Vivai invited Vineyard Magazine to visit their headquarters to experience first-hand the process of grafting and the continuing research at this nursery and centre of viticultural science.

Situated about an hour from the beautiful city of Venice this small area of countryside is just as internationally significant within the viticultural community as its more famous neighbour is for its canals, architecture and colourful glass production.

Every year in excess of 80 million vines are produced by the Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo (VCR) and shipped to countries worldwide. It is quite astounding to realise that VCR clones are used by growers on every continent.

Walking up to the state of the art facilities, built in 2019 to house new laboratories, there is a sense of Alice in Wonderland. By that I mean that the scale of the operation in Rauscedo has so many divisions and covers such a vast area that it is possible to lose yourself and to have that childhood feeling of everything seeming bigger. Yet the organisation is still very much connected to its beginnings.

VCR started all those decades ago with a commitment to improve the fortunes of the growers in a small village that had suffered from economic depression. With the help of an Italian cavalry captain during WWI, whose profession was actually a university Professor of Agriculture (so legend has it), the local farmers were able to perfect their techniques and work together to start distributing their grafted vines.

The black and white pictures of these early vines being delivered by horse and cart or indeed bicycles feature prominently in the modern facilities that now include over 100,000m3 of refrigerated storage. The growth of VCR has stemmed from the continual focus on helping growers to get the very best from the vines in their soil and subsequently their vineyard.

VCR was the first commercial company in Italy to make clone selection. In 1969 the first R-clones were released (the R standing for Rauscedo, the name of the area). “This was done to achieve a plant that would allow the prediction of how a vineyard would behave on your land,” said Dr Elisa De Luca, Head of the Research Centre. The development of new clones has continued to gather momentum through the years and VCR now have 500 clones on the Italian National Catalogue which translates to 30% of the whole.

“To do this you have to find the differences within the varieties, for example Chardonnay there is not one type of Chardonnay, you have the one with the big bunch, the one with the small bunch, the one with high productivity and so on…” Dr De Luca explained.

It is clear that the starting point for everything at VCR has always been and will always be plant health. On touring the site there are mother vines that sit behind biosecurity and decontamination measures that are reminiscent of a Hollywood movie.

Dr De Luca commented: “At the very beginning we undertook visual inspections because this was the only way that you could determine if the plant was healthy, you take this single plant and multiply it and create your evaluation field and you start to collect the grapes and make micro vinification, you study the productivity and everything you can think of to find the potential of your clonal selection.” Over the decades scientific analysis has been developed and applied to the process so that VCR ensure that every clone is not only achieving what the customer wants and expects but that it is disease free. “Now we can check our plant through a PCR test to find even really small particles of virus,” she explained. (VCR also make use of an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay test which is known as the ELISA test which was first described by various scientists in the early 1970’s). “The PCR test amplifies the amount of virus to ensure that what may not have been detectable becomes detectable just like Covid-19,” she said. Some of the viruses that have been detected and screened out of clones over the years would include GVA. “This requires the bark to be scorched in order for detection to be possible, or leaf roll 1,2 or 3 because the symptoms are not always visually strong,” added Dr De Luca.

Describing the rigorous testing that the clones undergo before they reach the market Dr De Luca explained that there is also a biological test that lasts three years. A selection is made and then this material is grafted to indicator varieties which will mean that any virus that is present but not detected by a laboratory test will manifest itself over the next three years.

Following this biological testing period there is an evaluation period which also allows the collection of data sets relating to every part of the vines life and production cycle including the maturity curve. The clone selection process takes more than 12 years for a clone to come to the market. The amount of work that goes into the development of clones is staggering but underlines the importance of vines to every vineyard.

Throughout the lifetime of the vineyard there will be ongoing decisions about growing systems, trellising, pruning, canopy management, soil structure, inputs, fruit hang time… but fundamentally the vines that are planted are going to be part of the vineyard for its entire lifetime.

“Our job is to give the most clean clone as possible to the customer. We are always following the requests of the customers,” said Dr Nicola Morittu who is part of the Export Division of VCR.

Providing the best service to customers is an ongoing process and has seen VCR collaborate with international groups regarding soil micro biology and micro biota working with partners from the University of Udine and the University of Milan, a group from Stellenbosch, The National Research Council of Italy and a group from Spain.

I ask about current market demands. “This is one of the most difficult questions and we ask ourselves this question daily,” said Dr De Luca. “The new generation of growers appreciate new flavour profiles and lower alcohol productions. The other tendency is the PIWI varieties that reduce spray programmes and are centred around ecological health.

“In Italy we are recognised for our production and our terroir and there is a conflict between the older growers and the younger growers so they are moving towards PIWI varieties but their market has been based on the known and well established varieties so we are at present at a crossroads,” she continued.

There is a striking difference to the English and Welsh wine industry where tradition does not stifle the wine industry and throughout the visit to VCR this lack of constraint is mentioned by expert after expert as something of incredible value to the English and Welsh wine industry.

“In our opinion in the UK you are luckier than our country because it is a new market for vineyards and wine production and wine makers and you have less rules and peoples minds will be more open to accept a new style of viticulture,” said Dr Yuri Zambon Technical-Commercial Director at VCR.

“A decade ago people would drink wine with their meal but now the situation has changed and people drink before or after a meal, people ask for sparkling wine or lower alcohol wine also there is the growth of wine in cocktails,” he added.

“Countries such as England and Wales should be able to adapt to the current market trends with greater speed and what was a limiting factor such as naturally lower alcohol should be embraced as an opportunity. Less cellar management and manipulation needed to achieve these wine styles means greater sustainability for these wines. Controlling sugar accumulation in the grapes in countries like Italy is becoming more difficult year on year as the climate changes,” he continued.

On the topic of difficulties facing the viticulture industry Dr Zambon pointed out that the whole world is conscious of the need to become more sustainable but that is more than simply reducing inputs, water usage, fuel consumption etzc. “We also need to reply to problems of climate change or new pathogens that have arrived in Europe.”

Dr De Luca gave the example of Xylella Fastidiosa (the arrival of this disease in Europe caused DEFRA to release legislation in 2021 to try and prevent its arrival in the UK and to issue regulations regarding containment should an outbreak be detected). “Also we need to address the new strains of powdery and downy mildew that are growing stronger than they were 10 years ago,” said Dr Zambon.

“We are creating PIWI varieties that are similar to the traditional ones. When we cross two parents we also select the offspring that is similar to the traditional varieties so only the sons that have inherited the good quality of both parents are selected,” said Dr De Luca.

“You are not so hampered by tradition so you have plenty of possibilities to find varieties that are adapted to the UK climate it is just a matter of testing, tasting and trying different possibilities,” she added.

It is when describing this process that Dr De Luca really shows her passion for the work that the research centre does. She continued: “It can be difficult to do this because we have to discard many sons that may show interesting qualities but are not similar to the parents. It can be quite a painful process but we want tradition with innovation.” The numbers really highlight the selection process for example in 2023 there were 50,000 seeds that started the process but only 2,000 of these made it through the tests to show their increased disease resistant qualities and from those only a few hundred will make it to the market.

“We are creating resistant varieties that have 93%-94% of the Vitis Vinifera genome, so we are achieving a good oenological result,” added Dr Zambon.

If it takes 12 years for a clone to make it to the market it takes more than 20 years for a new variety to make it to the market in Italy.

At the time Vineyard magazine visited VCR they were in the process of grafting vines that would be available for 2025. This explains why sourcing vines requires a significant amount of planning on the part of those placing orders. The need for advance planning will be even more pronounced if a specialist order is required.

The timing of the visit led to an in depth look at the grafting process and a discussion not just about clones but also rootstocks. Grafting was necessitated by the phylloxera epidemic that swept across Europe and Dr Morittu explained: “85% of the world uses four to five rootstocks that were developed between 1896-1903 so we are working with something that is over 100 years old.” In those 100 years there have been changing climate and soil conditions and whilst traditional rootstocks are still widely successful new rootstocks could provide solutions to certain new problems such as drought and salinity.

“Rootstocks are even more difficult to work with because the first thing they must be is resistant to phylloxera and also to nematodes and they must also prevent the transmission of GFLV,” said Dr De Luca. Rootstocks also have to be compatible with the clones and have to be suitable for a massive variety of soil types. With 496 varieties, 480 original VCR® clones and 14 exclusive resistant varieties alongside four rootstocks M it is possible for VCR to provide over 4,000 grafting combinations.

The operation in Rauscedo is a cooperative and there are hundreds of growers that work independently but collectively to produce the millions of grafted vines every year. Some of these produce vines with specialist graft combinations which will involve greater risk of graft failure and some will produce vines that are safer options. Dr De Luca quoted Fercal as one of the more difficult rootsocks where the graft success rate can be 60% so the growers who produce these grafts are paid a premium.

As the growers are free to choose what they would like to produce this system ensures that there is a fair playing field for the members of the cooperative. One other area that ensures a fair playing field is the way the grafted vines are checked.

The growers check the grafted vines themselves and then the grafted vines are presented to VCR where they will be checked again to ensure quality. As an independent step a third party will also check the vines but this check is performed blind without knowledge of where the vines come from thus ensuring total honesty throughout the process.

Traditionally the grafting technique is the Omega graft named because of the shape that the graft forms but VCR also have developed a machine that is exclusively available for purchase by members that utilises a Celerina technique where a greater percentage of each part of the graft comes into contact. This increases the probability of grafting success. Also increasing the grafting success is the care that is taken to ensure the rootstock and scion are compatible in diameter. “It is not millimetres it is microns of difference that can mean the failure of a graft,” said Dr Morittu.

The grafted vines then undergo what is known as the forcing period. This takes about two weeks in a temperature of 36°C and at 40% humidity.

The successfully grafted vines are eventually single planted in the 1200 hectares of nursery space available to VCR. This massive area of nursery is systematically checked “those that are responsible for these checks walk the equivalent of 1.5 times around the earth every season,” said Dr Morittu with a smile. “That must require a very decent pair of work boots,” was my cheeky reply.

VCR go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that those who plant vineyards with their vines are going to get the results that they want. The winery and tasting rooms are simply fantastic.

Some of the equipment in the cellar is created specifically for VCR and will not be found anywhere else. Making wine from grapes is totally different at VCR Dr Morittu explained: “What is our job in the cellar here at VCR? The job of the winemaker is to translate the clone of the grapes into wine. The winemakers do not put their fingerprint on the wine. Normally it is the winemakers job to bring their unique talent to the process but here that is not their job. The winemakers job is to keep the wines as pure as possible.”

It is possible for VCR to produce 900 micro vinifications every year. They have 25, 50 and 125 litre tanks. Even then there are not enough tanks to accommodate all the clonal selections so there are an additional 500 nano vinifications made each season. Nano vinifications can be as small as 0.25 litres of a wine. Technically these wines don’t even have names yet, they are coded by numbers and names are given purely as a helpful prompt to those working in the cellars. Everything is photographically recorded as well as having all data taken so each of these wines have full technical and visual information available.

Something that is truly amazing is that this is a service that is free to VCR clients. “This is on top of our normal service to help the customer,” said Dr Morittu. “We are world leaders in this service,” he added. “Sometimes people come to us with no idea of what they want to plant or other times they may have an idea that they want to plant for example Nebbiolo in Brazil which is a problematic variety in the climate and soil so when I go to a client I have to go not just with the first choice but five or six choices or sometimes I have gone through 15 varieties before they have chosen and this is where the micro and nano vinifications are so helpful.”

It is clear that VCR go to great lengths to make micro and nano vinifications that only express the grapes characteristics. On the subject of individual terroir and its influence on the wine Dr Morittu makes a really important point he said: “Terroir should only ever add something to the wine it should never take anything away.”

As the visit to Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo came to a close I was left with a sense that this company which is a world leader in production and research has managed to maintain its original aim of helping to produce the best vines possible. In turn those vines will produce the best vineyards and the best grapes will subsequently be the foundation of every wine that is produced.

Bearing in mind how long the process of creating new clones and new varieties takes it is clear that those working at VCR today are finishing the work of their predecessors and providing the fundamentals for the work that is still to come. Innovation and expansion has only increased the synergy that is the essence of this operation.