12 October 2016

Forbidden fruit

C'est-à-dire « cépages interdits ». According to an article I just read, there are six grapes varietals that are "outlawed" in French wine-making. Apparently, the grapes can be grown but they can't be made into wine. It's not really clear why. The ban dates back to 1935.


One day years ago I was talking to a neighbor who has about 15 acres of vines up behind our house. I don't know if I brought up the subject of outlawed varietals, or if he did. Either way, he told me that one of his fellow vignerons had a row of such grapes planted among his "legal" vines. He treated the news like a big secret, but he told me more or less where the banned grapes were planted.


Walt located them a while back, once they had grapes on them. I'd never noticed them. I see two signs that they are the ones the neighbor told me about. First, they are planted in a short row on the edge of a plot of white-wine grapes, but half the grapes in the row in question are red. Also, the white grapes in the forbidden row are different from the white grapes planted next to them, and they haven't yet been harvested, while the grapes in the rest of the parcel have been.

Why are these varietals — clinton, noah, jacquez, herbemont, othello, isabelle — unfit to be turned into wine? People whisper that the wine made from them would drive people crazy, the way it was rumored that absinthe did. Others says wine made from them just wouldn't taste good. There is some evidence that the ban might date back to the 19th-century importation of vines from North America that brought the phylloxera scourge to French vineyards and nearly killed the wine-making business here.

I don't know what the grapes in my photos here are, but they are the ones. I've tasted a grape of each color and I don't feel any crazier than I did before. Here's a link to the article (in French) that I read this morning.

19 comments:

Gosia k said...

It is really strange

Susan said...

Oooooh! Fascinating. Monsanto's grandfather is responsible, eh!? I'm going to ask my friend Alexandre. He often knows this sort of stuff. I wasn't quite clear about the variety Isabelle. The article appeared to be saying on the one hand this was the American variety that introduced phylloxera, but on the other hand that it needs very little in the way of pesticides. More research definitely required :-)

Taste of France said...

You would think it's hard to hide, especially as the leaves turn. The leaves on the different cépages turn different colors.

Susan said...

A quick twirl through the internet has revealed that Isabella and Noah are related to one another and Jacquez and Herbemont are related to one another. They are both hybrids of Vitis vinifera, the native European grape and an American species (V. labrusca and V. aestivalis respectively). Isabella is the variety that brought phylloxera to France. All six of these varieties are resistant to phylloxera. V. labrusca gives either a foxy or a strawberry taste to the grapes of any of its progeny. It is apparently an acquired taste and presumably the French decided they didn't want to acquire it. I know that there was considerable worry about the introduction of American root stocks changing the flavour of European wine, and even today some people think it is a problem. I asked Alexandre about this recently and he indicated that he thinks it is possible that the root stock changes the flavour. What I didn't learn from my quick internet search is whether you can use these varieties for rootstock or whether it is just using the grapes of the varieties themselves which is banned from commercial winemaking in France.

chm said...

Thank you, Susan, for this interesting addition to the French article which doesn't exaxtly say why these grapes or vines are banned.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Susan, for decades I've heard that hypothesis about the taste of wines coming from European vines grafted onto N. American root stock being different from wines pre-phylloxera. I don't suppose we'll ever know whether it's true or not, since we can't travel back in time. North American grapes produce "foxy" wines, and the grapes are known as "fox grapes." It's kind of like the difference between American "ballpark mustard" and French Dijon mustard -- not comparable.

Diogenes said...

I found an English article stating that the traditional French "classification regimes" had no room for these different varietals:

https://www.arche-noah.at/files/arche_noah_april_2016_direct_producers_forbidden_fruits_executive_summary.pdf

I doubt the Clinton grape would make one crazy. The Trump grape is another story though, and is definitely unfit to be turned into wine.

Seine Judeet (Judith) said...

Haaaa haaaaaa!

Ken Broadhurst said...

Ditto. He he he.

chm said...

D., can't stop laughing!. Trump wine is known as vinegar.

Bob Rossi said...

And make sure not to buy wines from Trump Vineyards, which I think is located in Virginia.

Bob Rossi said...

Interesting. A few years ago, we visited a small wine producer in the Ardeche, who told us that he grew a couple of banned grapes; and maybe made wine for his family's consumption, although I'm not sure. When I asked what they were, he wrote them down because I couldn't understand his pronunciation. They were Jacquez and Clinton.

chm said...

Prince Michel Vineyards are located in Virginia and, sure, their products, I cannot call them wine, are worse than vinegar!

Ken Broadhurst said...

Did you actually taste wines made with those grapes, Bob? In French Wikipedia articles, there's a lot of messages about the different grapes that were included in the ban, but I read in one of them that the ban was actually lifted a dozen years ago. About the Clinton grape, it says it was imported from New York State (there's a town called Clinton there, and Dewitt Clinton was a prominent governor, so it makes sense) and is planted on the south slopes of the Massif Central in France, as well as in a couple of regions in Italy. There are also English Wikipedia articles about the six grapes that were banned, but they have less information in them than the French articles.

Bob Rossi said...

No, Ken, and it wasn't clear what was done with the grapes; were they just eaten or thrown away (probably not), or were they made into wine for the family? I still have my notes from that visit (it was in 2010 to Domaine Jerome Mazel in the southern Ardeche), and Jerome wrote the grape as Jaquez, and Clinton he said was from the US (as you note). I'm curious, and I'll go take a look at my massive Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes book.

Susan said...

The official problem with these grapes is that they are hybrids. All hybrids are banned, as are grapes grown on their own rootstock. So all commercial wine in Europe is from Vitis vinifera, grown from grapes grafted on to an American species such as V. riparia rootstock. As to why exactly hybrids are banned -- it's complicated and not possible to cover in a comment.

Susan said...

Many thanks for the link to the article by Arche Noah. Absolutely fascinating. I learned a lot.

Bob Rossi said...

As Ken said, I think the issue has to do with "foxiness" and perceived lower quality of hybrids. As I recall, I think there was an issue with taste when winemakers tried to solve the phylloxera problem in the 1800's by using hybrid rootstock.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Yes, D., thanks for that article.