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Jefford on Monday: On the trail of the organic supervines

Andrew Jefford tastes the future – and it’s good.

In the ennervating heat of late August in Languedoc, at Maraussan just outside Béziers, I tasted five wines – experimental, non-commercial  and with incomprehensible names (the two whites were labelled 3159 and the three reds 3176).  They were attractive in themselves, but it was what they stood for which roused me from my end-of-summer torpor.  They promise an organic revolution, since both are made from varieties which are comprehensively resistant both to oidium (powdery mildew) and mildiou (downy mildew).

I tasted them with Gabriel Ruetsch, chief agronomist for giant co-operative group Vignobles Foncalieu (1,000 members, and almost 27 million bottles produced in 2015).  One of those member co-operatives, the Vignerons du Pays d’Ensérune, traces its origins to France’s first ever wine co-op (opened by the intellectually brilliant French social democrat Jean Jaurès in 1905 with a speech in Occitan, and purchase of the first share).  Communally owned vineyards were created at that time and given the beautiful name L’Emancipatrice — ‘the emancipatress’.

They still exist, and it’s in one of those that Foncalieu has planted 3159 and 3176, hoping to include wine from them in its ‘Extraordinaires’ range due course.  More memorable commercial names will be chosen for the varieties; those names will almost certainly include the word ‘Bouquet’.  Here’s why.

Alain Bouquet was a visionary researcher and wine-breeder who, beginning in 1974, set out on a quest to obviate the need for the colossal chemical inputs with which many vineyards are still drenched by crossing Vitis vinifera plants with a Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia, sometimes regarded as a separate genus and named Muscadinia rotundifolia).  Rotundifolia, native to Southeastern USA, is not only naturally resistant to both mildews, but also to phylloxera, to nematodes, to black rot and to anthracnose.  The long and arduous challenge, of course, is to transfer that mildew resistance into vinifera varieties without jeopardising their aromas and flavours – by conventional plant-breeding means.  This was something Alain Bouquet had achieved at the time of his premature death in 2009, and his work has since been continued by his colleagues at Montpellier SupAgro and at INRA (France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research).

The researchers are now satisfied that these vines are ready to pass into commercial use – but INRA has refused to allow this so far, claiming that the resistance is monogenic, i.e. relying on one gene only, and therefore susceptible to possible deviation in the field.  (In fact two genes, Rpv1 and Rpv2, are responsible for the resistance to downy mildew, and one, Run1, to powdery mildew).

Wine grapes struck by powdery mildew, jefford

Wine grapes struck by powdery mildew. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

The latest work by Irish researcher Angela Feechan and colleagues, though, suggests (according to Bouquet’s former colleague Alain Carbonneau) that there are complementary genes present in the vines which help reinforce the work of the resistant genes.  The French researchers also point out that Rpv1, Rpv2 and Run1 have all proved durably resistant over millennia to the two mildews in the original Muscadine vines, and that some of the Bouquet plants now have 30 years of successful history behind them.  Moreover even if the worst happened and there was some kind of deviation, the vines would still be likely to offer better-than-usual resistance to the mildews.

From your point of view and mine, of course, what really matters is that these supervines produce wine which is drinkable and enjoyable, and not overly strange (as is sometimes the case with other part-mildew-resistant varieties like Rondo and Regent).  So here are my notes.  It’s worth noting that another research area of Professor Bouquet’s was breeding to achieve lower alcohol levels, and that none of the samples below had more than 12.5% abv.  The wines were vinified by INRA at Pech Rouge, near Narbonne, where there are 2,200 plants of each variety planted, with full resistance to both mildews.

2015 Vine 3159, white wine

I tasted two different samples made from this variety, one at 12% and another (grown and vinified to organic standards) at 11%.  The 12% version had fresh, lively, engaging, floral and leafy aromas, like a southern cousin of Sauvignon Blanc though with a little more flesh and warmth to it.  The lower alcohol version was more neutral, but still attractively clean and fresh.  On the palate, both were complex, drinkable, supple, vivid white wines.  The 12% version had some apple and cream notes, while the crisper 11% version had a peachy note to it.  I could imagine buying either – and enjoying both more than, for example, most Languedoc-grown Sauvignon Blanc.

2015 Vine 3176, red wine

There were two samples made from this variety in 2015, both at 12.5%, with one being grown and vinified to organic standards.  A sample from 2010 was also shown to indicate something of the variety’s ageing potential.  The organic wine was the more successful of the younger pair, with pretty, fresh cherry scents; the non-organic version had red fruits and a sweet sheen but was also slightly herbaceous.  Both were impressive on the palate, with complete profiles: tannins and texture, some acid balance, some sinewy length and depth.  They have the potential to be serious, food-friendly reds, while the older version had kept its colour and structure encouragingly well.  Once again, none of the samples had anything disconcerting in its aromas and flavours which would betray its hybrid origins.

The vinifera parentage of these two varieties, by the way, is complex: both include genetic material from Cabernet, Merlot and Grenache.  The white 3159 further includes material from the south-western variety Baroque and from Chasan (a Palomino-Chardonnay cross), while the red 3176 includes material from the old Rhône variety Aubun.

Plant breeding work is not a job for those in a hurry; the developmental cycle is always measured in decades.  Human skills with gene manipulation, by contrast, are advancing at startling speed.  Having tasted these wines, I find it hard to believe that we won’t, sooner or later, find ‘invisible’ ways to use the resistant genes from Muscadines (as well as other non-vinifera vines) in new versions of every classic variety in the future.  At that point, organic vineyard cultivation really could become the norm.

Three top wines from Fonacalieu

While investigating the new resistant varieties, I also had a chance to taste through a selection of the wide Foncalieu range.  Here are three choices.

Pinot Noir, Le Versant, IPG Oc, Vignobles Foncalieu 2015

I’m not normally a big fan of Languedoc Pinot Noir, but this translucent, 12.5% version from Foncalieu, with its teasing raspberry scents and light, fresh, elegant palate is a success.  It’s not too dry or too strong, nor does it have a bitter finish – the usual hazards here.  Delicate, tender and true. 89 points / 100

Cabernet Franc-Merlot, La Tannerie, IGP Cité de Carcassonne, Vignobles Foncalieu 2015

Another expectation-exceeding wine, this deeply coloured Cab Franc-Merlot blend, grown in the fresh and airy vineyards close to Carcassonne, has the kind of depth and structure you don’t often find at IGP level, allied to vivid, savoury fruits. 89

Corbières, La Lumière, Vignobles Foncalieu 2013

This is one of a quarter of ambitious reds produced from Foncalieu growers’ top vineyards with consultative help from Claude Gros: all are impressive, if a little oaky.  This has everything in spadefuls: sweet fruits, depth, extract and power, an uninhibitedly full-throttle Corbières.  As the name suggests, it’s packed with summer light — and would therefore make gratifying winter drinking. 90

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