually classify churches and buildings rather than living things. But when we visited the vineyard we were so impressed we said 'Let's do it – it's worth it.'"
The site was listed for its "exceptional character and cultivation methods".
Phylloxera, which feeds on the roots of vines eventually destroying them, killed entire vineyards in the second half of the 19th century. It appears to have been unable to penetrate to the roots of the Sarragachies vines because they were planted in extremely sandy soil.
A statement from the Gers government prefect's office said the Sarragachies vineyard represented a "remarkable example of biodiversity and genetic heritage... as well as ancestral cultivation methods that died out with the phylloxera crisis".
"It's a living memorial preserved thanks to the actions of passionate professionals," it added.
Jean-Marc Pédebernade, Réné's nephew who owns a separate section of the family vineyard, said the historic vines were nearly pulled up.
"Some years ago there was a movement to standardise everything and we thought we'd have to destroy them, but we always knew they were something exceptional, a part of our heritage," he told The Sunday Telegraph.
"We've suggested making a special wine from the grapes to celebrate the vines being listed, but we're not too sure about the quality, so it would only be for fun."
The Pédebernade family now plans to open the listed site to the public.----
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