Explainer

The Most Important Grape You’ve Never Tasted

Whatever happened to Gouais Blanc, the mother of wines?

Meg Maker By August 17, 2021
Gouais Blanc
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

Have you ever tasted Gouais Blanc? Honestly, neither have I. 

This ancient French grape is now so rare it survives only in a handful of plots. In France, it’s found in the heritage vine collection, dubbed the Louvre of grapevines, of the country’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment.

But you’ve surely tasted its progeny. So, why is Gouais so obscure today?

Humble beginnings

If you were a French peasant in the Middle Ages, Gouais (goo-WAY) would have wreathed your garden plot. The pale green grape was high-yielding and reliable, and if the wine it produced was uninspired, it was at least abundant. 

Meanwhile your neighbors, the monks and the landed gentry, were planting and drinking Pinot Noir, by then an established noble grape. But Gouais was the wine in your store cupboard and your glass. 

The Casanova of grapes

Neighbors love to mingle, and before long, Pinot and Gouais had met across the fence. This union of black and green grapes yielded 16 new, now astonishingly important, varieties.

  • White-fruited offspring include Chardonnay, Auxerrois, Aligoté, and Melon de Bourgogne.
  • Black-fruited progeny include Gamay and Beaunoir.

Over time, Gouais also crossed with other vines, among them Chenin Blanc, Tressot, and Savagnin. 

  • In all, vine researchers have identified at least 81 new varieties that stemmed from Gouais crossings, including Riesling, Colombard, Blaufränkisch, Muscadelle, and Jacquère. 

Such fecundity led it to be dubbed a Casanova — although Gouais was often the mother vine, not the father.

The fall from grace

As the kids began to outshine their mother, Gouais fell out of favor in France, and its vineyards succumbed to an active, widespread campaign to rid the country of such an ancient, rustic vine. 

Some commentators have suggested the effort was purely elitist, meant to prop up wines of the French gentry rather than elevate that of the common people. 

Still hanging on

To taste Gouais Blanc today, you’d have to score a bottle from one of the handful of producers in Slovenia’s Štajerska sub-region or Switzerland’s Haut-Valais, where it’s known locally as Gwäss.

  • Thin-skinned and prone to botrytis, the grape can make a crisp white wine with flavors of green apple and lemon. 
  • Its freshness also makes it great for sparkling wine.

Good luck scoring one. In the meantime, try these examples of the grape’s distinguished progeny.

Tasting the successors of Gouais Blanc: 

bottle of Mittnacht Frères Brut Crémant d’Alsace

Mittnacht Frères Brut Crémant d’Alsace ($19)

Founded in 1958, Mittnacht owns rows in the Grand Cru Rosacker as well as sites in Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr. This crémant is 60 percent Auxerrois and the remainder is equal parts Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Riesling. The cuvée sits en tirage for 18 months. It’s fragrant with wild thyme, wildflowers, and field herbs, plus a sense of lemon and wet stone. The palate crackles with acidity and more crunchy minerals, and the finish is saline. Pair it with Alsatian fare, such as tarte flambée! Also terrific with lighter dishes seasoned with ginger, lemon, or fresh herbs.

Arnot-Roberts Gamay El Dorado ($35)

Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Roberts grew up together in Napa Valley and in 2001, began making wine in their basement using purchased grapes. Today, the pair make about 8,000 cases from their winery in Healdsburg, sourcing fruit from some of California’s most revered vineyards. Their Gamay is from the Witters Vineyard in El Dorado, which sits at 3,300’ elevation. Clear cherry red, its aromas are brambly and cherry-berry, with top notes of basil, angelica, violets, and fresh air. Light-textured, almost crystalline, the structure derives from the wine’s firm acidity, while Gamay’s earthy sour cherry-black raspberry character shines through. A great red wine to serve lightly chilled.

bottle of André et Michel Quenard Les Éboulis de la Savoyarde Chignin Savoie

André et Michel Quenard Les Éboulis de la Savoyarde Chignin Savoie ($36)

The Quenard family farms 55 rocky acres in Chignin, growing Jacquère — which goes into this bottling — plus Altesse, Mondeuse, Gamay, Pinot Noir, and Bergeron, also known as Roussanne. The wine is pale yellow with green glints and effusive with a scent of russet apple, pear, and quince. The palate is silken; the acidity mostly presents as a front-of-palate tingle, but its back-palate grip adds depth. Flavors suggest white orchard fruits, herbs, and, in the finish, salt. A terrific wine for spring: refreshing, interesting, alpine. Try it with a mixed charcuterie plate studded with cured meats and Alp-style cheeses like Beaufort.

Albert Boxler Riesling Grand Cru Brand ($95)

Boxler’s domaine was founded in 1673, and today includes vineyards in Niedermorschwihr, including Grand Cru Sommerberg and Grand Cru Brand. Like all of Boxler’s Rieslings, the Brand bottling is intricate, infinitely complex, with fine details that add filigree to the grape’s fruit and flower notes. There is a sense of honeysuckle, rosewater, and orange blossom layered atop waves of lemon-lime and tropical fruits, but texturally, the wine feels fleshy, with a finish that swells before it tapers. Truly a beautiful Riesling, and age-worthy, too.

Henriot Champagne Brut Blanc De Blancs Cuve 38 La Réserve Perpétuelle ($595 1.5L)

Perpetual barrels aren’t new to Champagne; some houses maintain a large tank of reserve wine, bottling a small amount each year and topping with fresh wine. Henriot started their reserve program in 1990, sourcing Chardonnay exclusively from Grand Cru vineyards in the Côte des Blancs. Each year they draw out 15% to 20% of their 12,336 gallon tank number 38 — hence Cuve 38 — then bottle it, in magnum only, top it for the prise de mousse, and lay it en tirage for another seven years prior to disgorgement. That time in tank and bottle yields an average age of 17 years on release. The wine is an elixir: savory, honeyed, rippling with notes of lemon peel and pastry, marzipan, and acacia. Luminous acidity lights up the creamy mid-palate, yet for all its glittery refreshment, the wine is persistent, expansive. It’s a celebratory wine, great for parties. Who doesn’t love a magnum of Champagne?