I am constantly reminded of how little I really know about grapes and wine. Olivier Bourdet-Pees, Managing Director of dynamic Saint Mont-based Plaimont Producteurs gave a talk in London recently on (re)discovering some of the rarest grapes in Southwest France.
Some of you may already be familiar with some of this part of France’s horde of unique indigenous varieties, including the characterful white Mansengs (Gros and Petit), Petit Courbu and Arrufiac; the fiercely tannic and ageworthy Tannat and the lighter, fruity Pinenc ( also known as Fer Servadou, Braucol and Mansois). These are the ones we know about – but are there many others waiting to be discovered?
In the 1970s and 80s, winemaker and oenologist André Dubosc began to work actively to reinvigorate the flagging fortunes of Saint Mont’s growers, who had previously provided grapes for distillation as Armagnac, by urging them to focus on the production of table wines instead. As part of this work he began noticing individual vines which seemed unlike their neighbours. In order to preserve this potentially interesting or valuable plant material, Dubosc would even go so far as to pay growers to maintain these vines, rather than uprooting them to replace them with known varieties.
The story moves on to 2002, when a “conservatory” of these potentially new varieties was established, containing 20 vines each of 39 distinct varieties, enough to make just 3-4 bottles of wine. By 2007, the science of DNA identification was brought to bear in identifying varieties, or in determining how they are related to existing varieties. Science has its limits, though, and 12 of the 39 are still unknown, in that they share no relationship with any known variety anywhere in the world. This means that this small corner of the winemaking world is potentially the home of 12 entirely new varieties – and who knows how many more lurking unnoticed in the vines?
Olivier told us that a number of these varieties were female, which had the audience rather non-plussed: we’ve all learnt that grape vines, Vitis vinifera, are self-fertile, or hermaphrodite. And yet it seems that it ain’t necessarily so. Oliver quoted the example of the Kiwi fruit: as many disappointed would-be growers of it know, it exists in both male and female form. Only the female plants are capable of bearing fruit, but they require a nearby male kiwi plant to fertilise them.
The same used to be true of grape varieties too, but we humans have bred out that characteristic, with the result that all the varieties that we come across in commercial vineyards are indeed self-fertile. Olivier predicts that within a hundred years we will have forgotten that the kiwi vine ever existed in male and female forms, as commercial breeders will have developed self-fertile vines and the old male/female varieties will have effectively become extinct.
After that food for thought, Olivier then led us through a tasting of some of the wines made from the potentially new varieties.
Pedebernade No 5 – there is no official name for these vines as yet, so they are named after the owners of the vineyards in which they were found. This is a red variety with interesting marzipan and cherry aromas, brisk acidity and low (10%) alcohol. On its own it makes for an odd wine, but Olivier feels it could have a future as a blending partner with the region’s renowned Tannat, which when ripe, can produce wines with overly high alcohol.
However, as a female vine, it is currently forbidden by INAO (the French organisation which governs the Appellation Contrôlée) to be grown commercially and no exception has yet been granted, so it may be a while before we see Pedebernade No5 (or whatever it ends up being called) appearing in Saint Mont’s red wines.
Pinenc RH4 – by contrast with the first variety we tried, this made a quite delicious wine, with the juicy red fruit and hint of pencil shaving that I associate with regular Pinenc/Fer, but with greater aromatic intensity, complexity and ripeness, while maintaining its freshness.
This is a particular selection of the widely-grown (in Southwest France that is) Pinenc. This version of it almost died out because the short, almost non-existent stalk between the vine and the grape bunches made it difficult to harvest – one person could harvest around 200kg of this per day, compared with 1,000 kg for “regular” Pinenc. In the 1970s, inferior quality clonal selections were made which facilitated more efficient harvesting, but which sacrificed quality to ease of picking.
Olivier hopes to have this RH4 version in commercial vineyards within two years.
Other varieties in the line-up were of interest because they add to our knowledge of the interrelationships between varieties. Dubosc No 2 made a nice enough wine, but the real interest lies in the fact that it is related to the variety Madeleine Noire des Charentes, which is itself “an awful grape” according to Olivier, but nevertheless important in our understanding of grape varieties as it is a parent of internationally renowned Merlot and Cot (aka Malbec). In vines, as in life it seems, a close genetic relationship is no guarantee of quality.
This is all very interesting in its own way, but what about wines that you might actually be able to buy?
How about a taste of wine made from vines planted in 1890, some of the very first to be grafted onto American rootstocks in the wake of the devastation caused by the splendidly named pylloxera vastatrix?
La Madeleine Saint Mont 2012 - £43.50 from Adnams
This 100% Tannat wine exhibits the variety’s hallmark tannic structure and weight, with masses of rich, dark fruit and mineral pull.
Do not be in any hurry to drink this, though; it has many years ahead of it.