The Great Grape Alphabet
In continuation of our wine journey here are six varieties beginning with O and P. This alphabetical and blissful voyage through the ampelographic wonderland is supported by diverse examples from our wine portfolio.
Œillade noire has a long history of being grown throughout southern France including in the Gard, Hérault, Rhône, Vaucluse, Var departments covering mostly what is now the Languedoc and Provence wine regions. After the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century and the two wars, plantings of œillade noire sharply diminished and the grape was on the verge of extinction.
Theories abound regarding its origin and a stylistic similarity to Cinsault has been noted but not firmly established. Its champion is the irrepressible Thierry Navarre, conservatoire of cépages oubliés.
Thierry’s domaine is situated in Roquebrun in Saint-Chinian. The achingly beautiful countryside is an amphitheatre of small mountains clad in a sea of green, a forest of small trees and bushes and the familiar clumps of fragrant rosemary and thyme which captures the scented spirit of the high Languedoc. The culture in the vines revolves around the respect for the soil, the cycles, the seasons. Like many vignerons in Languedoc Thierry inherited his passion from his father, and from his grandfather before that. One of the winery signs (just before the bridge across the river Orb that leads into Roquebrun) is an old one, it would seem from the days he and his father worked together. No chemical products are used, simply composting, natural preparation, plant infusions and working the soil. The harvest is manual and carried out by a small team.
The thin soil of his 13 hectares is exclusively brown schist. It is very permeable to rainfall, forcing the roots of the vines deep in search of moisture, where they also find the coolness to withstand the intense heat of the Languedoc summer. The surface schist reflects the sunlight onto the vines, allowing steady maturing of the fruit. September brings the harvest, careful selection of the best grapes by hand. Vinification and bottling follow in the buildings just off the road into Roquebrun.
A fragile variety the Oeillade is fermented whole bunch for 8 days (carbonic maceration) in cement vats with the grape’s own yeasts to preserve the aromatic delicacy and purity. A bonny bright red colour, appealing nose of confit fruits (strawberry and blackberries), light-body with some notes liquorice and a gentle dusting of herbs (wild myrtle), this oenological rarity flickers with delicate red fruits. A vrai wine of the country, limber, fresh, all in the fruit, all in the glancing moment, naturally vibrant. Definitely worth a second glance (or oeillade as we say in the Languedoc)
Brief description: In a twinkling of a grape.
Pecorino is an early-ripening white wine grape mainly grown in the Marche, Abruzzo, Umbria and Lazio regions of Italy. Native to Marche and Abruzzo, it is used in the Falerio dei Colli Ascolani and Offida DOC wines. The Pecorino grape is also known as Mosciolo, Arquitano, Vissanello, Pecorina and Arquatanella.
It derives its name not from the cheese but from pecora, which means sheep. It is said that sheep particularly enjoyed eating the grapes while they were being driven out of the vineyards from pasture to pasture.
The Pecorino grape was supposedly revived from the brink of extinction when cuttings were taken from vines were found growing wild in a narrow gorge in the Marche region and eventually identified as the Pecorino variety. A few local growers took the samples and re-established the variety as a missing piece of the local viticultural quilt.
In the glass, Pecorino wine is quite full bodied, moderately acidity. On the nose and the palate, there are flavours and aromas of yellow fruits, spices like ginger and white pepper, and nuts. It leaves a long, full mineral-rich mouth. Because of these characteristics, Pecorino wines are best paired with Asian cuisine, grilled fowls, rich salads, seafoods, risotto, grilled cheese.
Ciu Ciu’s version from the hill country of Ascoli Piceno, makes a 100% version called Merlettaie. From organically farmed vineyards on clay-rich soils, the grapes are fermented in medium-sized oak barrels and matured on the lees for six months. Straw-yellow and has a pleasant floral nose with clean, pleasing and refined aromas of banana, broom, apple, hazelnut and plum followed by a hint of vanilla. The mouth follows the nose, a slightly round attack however balanced, agreeable crispness, good body and intense flavours. A prime candidate for seafood, risotto or grilled cheese.
Marina Palusci exhibits a lovely purity that is testament to the excellent farming practices and pure endeavour common to all their winemaking. The grapes are picked at night to enhance the natural acidity of the wine and the must is fermented with native yeasts and nothing added. Apple, hawthorn and lemony freshness, a beautiful wine with seafood.
Brief description: Follow the sheep.
Petit Manseng is one of the key white grape varieties of South West France. Used predominantly in Jurançon and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, it is most commonly vinified as a richly sweet wine with stonefruit characters such as peach and apricot, citrus and sweet spice.
The low-yielding variety enjoys a long ripening season, giving the grapes time on the vine to shrivel, undergoing a process the French call passerillage. This is where the grapes' sugar content is concentrated as the excess water evaporates, leaving behind raisined berries that are picked in a succession of passes. Petit Manseng's thick skins and loose bunches allow this to happen without danger of botrytis, most Jurancon and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh wines are not botrytized, just late harvest.
Petit Manseng's high level of acidity makes this extended time on the vine possible. The late-ripening variety is able to retain this acidity in South West France's Indian summer, balancing out the sweetness contributed by the naturally high sugar content. Fermentation often takes place in oak barrels, particularly in Jurançon, imparting a more complex, spicy character to the wines.
The late-harvest Jurançon Magendia (Magendia is an Occitan word meaning “the best”) is from grapes picked mid-end of November and fermented in small barrels. Bright golden-yellow colour, beautiful nose of ripe (and exotic) citrus. Vibrant in the mouth with the sublime expression of sweet fruit: mangoes, coconut, grapefruit and banana bound by crystal-pure acidity. Great length, but fantastic freshness more than offsetting the sweetness.
Vent Balaguèr means “southern wind” in Occitan. It is the warm wind that comes from Spain, up from behind the Pyrenees. Here the Petit Manseng grapes are late harvested and then put in trays to perfect the process of “passerillage”. These trays are laid outside on the sun during the hot and sunny days and brought inside the winery in damp and rainy weather. Besides dehydrating, the grapes change in colour, turning from a golden-yellow to russet and brown. Their flavour also changes and hints of apricot, candied orange peel and medlar fruit appear.
Bright amber colour. Intense, profound nose, returning to haunt one with its multiple nuances: new wood, honeydew, apricot jam, confit of orange and lemon, Corinth raisins, blond tobacco and spiced bread. The mouth is lively, spicy with cooked fruits, also floral with superlative concentration. The tactile sensation is unctuous and rounded, giving the impression of biting into perfectly ripe grapes with poised citric notes. The vanillin flavours are integrated into a rich texture and enrobed by a truly noble acidity. The finish is long and harmonious with mirabelle plum, peach and apricot. This is an extraordinary wine with exquisite equilibrium that will last for decades.
Petit Manseng pops up too in several dry wines in our portfolio. In the two Lapeyre old vines Jurançons called Vitatge Vielh and its zero-sulphur sister, Evidencia, in the Domaine Arretxea Hegoxuri, an Irouléguy Blanc, in Mas de Daumas Gassac Blanc (alongside Chardonnay, Chenin and Viognier), and in pink-orange form in Andert-Wein’s teasingly-named PM. In each case the variety provides opulent, almost tropical fruit notes of passionfruit, pink grapefruit, crystallised pineapple with the trademark ripe citrus acidty.
Brief description: Brings you to your Pyreknees.
Pineau d'Aunis is a dark-skinned wine grape variety whose story began in the Loire Valley in the Middle Ages. Despite once being popular with royalty on both sides of the English Channel, the variety is now increasingly rare, and is limited to a role in the rosés and light reds of the central Loire. It is valued for the gently peppery spiciness it brings to the area's rosé wines.
When the elements grant the Loire a vintage Pineau d'Aunis is also capable of producing distinctive and interesting red wines. Pineau d'Aunis was named after the Prieure d'Aunis, a priory located halfway between Saumur and Champigny. The monastery still stands among the vineyards today, occupied by the Pasquier family who continue its winemaking traditions with their Saumur-Champigny wines.
Pineau d’Aunis is seen to its best advantage in Coteaux du Loir and Coteaux du Vendômois. Brendan Tracey makes a pure version (called Pineau d’Aunis) and the variety also figures in his “Gorge Seche” cuvee. Both wines are vinified semi-carbonically; the 100% Pineau d’Aunis is quite a substantial wine. Up in the Coteaux du Loir Domaine Le Briseau are somewhat specialists in this grape. The pope of Pineau d’Aunis, Emile Heredia himself, has taken over the winemaking reins. Three wines are made from this grape: Lucky – a gentle, fruit-driven style; Patapon, a medium-bodied red with aromas of rose petals, and a palate of red berries, peppercorn and moderate tannins.
Finally, in a more structured vein is Les Mortiers with bright red cherry, strawberry and pomegranate notes are highlighted by the distinctive dusting of black pepper typical of this grape variety. A bit of smokiness and a waft of violets lend seductiveness to the mix. The texture is a bit chewy, though the wine is graceful.
Pierre Olivier Bonhomme’s Tesnière Rouge is a lovely, soft and ripe expression of Pineau d'Aunis from Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme, from vines adjacent to Clos Roche Blanche on clay with silex in organic and biodynamic farming. Aged in old futs and demi-muids, bottled without filtration, minimal SO2. Floral, beautiful dark cherry fruit with cranberry, white pepper and plum and minimal tannin.
Brief description: Aunis broker.
Poulsard (also Ploussard) is a red French wine grape variety from the Jura wine region. The name Ploussard is used mainly around the village of Pupillin but can appear on wine labels throughout Jura as an authorized synonyms. While technically a dark-skinned noir grape, the skins of Poulsard are very thin and phenolically light, producing very pale red wines. Because of this, Poulsard is often blended with other red-skin varieties (such as Pinot Noir) or used to produce lightly coloured rosé wines.
While the grape can grow in many different vineyard soils, in Jura it is most often planted on shale marl, limestone and clay soils. The grape clusters produce tightly compacted bunches with thin-skinned oval berries that have a light violet to black colour.
Those whose profession is boxing off wines would also presumably do a double-take when confronted with a twinkling, pink-tinged Poulsard (otherwise known as Ploussard). I have heard supposedly reputable experts on wine airily declare that the glory of the Jura is white wine and that the reds are as insignificant as they are insubstantial. This shows not only a lack of taste but a serious cultural misapprehension. The whites (or rather yellow wines) are the art of the possible and an improbable triumph. They are wines without compare. The reds, however, capture the spirit of the region in a profound way. They are lithe, lean, earthy, crunchy, mineral, rasping, occasionally angular, but my, how pure – and what delicious food wines! From ethereal Poulsards through aromatic, medium-bodied Pinots to rustic, musky Trousseaus we’ve drunk Jurassic reds that seem to be the very distillation of rocks and fruit. And some of the wines age with amazing grace.
L’Enfant Terrible Vieilles Vignes Sans Soufre (Jean-François Ganevat), to give its full moniker, comes from 50-year-old Poulsard from yields as low as 10 hl/ha vines, and conveys skittish aromas of morello cherry, redcurrants, wild strawberry and quince. I have described it before as rose-hued, slithering hither and thither across the palate with the slicing angularity of a razor blade dipped in pomegranate juice or cracking whip flavoured with raspberry liquorice.
Philippe Bornard’s Point Barre is Ploussard and that’s the end of the argument (a very rough translation of the French colloquialism). Or all wine and no bull. Your first hint that something interesting is going on is the nose of the wine: notes of spicy strawberries and spiced apples tease your nostrils. The body is medium to full with a delicious mid-palate of acidity that pricks your senses. The core of the wine has an earthy, barnyard character, but one that is wrapped in fruity, pink grapefruit and a candied cherry and pomegranate finish. It’s delicious and startling, and balances a tightrope between earth and fruit.
Emmanuel Houillon is opposed to adding anything to the wine. No new oak barrels influence the taste – some of the barrels in use are a century old. Before bottling, the wines are neither filtered nor fined and they retain a lot of carbon dioxide, which has an antioxidant effect and helps to convey aroma. The maceration and fermentation give little colour to the Ploussard, with its fine skin. Houillon’s pale, exceptionally light and piercingly fresh red is filled with flavours of morello cherry, redcurrants, wild strawberry and quince, a study in deliciousness, the avatar of purity. Wines such as these have an evanescent quality: they are unpredictable, variable, even fragile. They can react adversely to certain temperatures, location and atmospheric pressure. Houillon’s convivial red contradicts the notion that wine should be stable. File defiantly under quirk, strangeness and charm.
Patrice Beguet makes a pair of Ps. The more structured Côte de Feule displays initial pungent aromas of red and black fruits mingled with spices leading into intense notes of soft red fruits (strawberry jam), pepper and, unexpectedly, cocoa. On the palate, the wine delivers a lively attack with supple, silky tannins that roll across the tongue. The mid-palate is structured whilst the finish is spicy and balanced. The straight Ploussard is cut with a little Chardonnay; it is just over pink in colour and beautifully aromatic and pleasurable to drink.
Belossard, Blussart, Blussard Blau, Blussard Frueh Blau, Blussard Modry, Cornelle, Drille-de-Coq, Kleinblaettrige Fingertraube, Malvasier Schwarz, Mècle, Mescle, Méthie, Miècle, Olivette, Pandouleau, Pelossard, Peloussard, Pendulot, Plant d'Arbois, Pleusard, Pleusart, Plousard, Ploussard, Plussart, Pulceau, Pulsar, Pulsard, Quille de coq, Raisin Perle and Yurskii Zhemchug (my favourite).
Brief description: True Plou.
Prie Blanc is a light-skinned grape variety grown mostly in the alpine extremes of northwest Italy's Valle d'Aosta. These high altitude, pergola-trained vines are most notable for thriving in terroirs that are resistant to phylloxera and the minerally, floral white wines they produce under the Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle DOC.
In a perfect demonstration of the synergy between terroir and variety, Prié Blanc is adapted to its mountainous homeland and has been used in Aosta wines since at least the 17th Century. It thrives in altitudes that reach as high as (1300m) above sea level as it buds late, avoiding spring frosts, and ripens early. Prie Blanc is customarily trained low to the ground in pergolas to capitalize on the heat retained in the soils, helping to negate the effects of cold mountain nights.
Vines are planted on their original rootstock (as phylloxera hasn’t taken root here) and have an average age of around 60 years, giving smaller yields that make for concentrated, complex wines.
The sheer beauty of these soaring mountain vineyards is made even more arresting by a time-honoured system called pergola bassa, or low pergola, where the vines are trained near the ground in trellised arbours with stone columns surrounded by stone walls. According to La Cave’s winemaker Gianluca Telloli, “The low pergola has been used for centuries here because it protects the vines from wind and heavy snowfall, while allowing them to benefit from heat accumulated in the ground during the daytime.” Yet the low pergola presents many difficulties, too. Harvesters must pick the grapes on their knees and, in some cases, while lying flat on their backs.
Telloli explains that the stone walls surrounding individual plots and the enormous piles of rocks heaped in a seemingly haphazard manner among the terraces have a function beyond aesthetics. “Centuries ago, the peasants realized how important the heat conducting capabilities of the stones were. We’ve kept the ancient stone walls and rocks because they really help retain heat during the cool nights, which is crucial for the grapes’ maturation.” Blanc de Morgex wines are usually dry and still, characterized by their bone-dry style, searing acidity and the hint of mountain herbs. A few sweet and sparkling examples exist as well. Outside of Italy, Prié Blanc is also planted in the similarly alpine vineyards of Valais in Switzerland where it is sometimes known as Bernarde.
Both versions from the Cave de Vin Blanc have laser-like acidity. The Vini Estremi, from the highest vineyard, and fermented with native yeasts, is straw-yellow in colour, with pale green nuances. Its bouquet evokes mountain herbs with notes of fresh hay. Hawthorn, broom, lemon, almond, apple, pear and peach jostle delicately on the nose. The palate tracks the aromas; a crisp attack is, however, nicely balanced with intense and agreeable flavours. The finish is persistent with lingering flavours of apple, pear and citrus.
An ice wine from Valle d’Aosta? Chaudeline is also from the Prié Blanc grape harvested in December when the vineyards are swathed in snow. Unusually, it is the wine that is the vehicle for the wood rather than the other way, and, in this case, cherry, juniper and chestnut amongst others lend their subtle tones to the finished product. It has a delicious burnished apple flavour, not dissimilar to a Tokaji. Throw a servant on the roaring log fire and sip this elixir with some hot roasted chestnuts whilst humming a few bars of “Edelweiss”.
Brief description: Vin Mont Blanc.
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