Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wine of a kind

In my post of October 2010 entitled History of wine at Choranche [display], I explained that I was working on an updated version of my article in French concerning the former vineyards of Choranche. An anecdote that I related in this article concerns my discovery, a few years ago, of a row of grapevines on the slopes just up behind my house. I collected leaves from one of the vines, and set about trying to determine the name of the grape variety.

My Macaire neighbors told me that my reemergent vines were surely a row of Herbemont planted over half-a-century ago by Hippolyte Gerin, seen here—with a nephew (wearing a cap) and a farm hand—in front of the house.

Now, Herbemont is a hybrid of the American species Vitis bourquiniana or maybe Vitis aestivalis (as opposed to authentic European wine-making grapes of the Vitis vinifera species), and it is one of the phylloxera-resistant plants imported into France from the USA towards the end of the 19th century as a means of recreating the devastated vineyards. The other varieties of American "grape weeds" (as I call them disparagingly) were Noah, Othello, Isabelle, Jacquez and Clinton. Well, a week or so ago, I received an email from a major French agricultural organization in charge of grape varieties, saying that they needed information about the Herbemont variety for their database. I had no idea that this variety had become rare in France. I was embarrassed to have to admit that all I could offer them, for the moment, were my samples of dried Herbemont leaves and my notes concerning this variety. As I explained, the Herbemont vines at Gamone are located in my donkey paddock, and I have every reason to suppose that the animals, in spring, appreciate fresh grapevines emerging from the soil. In any case, I promised the fellow who contacted me that I would erect a fence around the row of Herbemont vines, to protect them from the donkeys. So, he plans to get back in contact with me next summer, in the hope that there'll be some actual specimens of grapes.

As I explain in my article on the vineyards of Choranche, the six above-mentioned varieties of American "grape weeds" (Vitis americana as I call them) were meant to be used in France as phylloxera-resistant rootstocks for the grafting of the vulnerable European grape varieties. In Choranche, alas, some farmers didn't bother grafting anything whatsoever onto the Vitis americana plants. They simply picked the American grapes and made wine with them! Somebody once said, about the beverage called Canada Dry: "It looks like whiskey, and it tastes like whiskey… but it just ain't whiskey." One could make a similar criticism about wine made from the six US varieties of Vitis. But the peasants whose lives had been ruined by the phylloxera pandemic were content to discover that this easily-made liquor inebriated them to such an extent that they tended to forget their misery.

I should point out that, today, all the six above-mentioned varieties of the notorious American "grape weeds" are strictly banned by European wine authorities, and apparently banned also, now, even in Texas, where a few quaint old-style vineyards were experimenting with them a few years ago. It's not merely a matter of their giving rise to poor-quality wine. The particular kinds of alcohol produced by pressing and fermenting Vitis americana grapes are toxic.

Following my email correspondence with the fellow who was interested in Herbemont, I dropped in on a retired farmer and amateur wine-producer on the edge of the nearby village of St-Jean-en-Royans, to see if he was aware that living specimens of the old American "grape weeds" had apparently become collectors' items. We got involved in an interesting discussion on this theme. Basically, he claimed that the European wine authorities have surely made a mistake in denigrating the wine produced from Vitis americana. If it really poisoned drinkers, and damaged their brains, then how come that most of the local farmers seem to have survived? It goes without saying that I wouldn't dare attempt to answer such a question…

One thing led to another, and my farmer friend said: "It so happens that I've got a small stock of rich-red Clinton that I produced a month or so ago. Would you like to taste it?" I could hardly chicken out, as if I were a scared chemist working for the European Union. In view of its young age, the fruity product could have been confused with Beaujolais Nouveau. I limited myself to a single glass, and I seem to have survived with most of my brain and senses intact.

There's a funny twist to this whole story about the wine of Choranche and the neighboring region. The authentic old wine that existed up until the phylloxera invasion had an excellent reputation, particularly since it was used as the standard house wine in all the French pilgrim taverns (equivalent to our modern hotels) operated by the Chartreux monks. Today, it is impossible to say whether this Choranche wine was really as good as it was made out to be, because so many factors have changed completely in the wine industry since that epoch. Maybe people said it was excellent wine merely because they'd never had many opportunities of comparing it with other French wines. The toxic beverages produced more recently from the Vitis americana rootstocks have also acquired a good reputation among local farmers, and I'm starting to understand why. Essentially, it's because the local toxic "wine" doesn't taste like any other genuine wine you've ever encountered (for the simple reason that it isn't really wine), and it no doubt puts the drinker into a rather special state. So, why wouldn't the local farmers have spread the rumor that the wines of Choranche are extraordinary? But the local people also state naively that the Noah variety "sends you mad". And so it probably does, in a clinical sense. So, as I say in my title, the Choranche product is best thought of as "wine of a kind".

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