Sunday, July 22, 2012

The forgotten wine grapes

I estimate that 80% of all wines in the world are made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin or Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Aside from those, you have 19,99% of the grape varieties that are notorious to certain wine regions or countries: Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Primitivo, Zinfandel, Pinotage, Malbec (Côt), Gamay, Pinot Gris, and let’s say Gewürztraminer. Eventually 10.000 grape kinds have been described in the literature (numerous clones and hybrids included.) So where are the other 9.900 varieties? Well, most of them are totally unsuited to produce wine, and stating that this article is about wine, we can forget about those for the time being. In France alone, there should be around 300 kinds of grapes to cultivate wine.

I would like to talk about the other 0.001% of wines made from the forgotten grapes which never made it into the final selection of supermarkets, aren't mentioned on the long wine lists of prestigious restaurants and are never served on Queen Elizabeth’s table. They are the wines made from grapes that have never been heard of by most sommeliers, and have also therefore, never been tasted by them. Those grapes are the black sheep or the inglorious bastards of a rich family. Quite often they are fragile creatures which have difficulties with extreme weather conditions and only flourish on very specific locations. A long time ago (around the 13th - 15th century) those species were planted by monks who observed them on specific locations over long periods of time. Those abbots had all the time in the world of course, and we welcome everything that takes TIME. For hundreds of years, wine agriculture was a continuous coalesce between man and nature, until in the 20th century when mankind forgot this sacred relationship due to economical interference.

After the phyloxera disaster at the end of the 19th century which destroyed the entire French wine production, our friends in the the minority were resurrected because due to low yields, or because the resulting wines weren't up to the people’s taste standards. There was clear financial reasoning to avoid replanting those forgotten sons and because of this, the possibility of their bright future vanished. It was much easier to switch to stronger and more productive competitors. As the phyloxera epidemic occurred in sync with the industrial revolution, the demand for wine increased. Most certainly in France, where men received a modest three litres daily, and women even more so, with 2 liters on top of their salary. This was regulated by law, as the quality of water was poor and sometimes even deadly. Three litres of wine seems like a lot, but if you browse into some historical literature you will find that mine workers, masons and obviously grape pickers easily consumed eight litres on particularly hot days. Don't forget that in those days the wines contained the average percentage of only around 7-10°, yet still you can imagine a lot of happy faces on the work floor. By the way - good thing there was milk available for the kids to drink up otherwise they'd have to switch to wine too!

We should embrace the fact that courageous wine makers have a new found vision of potential for those rare grapes and have started making wine with them again. Quite often those traditionalists have moments of lunacy, which, according to every honest shrink, is the most important condition to be in when exploring new paths to revolution. I am extremely happy that because of the limited amount of vineyards of those grapes as well as the enormous organoleptic potential, they have been planted once again.

For some strange reason, those apostates received beautiful names after their birth; Ploussard, Menu Pineau, Pineau d'Aunis, Romorantin, Oeillades, Fer-Servadou, Verdanel, Bourboulenc, Négret de Banhars (talk about a black sheep!), Enfariné, Ondenc, Pinotou d'Estaing, Portuguais Blue, Prunelard, Lledoner Pelut, Ribeyrenc ... just to mention a few examples in France. In Italy, their names sound even more exquisite; Refosco dal Peduncolo, Aglianico del Vulture, Coda di Volpe, Casavecchia, Pallagrello Bianco, Chiavennasca and Brugnola.

And of course in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria and Switzerland you can find names that are almost dead like: Godello, Listan Prieto, Cayetana Blanca, Sercial, Croatina, Gouais, Himbertscha, Lafnetscha, Rèze, Humagne, Rotgipfler, (there goes my beautiful name theory) Ortega, Trollinger, etc.

I don’t know all of those grapes, but the ones I do know, have something in common. Wines made by Ploussard, Menu Pineau, Pineau d'Aunis, Romorantin and Rousette all (upon reaching ripeness) contain a higher level of acidity than most of the other, more commonly known grapes. It is this balance that creates a nice tension in the glass and provides enormous drink joy. It is clear that due to their delicate character, those anonymous wines can’t cope with wood, and luckily there are talented wine makers who have realized this. The discovery of a good bottle of pure wine made from one of those forgotten grapes, with it's specific aromas and taste, should be something that every wine lover should strive for. I really do not understand that some wine freaks are obsessed with Cabernet and Merlot wines that are way over priced, that mainly smell like wood, have dried out in the finish, and due to an alcohol percentage of 14° are as interesting as Lance Armstrong trying to reassure us that he didn't take anything illegal during his whole career.
On the other hand, I would like to avoid the situation of all wine drinkers now turning their backs to industrial wines in search for the wines that I am looking for. Fuck a duck, I am no Saint like pope Joseph Alois Ratzinger. It won't be the first time, and it definitely won't be the last time that I conclude an article with the statement that our actual taste diversity is poor and that standardised mass production is responsible for a serious loss in our taste buds. So be it! But it is clear that the revaluation of this minority will increase their production, analogue as with forgotten vegetables. There will be more and more talented young wine makers who prefer the ‘road less traveledl’ than to take the much faster highway to the Carrefour or The Walmart super chain.

On a side note. Once in a while I am confronted with wine snobs who like to show their prestigious wine cellars, or at least talk about them. On those occasions I like to interrupt them immediately with a very simple question: "But do you also have aged wines made from Trousseau? No? Well that’s a shame!!"

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