I SURE AS HELL DIDN'T RECOGNIZE THEM. Nicolas Gonin didn’t either, and “I’ve been looking for them for a long time,” he said with a smirk. We were gazing toward the ceiling of a 12th-century abbey in Saint-Chef, a medieval town in France’s Isère department, in the Alps east of Lyon. Most visitors to the abbey focus on its Romanesque mosaics, but we were looking at something else: a frieze above the altar that depicted grapes.
Even though I have been a specialist in obscure wine and spirits for many years, and Nicolas is a young winemaker of some renown, we had no answer for Jean-Luc Étiévent, the third member of our party, when he asked, “See the grapes and leaves? What is the variety? This is your first ampelographic question.”
We might call Étiévent and Gonin the Indiana Joneses of ampelography—the study, identification, and classification of grapevines. They are explorers on an obsessive hunt for the rarest wine grapes in the world. Étiévent is a cofounder of Paris-based Wine Mosaic, an organization that works to rescue indigenous wine grapes from extinction. All over the wider Mediterranean region, from Portugal to Lebanon, he and his similarly obsessed colleagues seek out growers of rare varieties, promote their wines, organize tastings, and connect them to each other, to wine importers, and to universities whose researchers can help them, essentially creating a support group for those who love obscure grapes.
I, someone who has been accused of being a wine geek, found myself in this abbey because Étiévent had invited me to join him on a trip to see—and taste—some of Wine Mosaic’s most successful projects. In the Alpine region where France, Switzerland, and Italy meet, isolated vineyards, strange microclimates, and relative obscurity—decades spent off the traditional wine world’s radar—have preserved local grapes and farming traditions. In just the past five years, Wine Mosaic has saved more than 20 traditional Alpine grape varieties from dying out, first by identifying them and then by working with farmers to sustain their small plots.
For someone like me this is exciting news. Every grape that’s saved offers the chance to taste a new flavor. And I’m not alone. Recent years have seen a revived interest in little-known grapes from lesser-known regions. For instance, two decades ago, grapes like carménère from Chile, grüner veltliner from Austria, or assyrtiko from Greece were essentially unheard of in the United States. Now they’re old hat to wine drinkers. So the quest for even rarer grapes has intensified. While the new crop of sommeliers in big-city wine bars can be oh-so-irritating, with their disdain for any wine that might be considered mainstream, we can thank them for creating a demand, however small and exclusive, for rare wines. Often, a sommelier’s love of obscure wines might seem like an embrace of obscurity for obscurity’s sake. But sometimes, it can serve a higher purpose.
“No one knows the wines from here anymore. Phylloxera destroyed everything.”
It doesn’t take a wine geek to appreciate the biodiversity—and accompanying cultural diversity—these grapes represent. In a globalized world, it’s the local specialties we seek out. These grapes carry with them a sense of place. A taste of place. And it’s possible that in a few decades, if the world’s climate grows too hot in the famous wine regions for the popular grapes we currently know and love, these nowadays obscure wines may be the only ones we’re drinking. Maybe the last place to produce great wine will be high in the mountains. We save these grapes, then, for the same reason we save heirloom tomatoes and apples and heritage cattle, and build vast seed banks. These organisms may hold clues to solving the challenges of climate and disease, as well as preserving the historical record of human taste.
We save these grapes, then, for the same reason we save heirloom tomatoes and apples and heritage cattle, and build vast seed banks. These organisms may hold clues to solving the challenges of climate and disease, as well as preserving the historical record of human taste.