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The Rise of the Grape. Adventures in Rediscovery

Whether it’s down to adventurous wine enthusiasts or those who are tired of the same old wines there has been a resurgence in interest in the world’s lesser known grapes. So are you missing out on wines made with grapes you’ve never even heard of? You could be . . .

Rare Castets
Rare Castets grapes

Consumer fatigue is a well known problem – just look what happened to Chardonnay. We may fall in love with popular styles but they can soon become repetitive and we end up bored of them. However thanks to a combination of different factors incredible wines are being made from endangered grapes being rescued from the critical list. There are plenty of rare and obscure grapes out there that have been saved from extinction by passionate and pioneering wine makers. Many of these grapes are capable of producing fantastic wines in these hands . . . and why not? They did so in the past!

Most wine lovers don’t know that the grapes we are used to today are the survivors of a great disaster that wiped out Europe’s grapes 160 years ago. Before Europe’s vineyards were devastated many grapes that we haven’t heard of today were used to make wines.

Once a solution to the crisis was found scores of grape varieties disappeared as wine makers hastily replanted with grafted vines that were a) readily available b) easier to grow and c) produced a reliable cash crop. Sadly a lot of great grape varieties got lost in the rush.

The Great Wine Blight aka the Phylloxera Epidemic

The great wine blight was caused by a variety of aphid known as grape phylloxera that originated in North America. It’s thought that the aphid was accidentally carried across the Atlantic to Europe in the late 1850s by plant collectors and wine makers importing American grapevines. The aphid was first identified in France around 1863 by the botanist Jules Emile Planchon and by 1889 up to 9/10ths of all European vineyards had been destroyed by the bug..

Over 160 years ago wines were made with grapes we haven't heard of today
Over 160 years ago wines were made with grapes we haven’t heard of today

There is no cure for grape phylloxera (even today) but there was a solution. French colonists in America had watched the grapevines they had brought with them die and it soon became common knowledge that European vines would not grow in American soil. They therefore resorted to growing the native American grapevines instead of the vines they had brought with them from home. They didn’t know it back then but the American vines were resistant to the bug. Working with Planchon and the American horticulturist Thomas Volney Munson, entomologist Charles Valentine Riley grafted French vines onto resistant American rootstock from grapevines in Texas. This technique worked and it saved the European grapes.

200 year old vines
200 year old vines

The Survivors

There are European grapes that, despite the odds, survived the blight and there are pockets of them dotted throughout France. Chateau Haut Bailly is an example in Pessac Leognan, Bordeaux. Over 15% of their vines are ancient, pre-phylloxera stock. Domaine Plageoles is another vineyard specialising in wines made from historical grape varieties that survived in Gaillac and Bollinger in Champagne also possess pre-phylloxera vines.

A famous plot of surviving vines lies at Plaimont in Saint Mont, Gascony. These are very old, non-grafted vines that grow in 10 metre deep sandy oils. The plot contains some of the oldest vines in France, some are believed to be over 200 years old, giving new meaning to the term ‘vielles vignes’ (old vines)! The plot was declared a national historical monument in 2012 and holds a unique collection in France (around 116 different, rare grape varieties) and this botanical heritage is now attracting attention from researchers, scientists and vintners alike.

What’s remarkable is that these vines give a glimpse into viticulture hundreds of years ago, and they have preserved varietals long since forgotten. Added to this are over 30 unknown varieties – their names lost long ago – discovered abandoned, yet still thriving, in deserted plots.

These vines are of vital importance as they hold the genetic keys to today’s grapes and can help winegrowers of the future. As the climate changes the old varieties have qualities that may come back into the fore and we might be drinking wines made from grapes named Arrat, Canaril, Aouillat, Chacolis, Miousap, Claverie, Morrastel and Morenoa in the not too distant future!

Gouleyant - a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and the rare Loin de l'Oeil grape
Gouleyant – a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and the rare Loin de l’Oeil grape – £9.99

The Adventurers

It’s not all about preservation; wine makers are rapidly replanting rare, old grape varieties and new discoveries are coming to light on a regular basis. Liber Pater is probably the most well known example of a modern wine maker using old grape varieties. This is a premium vineyard in Graves that set about replanting rare grape vines using propagation from their own pre-phylloxera, ungrafted rootstock. Sadly they had their vineyard vandalised last week. The vines were a historical treasure and included varieties that existed in Bordeaux 200 years ago: Castets, Mancin and Pardotte. You may not have heard of these grapes before but the wines they go into can fetch up to 3,000 euros a bottle!

Of course you don’t have to splash out on expensive wines to be adventurous – there are many small producers who make amazing artisan wines from forgotten grapes. If you are fed up with the same old wines and want to discover some new gems the choice is varied and it’s growing annually.

So, how adventurous are you? If you have fallen in love with a new discovery please let me know!

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