amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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Rare grapes and Vin De France

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This chart was published two weeks ago even though the information refers to 2010. I found it fascinating (I am a sad case I understand). Some of the information would be expected, New Zealand with its Sauvignon Blanc for example, Australia with its Shiraz. I was rather surprised to see Merlot as 13.7% of the French vineyard area however. Admittedly this is partly because it is one of my least favourite grape varieties, though, as always, fine examples are available from good vignerons.

Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier, were in vogue in the 80s and 90s when I became interested in wine. Languedoc producers reacted to this popularity by planting these cépages, it was commercial sense. One of those producers was Jean-Claude Coutelou and Mas Coutelou still has his Cabernet and Merlot parcels.

However, one of the more recent trends in the region has been the revival of older and rare grape varieties. At Mas Coutelou Jeff has planted grapes such as Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris, Morastel, Piquepoul Noir and Terret Noir in Peilhan (see photos below).

Earlier this year Jeff received a visit from Domaine De Vassal, guardian of the national treasury of grape vines. They record and keep examples all grape varieties as I described after a visit to Vassal. On this occasion they were intrigued by two vines in particular; firstly Clairette Musquée, planted in Peilhan and, secondly, the unknown variety in Segrairals. These are just part of the programme of replanting and grafting which has taken place at Mas Coutelou. The photos below show grafting of other cépages in Flower Power such as Aramon Noir and one unknown variety.

After months of research the experts at Vassal have concluded that Clairette Musquée has its origins in Hungary where it was known as Org Tokosi. It was planted in the Maghreb and after Algerian independence it was probably brought to France by those who repatriated to France.

The unnown variety turns out to be an Italian cépage, quite rare, called Delizia Di Vaprio. This is, according to my copy of Pierre Galet’s “Dictionnaire Encyclopédique des Cépages”, a grape authorised in Italy and Portugal. Under the rules of France’s AOC system it would not be allowed. Jeff, however, chooses to issue his wines under the Vin De France label which means he is free to choose his own methods and grape varieties. Whereas a Languedoc AOC wine must include grapes such as Syrah and Grenache Jeff can choose what to put in his wines including wines from just one grape variety. It also means he can plant these rare grapes and make wines from them which he truly loves and wants to make.

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Interestingly one AOC, Burgundy, is starting to show signs of concern that Vin De France is becoming more popular. They have started a campaign criticising Vin de France. To my mind they should be looking to their own failings and regulations. For example, as climate change bites harder vignerons will have to adapt, investigating different grape varieties will be part of that.

So, yes Merlot has its place (and thrives in the Colombié vineyard in Puimisson) but is it not exciting to see rare, old, traditional grapes being cherished and brought back to prominence? Let us appreciate the range and variety of grapes and the vignerons who bring out their best.

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Domaine Vassal – wine world’s heritage site

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Messrs Coutelou, Aubry, Poujol, Bellahsen and Prufer

On October 8th a group of vignerons paid a visit to Domaine Vassal in Marseillan Plage, I was happy to be invited to join them. The visit boosted my growing interest in ampelography as well as being great fun, of which more later.

Domaine Vassal was founded in 1949 and is the largest collection of resources about grapes and vines in the world. Its own roots (apologies for the pun) lie in a collection gathered in Montpellier University after the outbreak of phylloxera. This was the disease which almost wiped out the wine industry in France when it arrived in 1863. It is the work of an aphid which lives in the roots of vitis vinifera the original vines of France and Europe including the cépages with which we are familiar such as Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet). Sadly, this aphid arrived from the USA, via England (those Anglo-Saxons!), and ate its way through France’s vineyards. Montpellier started to conserve vitis vinifera and to study it and found the cause of phylloxera by doing so. It was also discovered that American rootstock was resistant to the aphid so, by grafting vitis vinifera onto American rootstock, vignerons could grow the traditional cépages rather than hybrid vines of lesser quality.

The other feature noticed about the aphid was that it could not live in sand and so the decision was taken to transfer the collection from Montpellier to Marseillan, Domaine Vassal’s grounds are sand. This means that the vines which are grown there can be grown directly from the sand, no grafting onto American rootstock is needed. Since 1949 some 14,000 species of vine have been collected together.

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                                    The sands of Vassal

Genetics now means that they can be identified more accurately and 7,700 species remain, many of the species having been shown to be doubles. Cépages are frequently called by different names in different parts of France let alone different countries so it is easy to think of cépages as being different when in fact they are the same. (For example, Cinsault has over 40 different names around the world according to Pierre Galet’s authoritative Dictionnaire des Cépages.)

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The aim of Vassal is to:

  • Acquire
  • Conserve
  • Classify
  • Valorise (ie develop and show the worth of the vines)

The Domaine receives donations of vines every year, five examples are required for each arrival. Last year there was a higher than average number of arrivals (up to 900 plants), indicating that new varieties are still waiting to be added to our knowledge. Researchers also go out to old vineyards to see if other vines can be found. These acquisitions are then planted. At first they may be placed in insect proof greenhouses to protect them and to be nursed.

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The plants are then placed on one of the fifteen parcels of land at the Domaine which covers around 27 hectares. Most of these are vitis vinifera but there are also hybrids, wild vines and rootstocks.

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                             Hybrid

The vines are studied carefully by genetics and by identification through the leaves, grapes and other features so that they can be classified as new or doubles of already recognised vines. Samples of all aspects are taken and preserved in files to make a unique collection which is being digitised. Further studies look to reveal how the cépage might be best grown, what yields it might offer, would they be commercial?

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             Hybrid vines with waxy leaves

With so many vines there are losses, but very few, and replacement plants are grown in the nurseries, almost 6,000 were planted last year. This is a vast undertaking and a hugely valuable resource. Vignerons are encouraged to visit and see whether they would like to trial some of the cépages in Vassal, trials which will run with a few plants and over 3 years.

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              Joe Jefferies takes an interest

Jeff Coutelou is keen to do just that and is looking at what cépages might mix well into the array of different vines which he already grows. Indeed, when talking with staff at Vassal, he discovered that he might have one or two cépages which are not in their collection! This could be mutually beneficial.

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Remi Poujol and Francois Aubry amongst the vines

It was a fascinating place to visit and I applaud the work of Domaine Vassal. Unfortunately there is a cloud on the horizon, the collection is going to have to move. A site has been identified at Pech Rouge near Gruissan but every vine will need to be transferred and, as the new site will not be sandy, will also have to be grafted. This is a massive undertaking which will take a few years to accomplish and the staff are determined that no species will be lost. The professionalism and skill I see at Vassal will be tested, I am sure they will pass that test.

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               Messrs White, Poujol and Maurel

After the visit the vignerons decamped to the nearby beach, a fire was lit and a barbecue enjoyed. Accompanied, of course, by examples of many excellent wines appropriately from many cépages. There was no cloud on the horizon here. As well as Mas Coutelou there was Mas D’Agalis (Lionel Maurel), Fontedicto (Bernard Bellahsen), Julien Peyras, Grégory White, Yannick Pelletier, Fontude (Francois Aubry), Le Temps Des Cerises (Axel Prufer), Remi Poujol, Bories Jefferies (Joe Jefferies), Clos Fantine (Olivier Andrieu). In other words the great and the good of Languedoc natural winemakers. It is interesting to see that this group is to the fore in promoting and conserving old and rare cépages, a natural fit.

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For a fuller account of Domaine Vassal’s work read this article by Ken Payton.