How many grape varieties can you name? A handful, right off the bat, I’m sure. Then there’s probably another dozen or so that come to mind when you start thinking, maybe two dozen. Unless you spend your time learning about grape diversity (which I know some of my readers do) you may be hard pressed to list 50 or 100 grape varieties.
I’ve read estimates that there are 10,000+ grape varieties in the world, including 1,400 known wine grape varieties. According to Napa Valley Vintners, 34 varieties are grown there. Significantly more diverse is Lodi, which supports over 100 varieties. There are your benchmarks.
If grape diversity is your thing, you may want to spread out a bit, like all the way to Southwest (Sud-Ouest) France. Southwest France is located south of Bordeaux, between the Pyrénées Mountains and Spain. The region’s west coast hits the Atlantic Ocean. It’s divided into several sub-regions: Bergerac and the Dordogne River; Garonne and Tarn; Lot River and Pyrénées. Jancis Robinson has a lovely explainer on the appellations, and I’ll direct you there to sort out the geographical and ecological maneuverings behind the specific growing regions.
This pocket of the France is responsible for 30% of the country’s grape diversity and fosters 130 native grapes, with 300 total varieties cultivated there! Some of the key grapes include Cabernet Franc, Colombard, Duras, Fer Servadou, Gros Manseng, Loin de l’Oeil, Malbec, Mauzac, Négrette, Petit Manseng, Prunelard and Tannat.
Location has something to do with this—a situation comprised of a stack of climates: Mediterranean, oceanic and mountainous. It’s also a rural part of France, with room for agriculture to spread out. History has a role to play as well. Roman influence (those guys loved wine!) is all over the South of France and the impact of religious pilgrims along the Santiago de Compostela is also influential.
But there’s something else in the cards for Southwest France, and it’s a topic that farmers around the world are tuned to: climate change. The winegrowers in the region are parlaying their diversity towards preservation efforts. Here’s what some of the region’s producers are working on:
V’innopôle Sud-Ouest is the South West research unit of the French Institute for Vine and Wine (IFV) located northeast of Toulouse in the Gaillac growing region. It is understood that dozens of grape varieties have slipped from the Earth over the last generation, so to prevent further loss, V’innopole tracks the region’s remaining grapes. They are also working to further diversify the grapes that thrive here and are evaluating the growth of nine “foreign” grapes: Alvarinho, Verdelho, Rkatsiteli, 8458, Scheurebe, Arvine, Verdejo, Malvasia istria and Vermentino.
Researchers tend to 15 hectares of vineyards with local and international plots. There is also a conservatory with 200+ variety and a “micro-cellar” and laboratory for experiments, field trials and research and development. The staff here also conducts training, communication and education to growers across the South West space.
The Vinovalie winemaker union was founded in 2006 to unify wine-growers from the Pays d’Ovalie, which includes growers in Cahors, Fronton and Galliac. These growers consider their local varieties to be “legendary” and work together to preserve and protect them. The website has a lovely history on some of the main players.
Plaimont incorporates 800 winemaker families that exclusively grow native grape varieties. These are the farmers responsible for renewed interest in the Côtes de Gascogne growing region, and they account for about half of that area’s total production. In 2002, these growers established a conservatory, a “living library,” for their ancient local grape varieties. This includes a plot of extremely rare, pre-Phylloxera vines dating to 1871, which are the only vines to be listed as a “Historical Monument” in France.
37 varieties are located here, some of them are unidentified. 12 varieties have been recovered and identified as “vines of tomorrow,” such as Manseng Noir and Tardif. Some of these varieties have been identified for their low alcohol content which make them change-capable candidates for a hotter growing environment.
Southwest France: Wine + Food
It’s common for restaurants and wine shops to admit they have a hard time convincing customers to order wines they aren’t familiar with, or can’t say. It’s understandable and yet, it seems that food pairings could make the process more approachable. A new wine suggested as the ideal match for a well-loved dish is a reasonable introduction, after all, it’s about the taste.
Here are a set of wine and food pairing concepts featuring wines from Southwest France with underappreciated varieties as components.
This biodynamic wine is made from a variety called Abouriou, and legend says it was discovered growing on the walls of ruined castle the 1800s in the Côtes du Marmadais appellation, an area famous for its tomato crop. It’s thought to be a grandparent or half-sibling of both Merlot and Cot (Malbec). It’s dark-skinned, but the lighter profile has been compared to Gamay. Pair with: Herb Roasted Eggplant with Tomatoes
This organic wine is made from 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Sémillon, 20% Muscadelle. I know what you are thinking: Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon aren’t underappreciated. But…how about Muscadelle? In my opinion, especially among North American consumers, the answer is yes. Produced by Thierry and Isabelle Daulhiac in vineyards situated between Montbazillac and Sainte-Foy, in the town of Razac de Saussignac this bottle has a nicely balanced sense of fruity florals and crispness. Pair with: Blue Cheese Pasta
Packed in this biodynamic, Demeter-certified bottle is 70% Duras and 30% Braucol, AKA Fer Servadou. Duras dates back to Roman times, a descendant of Tressot, an old Burgundian variety and “Savagnin”, the white variety associated with Jura. It’s a peppery and red fruit Gaillac native son. Braucol (or Fer Servadou) has native ties to Spanish Basque Country and has traveled, more or less, along the St Jacques de Compostelle. It belongs in Carmenets family, which includes Cabernets. It’s a firm fixture in Gaillac, made mindfully by Nicolas Lebrun, founder and winemaker at L’Enclos des Braves. Gaillac is home to Southwest France’s oldest vineyards and indigenous grapes are highly important. Pair with: Garlicky Grilled Beef Tenderloin with Herbs
Gros Manseng. Ever had it? Yoan Le Menn, 5th generation winemaker at the family-run Domaine Horgelus cultivates it. Aromatic and treasured in both sweet and dry wines of the area, it makes for a crisp, clean white that is entirely food friendly. Côtes de Gascogne has three growing areas: Bas-Armagnac, Ténarèze and Haut-Armagnac and is home to 1000+ wine growers and producers. Pair with Asparagus Salad with Eggs & Jambon de Bayonne (check out this regional product here).
Wine Pairing Weekend
This month our host, Camilla, from Culinary Adventures with Camilla, got inspiration from Jason Wilson’s book Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey Through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine. When Camilla learned that she’d only tried 17 of Wilson’s 101 varieties to seek out, she realized there is a lot of tasting (and pairing to do). So she challenged our group to get to work on some godforsaken, or underappreciated, grapes. In my opinion, this means exploring regions such as South West France that don’t stick to the recognized, easy-to-say or commercially beneficial grapes.
If this concept interests you, perhaps you’ll join our #WinePW Twitter chat at 10am central time on Saturday, January 11th. Simply pop our hashtag into the Twitter search bar at that time and you are in! Here’s what the other participants covered and I am so eager to hear what they have to say about their research and pairings:
A North Macedonian Blend: Vranec and Plavec by My Full Wine Glass
An Ode to Godforsaken Grapes on Somm’s Table
An Unlikely Match: A Thai Favorite + A Qvevri-Aged Wine from the Republic of Georgia by Culinary Adventures with Camilla
Cesanese, Schioppettino and More Interesting Wine to Try by Cooking Chat
Falanghina and Lagrein from California? Of course! by ENOFYLZ Wine Blog
Godforsaken Grapes: The Book and Thoughts about Wine by Our Good Life
Godforsaken Grapes: The Book, The Wine, The Pairing by A Day in the Life on the Farm
Pairing Blaufrankisch from Austria with Dark Soya Marinated Chicken Legs by Chinese Food and Wine Pairings
Pairing Petit Manseng with Asian Food by Asian Test Kitchen
Pairing the Unpairable: Traditional Turkish Manti and Yogurt with Öküzgözü Rosé by The Quirky Cork
Saperavi is Super with Khachapuri by Dracaena Wines
Southwest France: A Pool of Grape Diversity by L’Occasion
Tasting & Pairing Tannat – #WinePW Exploration of Godforsaken Grapes by The Corkscrew Concierge
To Try in 2020: Paso Whites– Unexpected Grapes In an Unexpected Region by Wine Predator
The Forgotten Grapes of Calabria: Gaglioppo of Ceraudo with Salsiccia by Vino Travels
White Port: A Blend of Grape Varieties Unknown to Many by Grape Experiences