Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc may have more international renown, though much of France’s viticulture and distilling scenes have Ugni Blanc to thank. Known as Trebbiano in its native Italy, this important grape variety dominates more than 90,000 hectares of vineyards in France – which is twice the amount of vines as its easterly birthplace neighbour.
However, unlike Trebbiano, which is frequently vinified into dry, still white wines, Ugni Blanc is mostly used in the production of Cognac and Armagnac in France. The grape’s rather neutral flavour profile and high levels of acidity render it perfect for vinification with the end purpose of distillation.
Historians believe that Trebbiano was first brought to France during the 14th century, when the Italian papacy moved from Rome to Avignon. As the grape’s popularity in southeastern France dwindled, its plantings in the South West – specifically the Charentais and Gascony – began to rise.
When vinified on its own, Ugni Blanc produces light and dry wines with relatively bland flavor profiles. However, the grapes’ low levels of sugar and high levels of acidity render them perfect for crafting as base wines for distillation, as their low alcohol levels allow them to be distilled for longer. Additionally, these high levels of acidity act as a preservative, as sulphur is an undesirable proponent in the distillation process.
On the vine, Ugni Blanc is quite disease resistant, which is key in the damp and cool regions of Charentais and Gascony. Around the world, Ugni Blanc has a handful of synonyms besides Trebbiano, including Albano, Greco, Saint Emilion, and Thalia. It has also been used to create the hybrid variety Vidal Blanc, which has found much success in North American wine-producing regions.