Grape varieties: ABC or alfa to omega?

A recent Facebook exchange with fellow blogger Peter Kupers sparked some thoughts. The exchange was about fer servadou, a grape variety native to the South-West of France, that also goes by the names of “mansois”, “braucol” and “pinenc”, depending on the region and AOP. Peter called it an “obscure” variety, to which I reacted that “obscure” was hardly the word for a variety that is well enshrined in at least a handful of AOPs (Gaillac, Marcillac, Madiran, to name the most important ones). I had to admit, though, that there are only a few hundred hectares planted with fer servadou, which, in a country with over 750.000 HA of vines is indeed rather insignificant. This website lists it as a “modest” varietal (a term that I much prefer to “obscure”, in any case).

This brought me to the question of (grape) diversity in the wine world, and whether wine drinkers care about it at all. Peter’s point was that your average wine consumer has almost certainly never heard of fer servadou, and would most likely favour a bottle of good old cabernet sauvignon when faced with the choice.

Bars and supermarkets obviously tend to reflect this situation. At a small new year’s gathering with colleagues this week, the wine choice in the pub we went to was unsurprisingly limited to two whites and two reds.  Sauvignon blanc and chardonnay for the whites, merlot and cabernet sauvignon for the reds…

Grape-hc-cConsidering that the authoritative book “Wine Grapes” (Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz) lists over 1.300 varieties, from international stars to little-known indigenous grapes, the poverty of the offer is in some sense remarkable. It therefore comes as no surprise that there are dissident voices. The most famous one, alluded to in the title of this post, is the US-based “Anything But Chardonnay” movement, reacting against the lake of dull, uninteresting chardonnay wine that was flooding the American market. However, the proposed alternatives are hardly mind-blowing either: “Anything but Chardonnay emphasizes other viable choices to expand the selection of white wines, especially in the summer, including: Sauvignon Blanc,Riesling, Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris), Chenin Blanc, Viognier, among others“.

An interesting and funny initiative that I recently came across is the Wine Century Club. Membership of this club is only possible if you solemnly pledge to have tasted at least a hundred different grape varieties (in fermented form, that is, and either as a monovarietal or in a blend) – the sole punishment for lying about this being the wrath of Bacchus himself. I checked for myself (what did you expect?) and ended up just short of 200… which means that even for a regular and relatively curious taster like myself, there remains a bewildering range of grapes that I have not tasted and probably never will taste – Italy alone has over 300 native varieties! Moreover, looking at my private cellar, I confess I do not always practice what I preach: the usual suspects tend to dominate…

The question is how much of a problem that is. One could look at it from another perspective, and hypothesize that if certain grapes are overlooked, there may well be a good reason for it. Maybe we’re not missing out on much. Do they really have such a unique taste profile? Besides, terroir and vinification ensure a lot of diversity, even with a limited variation in grapes. To take the example of Chardonnay: not only does it vary enormously according to soil and climate, but the winemaker’s choices can produce anything between a crisp, mineral Chablis-style and a bold, fat and oaked style – which has led some to the conclusion that the ABC era is over.

On the other hand, the search for “forgotten” grapes is interesting in its own right, as part of the movement towards more food diversity and “slow food” (think of the forgotten vegetables that are reappearing these days), and we should not let mass market imperatives drive our taste. This being said, the quest could even prove to be an economically useful one, bearing in mind the by now undeniable reality of climate change: varieties that were grubbed up before because they ripened too late or had low sugar content, are being rediscovered. Petit verdot is a point in case in Bordeaux. Likewise, Torres is reviving indigenous varieties in Spain to anticipate rising temperatures. One wonders what regions like Burgundy, which is largely based on two monovarietals, will do when it gets hotter…

As with all things living, diversity is the best option we have, and we should cultivate it as much as we can. But, as wine lovers, we should also not despair about what we will most likely miss out on, or feel guilty when we enjoy the odd glass of chardonnay or riesling (apologies to fierce fanatics of the latter for putting these two on the same line).  Cheers!

Harvest time in the Languedoc-Roussillon

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The Languedoc-Roussillon has many faces. Historically an important source of France’s wine lake, with still a massive 220.000 hectares under vine (it used to be much more), and home to what is by far the most sold IGP (previously “vin de pays”) wine in France, Pays d’Oc, it is also a prime source of sweet fortified wines (vins doux naturels), and since a few decades a pioneering area for ambitious growers who, rather than, as the expression goes, « faire pisser la vigne », want to craft premium wines from the various terroirs that the region can boast.

The landscape here is of a stunning beauty and ruggedness, as a ride through the heart of Corbières reminded us. It offers a huge diversity in climate, soil, exposition, wind and maritime influence, making this one of the most interesting winegrowing areas in France, with a big potential for top quality wines, besides the not always very exciting bulk wines that most of us have tasted. Interestingly, while we tend to think of Languedoc-Roussillon as a Mediterranean area with the corresponding grape varieties, the western outskirts of the region are exposed to Atlantic influences (the westernmost AOC, Cabardès, is close to the water divide between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean bassins) and offer some of the highest altitudes in the region, making it suitable for sparkling wines, Bordeaux varieties and even cool climate grapes like pinot noir.

I recently had the occasion to spend a long weekend in Limoux, one of these “Atlantic” zones, where I stayed in Borde Longue in the company of wine merchant Bruno Desmet-Carlier, amidst the vineyards of Jean-Louis Denois, whose family originates from Champagne. Surely one of the most original (and hard-headed) winegrowers in the region, Denois makes a range of truly excellent sparkling wines (in a blind tasting we did on Saturday, one came out on top of the basic cuvée of Bollinger), as well as a beautiful pinot noir and a chardonnay that have nothing to envy to some of their much more prestigious Burgundian counterparts.

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It was a great time to be in the vineyards and the winery. Only some of the grenache remained to be picked (here as elsewhere, 2015 was quite precocious in comparison to normal years), but the winery was brimming with activity. We got a close view of some of the intricacies of the winemaking process, from semi-carbonic maceration to pumping over and punching down the cap. Tasting wines from different vineyard parcels, different press strengths, or at different phases in the fermentation, and at different times in the barrel ageing process is quite enlightening, and a pure delight for any wine aficionado.

Denois is a restless soul, always looking for innovation and perfection in his range of wines. Some years ago, he planted gewürztraminer (!) in the area, to the outrage of the established bodies of the INAO. In the meanwhile gewürztraminer has effectively been allowed as a grape in IGP Pays d’Oc wines. His most recent enterprises include biological and biodynamic winemaking, as well as the production of wines without adding any sulphites.

In the three days we spent on the domain, we tasted countless wines. It would be somewhat pedantic to list all the tasting notes here, so I limit myself to a few of the most striking moments. First of all, a very enlightening lesson about degrees of dosage in sparkling wines. Minimal differences in dosage gave completely different results in a “blanc de noirs” sparkling syrah (“bulles de syrah” – a curiosity in itself). Without any sugar, the wine was too edgy and sharp. A few grams more transformed it into an ideal partner for, say, oysters. And yet a few more turned it into a delicious and crowd-pleasing festive drink.

A memorable tasting was the line-up of older vintages of pinots noirs from the neighbouring Domaine de l’Aigle, previously owned by Denois and for which he used to make the wines (now taken over by Gérard Bertrand, who joined us for a tasting that weekend). Several vintages of the nineties were still going strong. At one point we compared a Domaine de l’Aigle to the same vintage of a Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er cru. It was a close match, but not if you know the price difference. The furthest back we went was 1985, and the wine, though maybe past its peak, was still more than agreeable. Which Burgundy could claim that? Probably only the ones at premier cru or grand cru level.

In short, it was a useful reminder of what Denois forcefully argues himself: that the French appellation system and the prestigious crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy are more about history, marketing, and protection of commercial interests than about actual wine quality.

But beyond the lessons learnt, the weekend was about passion and emotion. Three days of endless wine talks with like-minded souls, it does not get much better than that. As Jean-Louis said when we parted: “à l’an prochain, Jérusalem”.