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World ‘mother’ grape saved from brink of extinction

A rare wine grape dubbed 'Casanova' because of its role in parenting so many of the world's leading varieties is one step further from extinction thanks to Swiss volunteers and a leading scientist.

Image credit: Wikipedia / Dr Joachim Schmid / Martin Bahmann

Once shunned, Gouais Blanc (pictured) earned new respect 15 years ago when a study showed it was the mother grape of many varieties, including Chardonnay and Gamay.

But, only a handful of vineyards worldwide include Gouais Blanc grapes. One of those, at 800m in Switzerland’s Haut-Valais area, was recently saved from being grubbed up by a community project part-led by Dr Jose Vouillamoz, the renowned grape geneticist and co-author of Wine Grapes.

‘My friend, the winemaker Josef-Marie Chanton heard [about the vineyard’s imminent demise] in 2010 and he immediately contacted me,’ Vouillamoz said during a seminar on forgotten grapes at the 2014 Digital Wine Communications Conference in Montreux, Switzerland.

‘Together we decided to create an association to rescue and purchase this historical vineyard. It took us a few weeks to gather 33 people willing to pay their share to purchase the vineyard,’ says Vouillamoz. ‘But it took us two to three years to raise the public funds for the renovation.’

The 0.2ha vineyard, resting on a 60% to 70% incline, has a dozen rare varieties and was Christened VinEsch, in honour of a nearby hamlet. Since 2011, bands of volunteers from across Switzerland have spent weekends rebuilding the dry stone walls that support the vineyard’s 27 terraces.

‘Haut-Valais is the only place on Earth where Gouais Blanc has been continuously cultivated since the Middle Ages,’ Vouillamoz said.

‘In France it has been banned many times in all regions and there only remains one vineyard in Marin in the Haute-Savoie.’

Gouais Blanc, which has also been known as a ‘peasant grape’ in France, can produce wine with a crisp acidity, but it is high yielding and particularly susceptible to botrytis.

(Editing by Chris Mercer)

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Written by Susanna Forbes

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