Some grape varieties are the song everybody sings along to at the live shows or gets tattooed on their ribs. Some are just the payola radio earworm you can’t escape. But beyond the greatest hits and the lead singles, there’s a lot of pleasure and surprise waiting if you dig through the back catalogue.
I’ve raided the cellar at Leon & Son for wines made from grapes overlooked, misplaced, and almost lost. There will be brilliant session musicians getting to play on their own for a change, and deep cuts saved from extinction (to keep extending the metaphor). From the heart of the Alps to beyond the Pillars of Hercules, we’ll taste things few ever get to try and talk about why.
The tasting was on Monday, December 13th, in one of the heated outdoor pavilions at Rule of Thirds in Greenpoint, Brooklyn: a handful of seats around a small communal bar enclosed in wood panels and movable screens. Afterwards, the Rule of Thirds team shared some sake made from a heritage rice cultivar, food hit the table, and a few more bottles were opened too…
Here’s what we tasted:
ÉTIENNE CALSAC, petit meslier/arbanne/pinot blanc, “Les Revenants” SÉZANNE 2016
A tiny mixed plot of ancestral Champagne grapes Étienne planted in 2010 at his grandparent’s place; this was the first time he made it on its own. Meslier and arbanne both fell out of fashion because they were high acid and took so long to ripen. Today, those genetics are looking more and more like a way for growers to try and survive climate change.
ULLI STEIN, elbling, “Vineyard Project 001” MOSEL 2020
JEAN-YVES PERÓN, grignolino, “i Vicini” PIEDMONT / SAVOIE 2018
Two underdog grapes closely related to, and totally overshadowed by, superstars. Elbling was once the most-planted grape in Germany before it was superseded by riesling, and is now planted just at the margins. Grignolino is nebbiolo’s awkward relative (the name means ‘pips’ in local dialect; the berries have four times as many seeds as normal, which gives it shockingly high tannin for its light color).
Both of these are also collaborations: Jean-Yves crosses the border from the Savoie to play with organic and biodynamic grapes farmed by others (he brings them back and vinifies at home). Ulli made this from a vineyard above one of his riesling sites planted by a neighbor the year Ulli was born.
CLAUDE COURTOIS, gascon, “l’Icaunais” CHEVERNY 2016
RUTISSONS, verdesse ISÈRE 2020
Two virtually extinct rarities, each newly planted by a grower trying to preserve local histories. Gascon comes from somewhere between Orléans and the Yonne, a red grape of the Paris Basin that was once common in Burgundy before phylloxera.
Verdesse is one of the lost universe of varieties that cluster around the valleys of the Alps and connect the Rhône to the Savoie: grapes like persan, etraire de la dhuï, and servanin. The region of Isère itself was a casualty of phylloxera. There were 35,000 hectares of vines before the devastation at the end of the 19th century. Today, there are less than 500. It was a decimation in the old pedantic sense of the word.
MUCHADA-LÉCLEPART, moscatel de Chipiona & palomino, “Elixir” SANLÚCAR 2017
BEDROCK, many things, “Nervo Ranch” ALEXANDER VALLEY 2019
Finally, we tasted a couple of wines that gesture towards grape growing’s deep history.
Muchada-Léclepart is one of the exciting new prisms to understand sherry country, beyond what the British turned it into in the 1800s. It’s an unfortified, biodynamic co-fermentation of palomino and one of the inumerable muscats spread through the ancient Mediterranean, prized for its heady perfume and ability to produce wines that would survive a sea journey.
Bedrock, meanwhile, works with many of the oldest vineyards in California. Nervo Ranch was planted in 1896 and now fronts a highway. It’s a steep shale slope planted to a kitchen sink of zinfandel, negrette, petit sirah, grenache, trousseau, abouriou, valdigue, chenin and more, head-trained vines adapted to drought and capable of freshness in Mediterranean warmth that many decades ago went into Nervo Winery’s “California Burgundy.”
As much as I love to geek out about obscure grape varieties, what’s actually meaningful about verdesse or meslier is the ecological diversity they represent. Industrial monoculture is efficient and productive—until it isn’t. Pare away divergence and difference long enough and you’re left with something stunted, vulnerable to total annihilation from a single stray disease or pest, boring.
Genetic diversity in the vineyard is a long-term ecological good. Like a lot of things in wine, drinking obscure grapes won’t itself save the planet, but it’s a delicious way to fight back, even a little, against the monoculture.