Photo by Harry Mitchell
All Photos by Harry Mitchell
In the mountains where France, Italy, and Switzerland meet, viticulture geeks are fighting to preserve endangered grapes for future generations.
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.
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.
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.
Etiévents little quiz in the abbey was a trick question: The vines depicted in the frescoes have likely not been seen in this region for almost a century, perhaps longer. And though vineyards have surrounded Saint-Chef since at least 993 c.e., Étiévent said, “No one knows the wines from here anymore. Phylloxera destroyed everything.&rdqu
Phylloxera, the historic plague of sap-sucking insects that began in the late 19th century and ravaged a majority of vineyards across France and the rest of Europe, was probably the biggest reason that scores of local grape varieties began to disappear. When grapes were replanted, they were often the so-called “noble” types—chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot—chosen because they were easier to cultivate and sell. These grapes now grow everywhere from Napa to Australia to South Africa to New Jersey. In fact, 80 percent of the world’s wine is produced from only 20 kinds of grapes. Many of the other 1,348 currently known varieties face extinction.
All of the wine I had tasted on this journey had certainly been . . . interesting.
After leaving the abbey, we visited Gonin’s simple tasting room in a basic yellow building near Saint-Chef. In 2003, Nicolas, who was then in his late 20s, took over land from his family, where his grandfather had farmed vegetables and tobacco alongside the vineyards. At first, Nicolas planted the usual suspects, chardonnay and pinot noir. “If I’d been more courageous, I would have put in more local grapes.” Over the last 13 years, he grew brave, planting traditional local grapes: whites such as altesse and verdesse; reds such as persan and mondeuse. Now his wines appear on the lists of in-the-know sommeliers in cities like New York
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We tasted Gonin’s 2014 verdesse, which is particularly rare. It tasted like snow from a mountain meadow that been melted in a hollow melon. Only around a dozen acres of the grape are grown. (Cabernet sauvignon, by comparison, occupies more than 700,000 acres.) “This grape grows only in Isère, and we hope to keep it that way,” he said.
“So you don’t want to see verdesse grown in California?” I asked.
Gonin looked at me quizzically, like I was crazy. “No,” he said. For Gonin, indigenous grapes are inextricably tied to place and culture. California verdesse would be like Maine lobster from Kansas.
After our tasting, we visited a protégé of Gonin’s, a producer named Sébastien Bénard, who lives on a rustic farm near the French town of Moirans, just south of Saint-Chef. Bénard, 37, perfectly played the role of Young Hipster Farmer, with a scruffy beard and ripped shorts, and bees from his hives swarming his barn. After we drove to see his vineyard, framed by snowy mountains and the city of Grenoble in the next valley, it was easy to see why Gonin had mentored him: Bénard had discovered perhaps the only vineyard of an ancient grape called servanin. He had been working his own vines of persan near an 86-year-old man who still maintained his plot. Bénard noticed an odd leaf shape that made him realize what the man was growing. “Nicolas taught me how to identify the old grapes,” Bénard said. “I tried my best.&rdqu
“Last year, the man did all the work by himself, then he died two weeks before the harvest,” he said. Now, Bénard tends to the old man’s vine
“Next year,” Gonin said, “Sébastien will make the only 100 percent servanin wine in the world.” Gonin beamed proudly at his protégé. “This is what we do,” he said. “I’ve visited 300 vineyards like this, looking for lost grapes. I spent four years studying and learning to recognize the grapes by the shape of the leaves.&rdqu
“On a scale of 1 to 5,” I asked. “How rare is this vineyard?”
Only about 50 liters of each of these wines exist in the world. Tasting them was the wine equivalent of spotting a dodo or discovering a lost bronze age tribe.
“Like a 6 or a 7.”
They were lucky to save the servanin. Just last year, they found a few rows of an extremely rare grape nearby, and they implored the farmer to keep them. When they returned the following harvest, the man had died and his heirs had sold the land to a developer. The grape was lost.
As the sun began to set over the mountains, we drove through rush hour traffic in Grenoble and northeast to the town of Bernin, to visit Domaine Finot, run by another young winemaker, Thomas Finot, who began growing local grapes here in 2007.
We strolled Finot’s vineyards, which sit at 1,500 feet and offer a view of Mont Blanc, then tasted his wines in the garage-like space that housed his tanks, barrels, and a “tasting room” section that resembled a frat house basement, with a dart board and an old yellow leather couch. But these were wines no frat party has ever served. In addition to verdesse and persan, there was a red called étraire de la Dhuy, of which there are fewer than 40 acres in the world. It tasted like eating a bowl of fresh cherries while smoking a clove cigarette and burning leaves in the yard. Then there was a white called jacquère, which was like a bright, tart lemon fetched from a stone cistern. “Oh, jacquère isn’t that rare,” Étiévent said. Rare, of course, is relative. There are only about 2,500 acres of jacquère in the world. You’re not going to be seeing bottles of it at your local supermarket anytime soon.
“Twenty years ago, people didn’t drink these wines,” said Laurent Fondimare, one winemaker who joined us. “All the old people here don’t like these local grapes. When we started, they said, ‘Ah these are ‘bad’ grapes.’ Now, they say, ‘Oh you make a good wine with bad grapes!’ This is a victory.&rdqu
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By 11 o’clock the next morning we were tasting more esoteric wines. Inside the regional wine museum at Montmélian, a town about an hour’s drive from Moirans, we visited the Pierre Galet Center for Alpine Ampelography, named for a nonagenarian ampelographer who wrote the comprehensive dictionary of French grapes and whose life’s research resides in the library on the top floor. There, surrounded by the old books and files of Monsieur Galet (considered by many to be the father of modern ampelography) we tasted wines poured from bottles with white labels reading “Vinification Expérimentale.” The grape names were hand-scrawled on each label: salagnin (super purple and chalky), serenelle (super spicy and vegetal), and blanc de maurienne (super . . . just . . . well, weird; bitter almonds with hints of bong resin). Serenelle is so obscure that it’s not even listed in the current edition of Galet’s dictionary of grapes. In fact, only about 50 liters of each of these wines exist in the world. Tasting them was the wine equivalent of spotting a dodo or discovering a lost bronze age tribe.<
I knew my father, a wine aficionado, would be awake this early in Florida, and so I texted him a photo of the empty glasses and the hand-written bottles. “Tough work,” he texted back. “Are the wines any good?”
A few nights later, at the 16th-century Château de Villa in Sierre—billed as Le Temple de la Raclette—the menu was straightforward: raclette. Here, in the Swiss canton of Valais, less than three hours’ drive from Isère, melted cheese is serious business. A racleur scraped hot, bubbling, gooey raclette from a wheel onto warm plates that were then whisked to our wooden table, where we added small boiled potatoes served from wooden baskets, along with cornichons, pickled onions, chanterelle mushrooms, and rye bread. And after that raclette, there was more raclette. When I asked for ice water, I was gently scolded by the waiter: “Don’t drink cold water with raclette. The cheese will congeal into a cheese baby in your stomach.&rdqu
As another round of raclette arrived, Étiévent poured a glass of humagne blanche, a white wine that tasted big and sexy, full of ripe exotic fruit, but surrounded by delicate floral aromas—sort of like mountain flowers picked by a Kardashian wearing a dirndl. The grape dates to at least the 14th century, and in the mid-19th century it was the most widespread grape in Valais. But now there are only about 75 acres of humagne blanc left in the world. Frankly, at this point in my travels, a glass of humagne blanc seemed as normal as one of chardonnay or cabernet sauvigno
Our wine sherpa at the table was José Vouillamoz, a short bespectacled Swiss guy in his mid-40s who wears a flat cap and kicks around his hometown of Sion on a kid’s scooter—but who also happens to be a world-renowned geneticist and ampelographer and co-author of the encyclopedic tome Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours.<
“We will now taste one of the rarest wines in the world,” said Vouillamoz with a flourish. He poured me a glass of himbertscha. In the entire world, there is only one vineyard of himbertscha, and it is less than two acres. From this, fewer than 800 bottles are made. Himbertscha is one of the strangest white wines I have ever tasted—like a forest floor of moss and dandelions that’s been spritzed with lemon and Nutella.
It was a warm, sunny October day—definitely not the weather I expected in the Alps. Atop the fortress walls, we attended a tasting of wines by Les Pétavins, a group of a dozen local organic producers. Someone put out a plate of charcuterie and a cheese called persillé de Tignes, and we tasted lovely examples of such grapes as persan, altesse, verdesse, and jacquère along with a wine called Chignin-Bergeron, made of roussann
Our host was Michel Grisard, a tall, ruddy-faced winemaker with a huge smile, about my father’s age, whom everyone called “the pope of Savoie.” Grisard had been traveling and tasting with us, and he’d seemed like a goofy troublemaker, always filling up glass after glass and rushing us on to the next obscure wine. Now it was his turn to share the wines under his label, Domaine Prieuré Saint Christophe—in particular the grape mondeuse noire, which he almost single-handedly saved from extinction in the 1980s. Tasting Grisard’s mondeuse noire was a revelation: Floral, fruity, smoky, foresty, but so light and dangerously drinkable. Later at dinner, when we tasted older vintages of Grisard’s mondeuse, dating from the 1990s and 1980s, my appreciation only deepened. These were simply great wine
It may have been because it wasn’t quite 1 p.m. and I’d already tasted more than two dozen wines, but looking out over the Combe de Savoie valley, on this unseasonably warm day, a wave of clarity washed over me. I had a vision of a future where climate change has pushed winemaking to the mountains, and only the native grapes survive. Where people rhapsodize about mondeuse the same way they do about pinot noir today. If all those future wines taste as good as this, I’d be OK with it. And I’d be deeply grateful for what these wine geeks have save
And if that isn’t what the future looks like? Well, a simple truth that Étiévent spoke the night before at dinner still resonated: “Drinking the same wines all the time is really boring.&rdqu
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