There are nearly 1,400 known varieties of wine grapes in the world—from auxerrois to zierfandler—but 80% of the wine we drink is made from only 20 grapes. In Godforsaken Grapes, Jason Wilson looks at how that came to be and takes the reader on a journey into what else is out there. From Switzerland, Austria, and Portugal through France and Italy, and back to the United States, Wilson delves into the rare and wonderful. Blending extensive travels in wine-producing regions and conversations with wine evangelists, cutting-edge hipster winemakers, and explorers on an obsessive hunt for the strangest grapes in the world, Godforsaken Grapes is an entertaining love letter to wine.
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About the Author
Jason Wilson is the author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits, and the series editor of The Best American Travel Writing since its inception in 2000. A regular contributor to the Washington Post, Wilson wrote an award-winning drinks column for years. Wilson has also been beer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, dining critic for the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Magazine, and has written for the New York Times, NewYorker.com, AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, and many other magazines and newspapers.
Read an Excerpt
IN THE SWISS CANTON OF VALAIS, melted cheese is serious business. At the 16th century Château de Villa in Sierre — billed as Le Temple de la Raclette — the evening's menu was straightforward: raclette. A guy with a long knife, called a racleur, scraped hot, bubbling, gooey raclette from a wheel onto warm plates that were then whisked to our wooden table, where we added small boiled potatoes served from wooden baskets, along with cornichons, pickled onions, chanterelle mushrooms, and rye bread. After that raclette, there was more raclette. For two hours, the raclette kept coming. Each plate featured a different puddle of raw-milk cheese from a different nearby mountain village. When I asked for ice water, I was gently scolded by the waiter: "Never drink cold water with raclette. The cheese will congeal into a cheese baby in your stomach."
No water was fine with me. I was at Château de Villa to drink wine with my melted cheese. And not just any wine, but wine made from some of the most obscure grapes in the world. As another round of raclette arrived, Jean-Luc Etievent, my unshaven and pastel-wearing French dining companion, poured a glass of humagne blanche. It tasted strange and big and sexy, full of ripe exotic fruit, surrounded by delicate floral aromas — sort of like mountain flowers picked by a Kardashian wearing a dirndl.
If you've never heard of humagne blanche, I don't blame you. I have been an aficionado of obscure wine and spirits for years, and I'd never heard of this white wine either. Humagne blanche dates to at least the 14th century, and in the mid–19th century it was the most widely grown grape in Valais. Now, only 75 acres of humagne blanche remain in the entire world. By comparison, cabernet sauvignon and merlot each grow on over 700,000 acres worldwide, and chardonnay grows on over 400,000 acres. With a Gallic shrug, Etievent said, "Drinking the same wines all the time is really boring."
Before I'd finished with my glass of humagne blanche, I was given a second glass by the other wine sherpa at our table, José Vouillamoz, a short bespectacled Swiss guy in his mid-40s who wears a flat cap and kicks around his nearby hometown of Sion on a kid's scooter. "We will now taste one of the rarest wines in the world," he said, with a flourish.
Vouillamoz poured me a glass of wine made with a grape called himbertscha, which he'd helped rescue from a forgotten vineyard found high in the Alps. In the entire world, only these two acres of himbertscha exist, from which less than 800 bottles are made each year. Himbertscha is one of the strangest white wines I have ever tasted — like a forest floor of moss and dandelions that's been spritzed with lemon and Nutella. Vouillamoz took a big sip and said, "Critics claim that obscure varieties like this will never be as good as Bordeaux or Burgundy. Well, maybe not now. But what about in 50 years? One hundred years?"
We might reasonably call Etievent and Vouillamoz the Indiana Joneses of ampelography — which happens to be the study, identification, and classification of grapevines. Both are explorers on an obsessive hunt for the rarest wine grapes in the world. Vouillamoz is a world-renowned geneticist and botanist, and coauthor of the encyclopedic tome Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavors (with Julia Harding and Jancis Robinson). His life's work is the study of vitis vinifera, the European grape species that's used to make most of the world's wine. Meanwhile, Etievent is the cofounder of Paris-based Wine Mosaic, a small nonprofit organization that works to rescue indigenous wine grapes from extinction. All over the Mediterranean, from Portugal to Lebanon, Etievent and his similarly obsessed colleagues seek out growers of rare varieties, helping farmers identify what grapes they have, then essentially serving as a support group — organizing tastings, connecting them with importers, university researchers, and wine drinkers.
I found myself in Valais because I'd grown increasingly obsessed with obscure and underappreciated wine grapes, and Etievent had invited me on a harvest-time trip to see and taste some of Wine Mosaic's most successful projects in the Alps. Here, isolated vineyards, strange microclimates, and decades spent off the traditional wine world's radar have preserved local grapes and farming traditions. In less than a decade, Wine Mosaic has saved more than twenty traditional Alpine grape varieties from dying out.
Earlier that day, about 40 kilometers from Château de Villa, Etievent and I visited the most extreme vineyards I'd ever experienced, at a craggy mountain place called Domaine de Beudon. Etievent, perhaps channeling a Parisian version of Indiana Jones, carried a pickaxe and wore heavy leather boots, along with royal blue pants, a white belt, and pink scarf. We were joined by yet another rare grape expert, Jean Rosen, vice president of a Dijon-based organization called Cépages Modestes (literally "modest grapes"). Rosen, short, stocky, and bearded, was himself a modest guy. His nickname is "Petit Verdot," after the least-known and most finicky grape used in Bordeaux blends — a variety that ripens so late that in some years the entire crop is lost. Before Petit Verdot became immersed in esoteric wine grapes, he'd been an English teacher, then an antique ceramics expert.
The only way up to Domaine de Beudon was by a creaky wooden aerial cable car — like something out of a Wes Anderson movie. After we called up to the mountaintop on an old-fashioned phone, we waited as the cable car slowly wobbled down, and then as boxes of grapes were unloaded. A photographer traveling with us, terrified, refused to get into the cable car. Etievent, Petit Verdot, and I squeezed in, and we quickly jolted upward, suspended from a swaying cable. I could see the ground, hundreds of feet below, through the cracks between the floor and the door. About halfway up, the car lurched steeply, climbing almost vertically over a protruding rock face (the beudon, or "belly") that gives the winery its name. We all looked at one another wide-eyed. "Don't look down," Petit Verdot said.
We arrived at the top to fields of verbena and thyme and flowers and chickens wandering freely. The vineyards rose straight up, almost 3,000 feet above sea level. Domaine de Beudon, with its motto, Les vignes dans le ciel ("the vines in the sky") is considered to be one of the first and most important biodynamic wineries in the world. On the cable car platform, we met Domaine de Beudon's owner, 69-year-old Jacques Granges, who wore a bushy beard and — I kid you not — a beret. We shook our hands. Granges was missing his index finger. It seemed as though we'd arrived for an audience with the mythical, wizened hermit on the mountaintop.
As we sat at a table overlooking the sunny valley below, Granges brought out a dozen bottles of wine, and set down two jugs. "This one is for spitting, and this one is for dumping," he said. "I make vinegar."
"He's not going to make much vinegar today," Petit Verdot whispered to me.
Granges said little as he poured his wines. When we oohed and aahed over the first, a golden amber and chalky wine made from the chasselas grape, he said simply, "This is a wine raised by science, conscience, and a lot of love."
The next wine, from müller-thurgau grapes, was like drinking snow infused with edelweiss. "This is like magic water," said Petit Verdot. That was followed by somewhat-known sylvaner (called by the name Johannisberg in Valais) and then relatively rare petite arvine, a Swiss variety with less than 500 acres found in the world. That was followed by totally obscure reds from humagne rouge and diolinoir (each less than 300 acres worldwide).
Finally, we tasted a strange hybrid grape called chambourcin, which was created in the 19th century by crossing a French variety with a wild North American variety. Normally, a hybrid grape like this would not be permitted in a European appellation, but Granges was given special permission a few years before to plant chambourcin. "It grows in a very dangerous, steep plot," he said. "My wife wanted me to plant something there that didn't need a lot of care and attention since it's so dangerous."
I knew a number of American wineries that produced cloying, fruity, mediocre red wines from chambourcin. This mountain chambourcin was different, and for the Frenchmen with me, it was the most unusual and foreign grape of the day. "Very peculiar," said Petit Verdot as he sipped it.
As our tasting turned into drinking, fruit flies gently buzzed around crates of fresh-picked orchard fruit. My phone died, and time seemed to stop. Petit Verdot pointed toward the Great St. Bernard Pass in the distance. "This is one of the great historic places to cross the Alps," he said. "The whole region is divided into valleys. They were isolated. Historically, there wasn't a lot of communication or exchanges. You can see why each place developed its own grapes."
Even though it was brisk and cool amid the vines in the sky, all day long a bright sun shone over the Valais. Finally, the sun began to set and we watched the cable car climb to meet us again. Earlier, Granges's wife Marion had told us that their first cable car, years ago, derailed with Jacques inside, and he'd plunged down the mountain. He'd been badly injured and spent time in a coma. No one said a word on our descent.
A few hours later, over raclette at Château de Villa, I wanted to know: Why had grapes like humagne blanche and humagne rouge and diolinoir and himbertscha nearly disappeared?
"People became ashamed of the old-time grapes, the grapes of grandpa," Vouillamoz said. "They began planting the so-called 'noble grapes' and they would disregard the rest." Noble is the historic designation for grapes like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and pinot noir — the ubiquitous international grapes that made Bordeaux and Burgundy famous are now popularly grown everywhere from California to Australia to South Africa to China. "Noble grapes," Vouillamoz repeated the word with disdain. "I hate this term." What bothers people like Vouillamoz and Etievent — and me — is that while 1,368 wine grape varieties may exist, the sad truth is that 80 percent of the world's wine is produced from only 20 grapes. Many of the other 1,348 varieties face extinction.
Another raclette arrived, and it was strong and funky. Throughout dinner, I was taken by how diverse each puddle of cheese had tasted. A few were mild and creamy, one was sharp and piquant, and a couple were stinky and tangy. Much like wine grapes, I'm always surprised by how many cheeses exist in the world. As Charles de Gaulle famously said of France, "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?" But even de Gaulle underestimated: France has at least 400 varieties of cheese, and probably more than 1,000 if you count subvarieties. And that's just France: Hundreds of cheeses, each made according to some local tradition, exist in the rest of Europe. Those of us who quest after obscure grapes hope for a world of wine that's equally raucous and ungovernable. But wine's diversity is always under threat, and every grape that remains untasted, unknown, and underappreciated faces the risk of extinction.
After pausing only a moment to eat some cheese, Vouillamoz poured yet another rare variety, this one called gwäss. "Gouais?" said Etievent, with a raised eyebrow. Gwäss, better known as gouais blanc in French, has been banned across Europe, by various royal decrees, since the Middle Ages. That's because monarchs considered it a peasant grape that made bad wine — gou, in medieval French, was a derogatory term to describe something inferior. Its vines were also extremely prolific. Gwäss often took over entire vineyards, and the aristocracy didn't want a commoner mating with its noble grape varieties.
That's a curious thing I was learning about grape varieties: Each one has been created by two parents, a father and a mother, that cross-fertilize, just like you're taught in high school biology. For centuries, we could only hypothesize about a grape's parentage, but since the advent of DNA testing by scientists like Vouillamoz, we now clearly know the family tree of many grapes. Through DNA testing, for instance, gwäss has been found to be the ancient mother of around 80 varieties, several with noble pinot noir as the father, including chardonnay, gamay, and possibly riesling.
"Yeah, gwäss is kind of a slut," Vouillamoz said. His girlfriend, who was sitting next to me, shot Vouillamoz an exasperated look. "OK, OK, so we're not keeping with the times," he said. "That is a very sexist thing to say. I'm sorry. After all, we call the male grapes 'Casanovas' when they father a lot of children."
I said that it's really odd to think deeply about the sex life of grapes, especially personifying them to the point of slut-shaming. I told Vouillamoz that I doubted many people wanted to think about reproduction when they spit out an irritating grape seed.
"Yes, but they should!" said Vouillamoz. "A seed is life!"
Clearly, I'd slipped down some sort of rabbit hole into a deep, alternate universe of wine geekdom.
* * *
I don't know that I've ever really emerged from that rabbit hole. The rare wines from that day at Domaine de Beudon and the dinner in Sierre loomed significantly in my mind for much of the following year. Especially one Saturday during that muggy summer week when everyone lost their minds over Pokémon GO.
All week long, instead of doing work, I'd been wandering, sweatily, around Philadelphia capturing Pokémon on my iPhone. I wasn't playing this game with my sons. No, the boys were actually away visiting their grandparents in California and I was alone, at loose ends, and I downloaded the app on my own. I found immediate, satisfying success in Pokémon's world, ignoring the reality of being a guy in his mid-40s trying not to be creepy while meandering through city neighborhoods and parks, eyes glued to the screen, flicking my finger to catch imaginary monsters. I filled my Pokédex with rare species such as the Aerodactyl, the Ponyta, the Venusaur, the Rhyhorn, and the Hitmonchan as they popped up on lawns and benches and garbage cans. After only a few days I was fast approaching Level 18. Needless to say, when I awoke Saturday morning, I was overcome with deep shame about how I'd spent my week.
Yet I couldn't help but think that Pokémon GO offered some kind of metaphor for my own life as a wine writer. Over the past couple years, I'd spent weeks and months gallivanting around Europe, seeking out obscure wines made from rare grapes, grown in little-known regions: rotgipfler and zierfandler from Austria's Thermenregion, baga, and antão vaz from Portugal, schiava or lagrein from Italian Südtirol, altesse or verdesse from France's mountainous Isére. I would sip and taste and consume those wines, then capture my impressions by jotting notes into a black Moleskine. When I thought about my life like this, it was no wonder that many friends and family members didn't consider my wine writing to be any more serious than Pokémon GO.
In any case, I decided to take a day off from Pokémon. Instead, I paid a visit to the Outer Coastal Plain wine country — which is a pretentious and boozy way of saying that I made a 35-minute drive to the semirural area of southern New Jersey near where I grew up. These days, people endeavor to make quality wine from our sandy South Jersey soil, which always invites snideness, or at least backhandedness: "The Outer Coastal Plain might be the perfect place to make fine wine in America," said the New York Times in 2013. "The O.C.P. has only one real challenge. It's in southern New Jersey, a state associated with many things — Springsteen, Snooki, industrial pollution, the mob — but not great wine."
People love to crack jokes when I tell them about farms in New Jersey. But Gloucester County is one of the few places where the Garden State nickname still makes sense, though even here McMansion cul-de-sacs gobble up the farmland. My family has worked in the produce business here for decades, and my cousins and I bought summer fruit for our own fruit-and-vegetable stand from the county's many farmers. Back then, the only wine I can remember in South Jersey was sickly sweet blueberry or peach wines that people bought at summer fairs.
Excerpted from "Godforsaken Grapes"
Copyright © 2018 Jason Wilson.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I The Vines in the Sky
Chapter 1 Dangerous Grapes 10
Chapter 2 Château du Blah Blah Blah 29
Chapter 3 Wine and Dada 52
Chapter 4 Alpine Wines 65
Chapter 5 Is Prosecco a Place or a Grape? 86
Chapter 6 When Wine Talk Gets Weird 108
II Travels in the Lost Empire of Wine
Chapter 7 Wines with Umlauts 132
Chapter 8 The Meaning of Groo-Vee 156
Chapter 9 Blue Frank and Dr. Zweigelt 173
Chapter 10 Gray Pinot, Blueberry Risotto, and Orange Wine 192
III Selling Obcurity
Chapter 11 Waiting for Bastardo 212
Chapter 12 The Same Port Dick Cheney Likes 226
Chapter 13 Pouring the Unicorn Wine 241
Chapter 14 Looking Forward, Looking Eastward 265
Chapter 15 How Big Is Your Pigeon Tower? 285
Appendix: Gazetteer of Godforsaken Grapes 296
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a really enjoyable read, not like your normal guide to wine. It's more of a travel book, a fascinating journey through wines you may have never heard of, hard-to-find grape varieties, and wine regions that don't get a lot of attention. Like in his first book Boozehound, Jason Wilson had a real story to tell in this book, a story about how wines can go forgotten, and how the wine industry as we've known it is in flux right now, with voices of influential wine critics becoming less important. I like to think of myself as an educated wine drinker, but I found plenty of inspiration in this book to make me want to drink more adventurously and curiously, doing what I can to support the winemakers growing and making these obscure wines. I'll be seeking out those of the 101 obscure varieties in the back of the book that I've yet to try and am happy to have this book as my guide.
Very Interesting and fun. I was a First Read Winner of this book, and I found it very informative and entertaining. Initially I entered the contest to win the book for my husband since he knows way more than me about wine, but I ended up reading it as well. This would make a wonderful present for any wine connoisseur or for anybody who wants to know more about the subject.