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Rediscovering Ancient French Grape Varieties

Vignerons are rediscovering overlooked and undervalued ancestral grapes

Emily Monaco By July 14, 2021July 26th, 2021
Great panoramic of Chambord Chateau reflected in the canal in a summer day with blue sky. Photo courtesy of iStock.

All oenophiles know Merlot and Chardonnay; some might even be familiar with a few lesser-known varieties like Marsanne or Côt. But what about Pinot Beurot, Molette, or Romorantin? 

Most people would be unfamiliar with some of these grapes. 

But now a new generation of winemakers is bringing ancestral grapes back into the fold.

Where did they go?

Varieties fall out of use for many reasons, not the least of which was the phylloxera outbreak that devastated Europe’s wine-growing regions in the 19th century, destroying six million acres in France alone. When replanting, it was quantity, not quality, that was the “mot d’ordre,” or watchword, and winemakers often sought out sturdier grapes, particularly to provide soldiers with their daily rations of a liter of wine.

This trend continues to this day. For wine educator Laura Brown, many grapes fell out of fashion “simply because they weren’t good for business.” She explains that it didn’t make sense for growers “to take up precious vineyard rows with low-yielding or disease-prone grape varieties.” On the other hand, “some grape varieties were so easy to grow that they earned reputations for producing uninteresting wines, and as such, were swapped out for something seen as more refined.”

France’s highly restricted choice of grapes is also linked to the National Institute of Origin and Quality, which dictates what grapes can be vinified in each region if the bottle is to bear the local AOP or AOC label. 

But thanks to a few enterprising winemakers – and to an evolution in the perception of wine outside these strict appellations – some forgotten French varieties are seeing a resurgence.

I have definitely noticed an increased focus on grape varieties that might be considered lost or forgotten,” explains wine and spirits expert, Brian Freedman. “And it’s a great thing, too. Because the wine world is so much bigger and more varied than many people often give it credit for, or even realize.”

Here are five that are returning to the vineyard.

Pinot Beurot

In Burgundy, strict regulations mean that almost all of the local whites are made either with Chardonnay or with Aligoté. But that wasn’t always the case. Pinot Beurot, the local name for Pinot Gris, was historically co-planted with Pinot Noir and added to wines lacking aromatics or roundness.

Sophie Boillot of Domaine Lucien Boillot et Fils says the grape is little known, “because it’s not really used anymore.” Those who still have the grape grandfathered in, she continues, “guard it preciously.”  She adds that “planting this variety is no longer authorized, so it’s a variety that is becoming lost.”

In 2006, the family, nevertheless, decided to vinify the variety on its own, for a dry cuvée boasting aromas of white flowers and exotic fruit. For the Boillots, the vintage isn’t just a way of honoring their inheritance; it’s also a way for them to market a white Burgundy that’s a bit more affordable, with great aromatic potential due to the age of the vines. The resulting wine, Boillot says, is an original Burgundy that clients love.

Carménère

Compared to other French wine regions, Bordeaux allows for a veritable panoply of varieties, with the number recently skyrocketing from 14 to 20, as authorized grapes are added as insurance against climate change. One variety, Carménère, is not a new introduction to Bordeaux, but it’s been mostly overlooked until recently; in Chile, on the other hand, it’s thrived, even though it was improperly identified as Merlot until 1994. Now that temperatures are rising, it’s finally its time to shine in its ancestral home.

Beginning in the 19th century, late-maturing, low-yielding Carménère in Bordeaux was slowly but surely replaced by less finicky Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Locally, Carménère persisted in blends, only to catch the interest of local winemakers like Marc and Elodie Milhade of Château Recougne in the early 2000s, when they discovered some forgotten vines on their land. They decided to bring it back to life, cultivating it with meticulous care, though at first it played a supporting role for blends in need of freshness and vivacity, due to the effects of climate change. 

Today, however, the team also makes a single varietal wine with this former backup singer.

“We wanted to show off the flavor of Carménère on its own,” says Chloé Fourny, the château’s marketing director. It’s not yet available in the U.S., unfortunately.

David and Laurent Siozard are another sibling team revitalizing Bordelais Carménère; to hear David tell it, it fell out of fashion due to a specific issue.

“It has very low acidity,” he explains. “So to make cellarable red wines, it’s a bit complicated.”

For the past decade, however, the brothers have been producing Ipsum Carménère, a choice Laurent Siozard made after spending time in the single-varietal-loving Australia. “We’re big fans of atypical varieties,” says David Siozard, noting that they have also paid special attention to other local accessory varieties like Petit Verdot.

“Bordeaux has been challenged for a few years,” he explains, “and if you make only château blends like everyone else, it gets kind of complicated. You know what I mean?” 

Molette 

Of course, not all forgotten grapes were truly forgotten: Freedman cites several, including Bonarda, Frappato, and Touriga Nacional, that have long been beloved in their European countries of origin, but which are only now emerging as a larger presence outside their home markets. Molette is one such recent discovery, oft-overlooked outside of its native Savoie until, to hear Thomas Perlmutter of Paris’ Cave de Belleville tell it, it began to emerge following the increasing popularity – and thus prices – of wines from Jura.

Cle a Molette is one natural bottle from Domaine de l’Octavin in Jura, boasting citrus and salinity, for a wine that’s fresh and lively; words winemaker and Jura native, Alice Bouvot, has been quoted by French wine store La Cave des Papilles, as saying she far prefers to oft-overused references to minerality. The perfect aperitif wine, this biodynamic bottle offers a clean expression of the almost-lost grape.

Arbanne, Pinot Blanc, and Petit Meslier 

In Champagne, most of the sparkling wine is made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. But unfamiliar varieties like Arbanne, Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc join stalwart Chardonnay in Champagne Drappier’s Quattuor, for a four-grape-strong Champagne boasting citrus-toned freshness and honey apple notes.

Champagne Drappier is an accredited carbon-neutral house that has been independently owned and operated since 1808. The forward-thinking family is passionate about the environmental impact and historical importance of forgotten local varieties. 

“These now-rare varieties are part of the genetic heritage acquired by Champagne over the past nearly 2000 years,” they write on their website. “Preserving them seems like the right continuity of our work as winemakers, which has lasted for eight generations.”

Romorantin

Romorantin was once a favorite of King François I, who planted it at the Château de Chambord. Today, however, the grape is unfamiliar to many, perhaps because it is permitted by the AOP only in the small appellation of Cour-Cheverny in the Loire Valley.

“With just a few dozen hectares planted,” says Thierry Puzelat of Clos du Tue-Boeuf, who runs the domain with his brother, “it’s not surprising that it would be little known.”

Puzelat has, nevertheless, been vinifying his Romorantin – which falls outside the AOP system – since far before Vin de France, the designation that gives winemakers the freedom to do as they please, was cool.

“Climate change is reminding us that we need to return to local varieties,” he says, noting that these often late-maturing grapes “are much happier now.”

Romorantin specifically, he says, boasts “a lot of acidity,” and is thus “fun to push far into maturity.”

He vinifies on the lees in oak barrels, “to smooth out that rugged youth.” The result, he says, is at once powerful and fresh, with a unique aromatic characteristic on the border between floral and vegetal. While these wines can be drunk immediately, they’re also worth cellaring for several decades, he says.

“It’s a variety that deserves it,” he says. “That deserves a bit more of a luxurious treatment than what it’s received in the past.”

It’s a call echoed by Jean-Sébastien Marionnet, who, at his Domaine de la Charmoise, is vinifying the oldest Romorantin in France, which he inherited from a retiring neighbor in 1998. The vines, he says, are over 200 years old, and his passion for their history inspired him to close the loop. In 2015, he donated cuttings to the Château de Chambord, so that the descendants of the original Romorantin could subsist in their place of origin.

5 wines from ancient varieties:

bottle of Tue-Boeuf VDF Loire Valley "Frileuse" Romorantin 2019

Tue-Boeuf VDF Loire Valley "Frileuse" Romorantin 2019 ($42)

The grapes for this wine come partly from 110-year-old-vines and partly from 40-year-old vines that sit on clay and silex soils. It’s aged in barrel for a year and emerges with flavors of stone fruits and almond, on a mineral backbone.

bottle of Domaine Lucien Boillot et Fils "Les Grands Poisots" Bourgogne Pinot Beurot 2018

Domaine Lucien Boillot et Fils "Les Grands Poisots" Bourgogne Pinot Beurot 2018 ($49)

This bright, lively wine boasts a powerful minerality and citrus notes with lemon, orange rind, and lime. Pear and melon-like fruit notes balance it out nicely.

bottle of Domaine de l'Octavin Jura Clé à Molette 2019

Domaine de l'Octavin Jura Clé à Molette 2019 ($52)

This Demeter biodynamic-certified, unfiltered, natural wine boasts fresh citrus and white flower notes and clean, refreshing salinity.

bottle of Henry Marionnet Domaine de la Charmoise Provignage Romorantin 2014

Henry Marionnet Domaine de la Charmoise Provignage Romorantin 2014 ($100)

This wine, from some of France’s oldest vines, is vinified in stainless steel, boasting sublime minerality and ample mouthfeel with aromas of pear, quince, white flower, honey, and hazelnuts.

bottle of Champagne Drappier Quattuor Extra Brut NV

Champagne Drappier Quattuor Extra Brut NV ($115)

An unusual blend of Arbane, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Petit Meslier that boasts citrus-toned freshness and honey apple notes.