While today’s average drinkers of white wine are most likely to think of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Pinot Gris—and if more adventurous, Riesling, Furmint, or Assyrtiko—many other wine lovers are searching out new and unexplored varieties. The South of France, the stretch of the country that runs from Italy to Spain along the Mediterranean coast, can offer a range of largely unknown varieties with a long history that appeal to this commercial interest. Yet more importantly, a number of producers and viticultural researchers believe that these grapes are viable alternatives in the battle against drought and rising alcohol levels. Using local historic varieties is also a means of encouraging regional diversity and reducing global conformity.
The big question around many now-unfamiliar historic varieties is why they lost notoriety or even died out over time. Medieval and early modern archives list hundreds of different varieties; but with minimal descriptions and little scientific identification, it is impossible to identify which grapes these descriptions represent today. When, in the 19th century, ampelographers started to draw the leaves and shapes of grape bunches, they often realized that varieties were given different names in different locations.
In the South of France, many grapes mutated over time, leading to black, gris, and white variations, and sometimes to regional names, as producers viewed each mutation as a different variety. Before phylloxera, farmers practiced marcottage, layering the vine by bending over a vine cane for a new plant, or taking cuttings for massal selection. Co-planting was frequent, making it hard to record precise numbers.
Phylloxera was the death knell for many of these varieties. Lacking the prestige of other wine regions, the South of France was offered help late, and often with the rootstocks and varieties no one else wanted. After phylloxera, Languedoc was heavily replanted with high-yielding vines such as Aramon, but, because it is prone to frost, Aramon was replaced with Carignan in the 1960s. Meanwhile, Roussillon, the hills of the Southern Rhône, and Provence managed to retain some—but by no means all—of their traditional varieties.
Pierre Galet, in his four-volume work Cépages et Vignobles de France (1956–1964), recorded the quantities of varieties planted. Terret Blanc and Gris (black not mentioned), at 15,000 hectares, were the third most widely planted, followed by Clairette Blanc (and Rose) at 14,000 hectares. Grenache Blanc was listed at 9,000 hectares. Further down the list, Muscat de Frontignan had 3,000 hectares (other Muscat variations are not listed). Carignan Blanc and Rose jointly had 1,500 hectares; Macabeu had 1,500 hectares; Aramon Gris and Blanc had 1,300 hectares; and Grenache Gris, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Piquepoul (color not specified but presumably white) all had 1,000 hectares. Rolle had a mere 150 hectares, and Viognier, at 52nd, only 100 hectares.
Some of these varieties have all but disappeared. Aramon Gris, for example, now has at most 10 hectares. It was renowned for its productivity, with up to 250 hectoliters per hectare on the flat, fertile, well-drained plains of Languedoc, but its early budbreak exposes it to spring frosts. The frosts of the winter of 1956 and 1963 led to significant grubbing up.
By the 1970s, the market wanted fresh, fruit-forward wines. Traditional varieties started to disappear, being replaced in the 1990s by so-called international varieties. This trend started in the 1970s when Bordeaux producers began to look at the south and envisaged making wines that ripened every year. Estates such as Mas de Daumas Gassac in Languedoc and Château Vignelaure in Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence produced Bordeaux blends that became cult wines. In 1987, Robert Skalli and Jacques Gravegeal created Pays d’Oc IGP along the principles of California varietal wines, planting Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Chenin Blanc. Today, there are 58 varieties in Pays d’Oc. By the early 2000s, vineyards in Provence were being replanted with Grenache and Cinsault for rosé, and Rolle for white wines, and the region was largely losing its historic varieties.
Today, the best known of the early white grapes are likely Rolle (Vermentino), Viognier, and Muscat Blanc. Rolle has spread from Sardinia and Liguria to sweep across Provence at the expense of many local varieties and is now encroaching on the southwest. Though endangered at the end of World War II, Viognier has spread down the Rhône and moved west throughout Languedoc and (less prolifically) east into Provence. Muscat Blanc moved from Greece through Italy to Provence and westward.
By the early 1990s, producers started to reconsider these old varieties. This began with small producers escaping to the wilds of Languedoc and Roussillon and purchasing old vineyards with low yields and unfashionable varieties that nobody else wanted. In Roussillon, a few producers bought and preserved pockets of old vine Carignan and Grenache Gris, recognizing that they make exciting wines. Small volumes of interesting wines, rich and concentrated with very different fruit profiles, started to attract attention. The very nature of old vines producing great wines, however, is their limited availability. Today, although many of these wines achieve premium prices, they still account for only a small percentage of global production. Often, they are available only through specialist wine shops, but interest is growing.
White wine appellations in parts of Provence, the Southern Rhône, Languedoc, and Roussillon include traditional varieties, often blended—and not always indicated on the label. They are therefore drunk unwittingly in glasses of white wine and even in the rosés of Tavel. These grapes include Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Carignan Blanc and Gris, Roussanne, Marsanne, Bourboulenc, Terret Blanc and Gris, Piquepoul Blanc and Gris, Malvoisie du Roussillon, Aramon Gris and Blanc, and Macabeu, often coming from old, low-yielding vines.
But new appellations are being considered. Guidelines are currently being drawn up for the inclusion of white wines in the appellation Terrasses du Larzac, with particular consideration of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Gris, Carignan Blanc, Marsanne, Piquepoul, and Terret. To prevent them from dominating blends, aromatic varieties such as Viognier will be permitted only in small percentages. Examples include Clos Maïa and Les Clapas from Domaine du Pas de l’Escalette, with wines showing structure, texture, and long acidity rather than distinctive fruit profiles.
Winemakers selecting traditional varieties have used clones that had been propagated to be disease resistant and to show the best fruit character. While this was exciting and new in the 1990s and early 2000s, there is a growing recognition today that modern clonal selection has reduced the diversity of these varieties, with everyone using the same two or three clones.
While some producers select cuttings from their own vines, which they graft onto rootstocks, France’s top vine nursery, Pépinière Bérillon, run by Lilian Bérillon in the Southern Rhône, has made a specialty of propagating vines from cuttings (massal selection), constantly searching out any vineyard that has pre–clonal selection vines, which can be used to increase diversity and regionality. Old vine Rolle selections, for example, originally came from Bellet. Bérillon commented that very few producers—among them Domaine de l’Ile, Château Romanin, and Château Malherbe—were tasting and observing their vines and fruit quality with a focus on massal selection. She and producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape note that they are relatively rare in not looking to add new varieties that are disease resistant and adapted to climate change, and this is because of their inclusion of old varieties.
Roussanne and Marsanne are Northern Rhône varieties that have spread south down the river valley and are increasingly found in top Languedoc white wines, such as Esprit de Crès Ricards from Château des Crès Ricards, and wines from Domaine de Montcalmes and La Pèira. Roussanne, thought to originate near the Rhône town of Montélimar, is found throughout the Rhône and Languedoc. Thanks to its role in some premium wines, it is the better known of the two. Currently, there are over 2,000 hectares of Roussanne planted in France, the volume having doubled since 2008. It is more susceptible to attacks of late blight or powdery mildew at the end of maturity, just before harvest. It is late ripening, and its high sugar can lead to big, alcoholic wines reaching up to 16% ABV, which can result in stuck fermentation. When Roussanne is co-fermented with Clairette and Bourboulenc, which yield wines with lower alcohol levels, the fermentation is carried out more successfully. Some producers work with Roussanne’s opulent richness by using barrel aging to enhance the structure of their wines. Others use a smaller percentage of Roussanne to add richness to a blend. Roussanne and Marsanne are common blending partners in the Northern Rhône. In the Southern Rhône, Roussanne is often either blended with Grenache Blanc to produce full-bodied, opulent wines or tempered with the freshness of Clairette or Bourboulenc.
Marsanne, when handled deftly, can have notes of nuts, pears, quince, spice, and honey, taking well to oak. But it often needs to be blended with higher-acidity varieties to introduce freshness and to moderate the alcohol. Marsanne tends to underperform in less-than-ideal sites and dislikes hydric stress during hot, dry summers. In climates that are too hot, the grape can overripen and produce wine that is flabby. In places that are too cool, it cannot ripen fully and produces wine with a bland, neutral flavor. Understandably, the variety fell out of favor, with just 277 hectares in 1958. But with improvements in viticulture since the 1990s, the numbers of hectares of plantings have started to increase, rising to 1,732 in 2018, and they are still growing. To produce quality wines and increase acidity, winemakers are playing with harvest dates, harvesting some fruit a little earlier, just before it hits full ripeness. In regions such as the coastal Provence appellation of Cassis, producers are working with site selection; planting Marsanne in cooler, north-facing, and damper plots to ensure freshness; and harvesting later to allow the variety to reach its potential for richer fruit.
Other varieties, such as the white and gris variations of Carignan and Grenache, Macabeu (Viura), and Tourbat (Malvoisie du Roussillon), arrived in the early 19th century from Spain and are now treated as local varieties.
Carignan Blanc is a mutation of Carignan Gris, which in turn mutated from Carignan Noir. Carignan’s large berries are thick skinned, and, because these grapes are late ripening, they benefit from long, hot autumns. Carignan Blanc’s late-ripening character put it at a disadvantage in cooler years when it was regarded as too acidic; this, combined with its high yields, led to its reputation as a low-quality grape. Today, both Carignan Gris and Carignan Blanc are rare, with 1.4 hectares and 198 hectares (down from 621 hectares in 2008), respectively, in 2018, and they are seldom made as varietal wines. Sélène from Domaine Nova Solis is a rare and high-quality example of 100% Carignan Blanc aged in oak. Most often, however, these grapes are used in blends for their fresh acidity and low alcohol levels, in appellations such as Faugères, Languedoc, Saint-Chinian, and, in the future, Terrasses du Larzac.
Grenache Gris (which, from a low of 1,683 hectares in 2008, marginally increased to 1,754 hectares in 2018) has a less aromatic fruit profile and notable structure, and it can reveal a slightly grainy texture. It remains a popular variety in Roussillon and Languedoc. Grenache Blanc, with its high levels of sugar and potential alcohol, has been a useful ingredient in the vins doux naturels of Rasteau, Maury, Rivesaltes, and Banyuls, where it is often blended with Macabeu. The drop in the fortified wine market has led to several years of decline, with plantings reaching a low of 4,931 hectares in 2008. Slowly increasing again, plantings are now around 6,000 hectares. Resistant to drought and particularly successful in dry gravel or pebble soils, Grenache Blanc is a variety suited to the current climate. Although not as textural and complex as its gris relation, when yields are kept low, it shows opulent notes of pear and quince fruit and has relatively low acidity. It takes on complexity with malolactic fermentation, extended skin maceration, lees stirring, and oak aging. It is also a major variety in the white wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, although with hotter summers it increasingly needs the acidity of Clairette or Piquepoul.
Late budding, Macabeu avoids the threat of spring frosts, and it is tolerant of drought stress. Numbers have steadily declined, after a peak of 7,621 hectares in 1988, to just over 1,500 hectares in 2018. When picked on the slightly earlier side of harvest, it shows fresh citrus acidity, with floral notes and aromas of bruised apples and beeswax. Versions harvested later are richer, with intense apple and honey concentration. Several producers make excellent varietal bottlings of Macabeu in the Roussillon, with premium wines spending time in oak. Vineyards using massal selection from Bérillon include Clot de l’Origine.
Clairette, Piquepoul, and Terret Blanc are local varieties that, like many of the local historic varieties, some believe are related. Their rise, fall, and revival were intricately linked with the production of Noilly Prat vermouth. Both Clairette and Piquepoul are prone to oxidation, and, when they are harvested late, their high sugar levels are ideal for vin cuit. Pierre Amadieu in Gigondas tells of his eponymous grandfather making Clairette, aged in large wooden barrels under the roof for two years so that it oxidized, creating a rich wine. Using this process, in 1813 Joseph Noilly created barrel-aged wines flavored with herbs and fortified for stability, making a vermouth-style wine. In 1855, his son Louis Noilly and son-in-law Claudius Prat established the company that became Noilly Prat, moving the business to Marseillan, where it remains. Declining sales in the latter half of the 20th century threatened the plantings of the varieties used.
Piquepoul nearly disappeared, but innovative producers focused on its ability to pair with local seafood and have turned the variety into a success story. The appellation Picpoul de Pinet was created in 2013, and producers are today creating a premium range of wines. Piquepoul was first mentioned as a black variety, Picapoll Nigri, in Occitan in 1384. In 1677, Piquepoul was cited as one of the six great varieties of Languedoc. A mutation of Piquepoul Noir, Piquepoul Gris gained popularity in the early 19th century, followed by another mutation that led to the emergence of Piquepoul Blanc. In 1979, plantings of Piquepoul dropped to 592 hectares, but by 2018 they had risen to 1,748 hectares, with more growth predicted. Researching all the existing clones was integral to this revival. In 1994, 240 Piquepoul clones were tested, from which 50 were selected for their quality and their resistance to mildew, oidium, and botrytis. In the face of climate change, this project is being led by the appellation’s winemakers to better prepare for the future with more resistant varieties.
Clairette has had a more limited revival as producers seek to incorporate the variety into modern wine styles. Traditionally, it was favored because it is late ripening and for its high sugar levels and acidity, and it was used to produce semi-oxidized or fortified wines. This tradition can be found continuing in the small appellation of Clairette du Languedoc, which covers 100 hectares on terraces overlooking the river Hérault. Here, dry white wines and dry rancio wines are permitted. This rancio style, though rarely produced today, is historic, dating back to Roman times. During the Middle Ages, Clairette was known as Picardan.
Clairette de Bellegarde, in the Southern Rhône, is even smaller than Clairette du Languedoc, with only six hectares, seven producers, and one small cooperative located on two terraces, Coste Rouge and Coste Canet. This area, with soils rich in clay and flint pebble, is situated around the village of Bellegarde, alongside the Canal du Rhône in Sète.
Depending on the appellation, producers view Clairette's balance of sugar and acidity differently. In Bandol, winemakers find the grape tends to overripen in the increasingly hotter summers, and they are looking to reduce the amount of Clairette in their white wines from the current minimum requirement of 50%. To compensate for high sugar levels, Ugni Blanc is often included in high percentages. Domaine Tempier makes its white wine with 50% Clairette and 50% Ugni Blanc. Jean-Francois Ott says his biggest criticism of Clairette is that it ages fast.
Producers in the Southern Rhône and Cassis talk about learning to work with Clairette in both the field and the cellar to retain acidity, and their efforts may slow the decline in plantings, which have dropped from 2,564 hectares in 2008 to 2,225 hectares in 2018 (of which 600 hectares are in the Southern Rhône). Growers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where 7% of wine production is white, are beginning to plant more Clairette in part because of the acidity it can provide to a blend. By harvesting a little earlier, they are using it to counter the high alcohol levels of Grenache Blanc and Roussanne. The resulting Clairette-based whites show much greater freshness and elegance.
For many years, during the process of clonal selection, thin-skinned, juicy Clairette clones, ideal for light wines, have been favored. These wines typically show aromas of white flowers and pear, with fresh citrus acidity, often with a linear precision when the grapes are sourced from limestone and clay soils, and with more exotic fruit in examples grown on sandier soils. Today, there are producers seeking to make Clairette with more character. Richard Maby in Tavel and Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape have isolated older, thicker-skinned grapes that show greater concentration and complexity. Old massal selection vines from Bérillon can be found at Domaine Saint-Préfert, Marsaleix, and Domaine du Paternel (Cassis). Clairette is a major component of the wines of Cassis, where it is blended with Marsanne. Other varieties that may be included and that contribute acidity are Bourboulenc (locally known as Doucillon Blanc), Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Pascal Blanc, and Terret Blanc. Palette, a tiny appellation in Provence, stipulates that its white wines must contain a minimum of 55% Clairette, Clairette Rosé, Bourboulenc, and Picardin. The vineyards of Château Simone and Château Crémade are planted with old vines, and massal selection is used to propagate new vines.
Bourboulenc is an ancient white grape that has been grown in Provence for centuries. Some believe it has its origins in Greece, where it is known as Asprokondoura. Resistance to humidity is one of its major assets, especially as it is late ripening. It offers the potential to make wines that are fresh and low in alcohol—the very qualities that led to its demise when cooler vintages more often led to unripe wines and undesirably low alcohol. Today, its delicacy is its strength, and Bourboulenc can act as a useful counterpart to other varieties. It is often blended to provide balanced citrus acidity and structure. It can, however, take on slightly oxidative, spicy notes with age. Because of its resistance to humidity, Bourboulenc is found in the coastal appellation of La Clape, which requires a minimum of 40% Bourboulenc for the encépagment, combined with Grenache Blanc to account for 60% of the vineyard. (Clairette Blanc, Piquepoul, Marsanne, Roussanne, Rolle, Carignan Blanc, Macabeu, Terret Blanc, Ugni Blanc, and Viognier can also be included.) Massal selection Bourboulenc from Bérillon can be found in Domaine la Monardière (Vacqueyras) and Domaine de Terrebrune (Bandol).
Terret—white, gris, and black—is an old Languedocian variety. In the early 19th century, the black and gris varieties were the most widespread. In 1830, Terret Noir was one of the most common varieties in Hérault. Today, Terret Noir and Gris have almost disappeared.
Terret Blanc once covered large areas near the Étang de Thau and was used in the production of vermouth. Plantings have decreased significantly, from 6,880 hectares in 1958 to 1,316 in 2011, and Terret Blanc is now found primarily around the edge of the Étang de Thau, with Les Caves Richemer in Marseillan making a significant effort to increase plantings. In addition to a small percentage of old vines, the cooperative now has almost 50 hectares—15% of all Terret Blanc. As a variety, it is high yielding and makes fresh wines with vibrant acidity and a touch of exotic fruit. Les Caves Richemer describes the style of the wines made from Terret Blanc as similar to those made from Piquepoul, but slightly more gentle and less acidic. Estates that have planted old Terret Blanc from cuttings selected by Bérillon are Domaine Beauregard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Julien Zernott from Pas de l’Escalette. Terret Blanc appears in many appellations, including Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Costières de Nîmes, Corbières, Languedoc, and Cassis.
These old varieties, abandoned for numerous reasons, are now finding their place in modern winemaking. Grapes with high acidity can contribute freshness and lightness to blends or make crisp whites favored by modern palates. Later-ripening varieties that once struggled to ripen are now at an advantage with increasingly frequent late-spring frosts, and they grow well in the hotter summers and autumns. Many of these grapes are more resistant to drought than newer varieties.
Winemakers and consumers alike are rediscovering the subtle flavors of these wines, so very different from the more fruit-forward styles popular in previous decades. These varieties often have the weight and texture that appeal to winemakers who choose to work with materials such as oak or cement; who harvest on less-traditional dates; and who use extended maceration in the winemaking process. As such, the resulting wines often reach premium price levels.
By replanting these varieties, diversity and originality can be highlighted, but care is needed in the choice of plant material. Although working with a limited range of clones provides healthier plants, it also poses the risk of reducing the variety and the regional variations that have adapted to local terroirs.
Tastings have revealed the great potential, just waiting to be fully discovered, in these wines.
Picpoul producers are recognizing the amazing complexity they can achieve with Piquepoul Blanc by harvesting a little later and employing extended lees aging. La Serre, 100% Piquepoul Blanc, offers aromas of garrigue and honey, and, on the palate, rich, complex lemon marmalade, developing into dark ripe fruit with a dry, delicately phenolic finish. Vibrant and refreshing.
Bandol producers struggle to retain acidity with their Clairette, and many seem to harvest earlier to keep their wines fresh, especially as they did in the hot 2019 vintage. This producer works with Clairette’s richness and develops 50% of the wine in demi-muid. The wine is 53% Clairette, 37% Bourboulenc, and 10% Rolle. Honey, oak, and peach aromas develop on the palate into ripe peach, pineapple, honey, melon, and a hint of mint-leaf freshness, with stony minerality and a chalky texture. Linear, saline, fresh.
Made in a simple, fresh style, this Terret Blanc, from vines planted on limestone by the Étang de Thau, is very pale in color, with crisp green aromas. On the palate, there is long chalky acidity and fresh leafy fruit, with an oily, bitter-almond fatness, making the wine a perfect partner for seafood. Trials with lees aging to make a premium wine look promising.
Perhaps recognizing that creating a historical style of wine was not going to be an easy sell, Bertrand cleverly bottled this wine in an attractive “old-fashioned” stone bottle. He worked with the richness that Clairette can develop—the finished wine has 12 grams per liter of residual sugar (the wine was chilled to stop fermentation)—to create a full-bodied, rather opulent style of wine. On the nose, a hint of canned pineapple, typical of the variety, opens into creamy pineapple fruit on the palate, with piquant white pepper spice on the finish and long, very balanced acidity.
This wine is made from old vine Clairette planted in the hills of the Dentelles de Montmirail, on limestone soils, adding freshness. In the tradition of making Clairette in oak, the wine is fermented and aged for eight months in a mix of 500-liter and 228-liter barrels and fermented dry. This wine has all the power and richness of Clairette, without being dominated by the influence of the barrels. Aromas of roasted and fresh nuts balance the honeyed white fruit, with notes of green almonds, sweet red apples, crunchy green apples, and intense honey, and long lime and mineral acidity.
This Malvoisie and Macabeu blend, aged in 600-liter demi-muids, offers yeasty, bready aromas. On the palate, the intensity of fruit opens to peach jam, orange blossom, and dried fruit. The wine has a creamy richness but is bone dry, with delicate oxidation. It also has a mouthwatering salinity, a hint of grainy texture, and a tight structure. Intriguing, complex, and different.
L’Effrontée is 50% Macabeu, 40% Grenache Blanc and Gris, and 10% Rolle, with fermentation finished in 400-liter barriques. The wine offers elderflower and sweet oak aromas on the nose, with the floral notes continuing on the palate—a great example of how these varieties can make wines that are less overtly fruit driven and more structural. There is also an appealing, intense note of lime zest. The creamy richness and sweetness are balanced by citrus salinity, with a vibrant acidity. The development of secondary aromas adds complexity.
With just enough Ugni Blanc to impart essential freshness, this wine luxuriates in the intense richness of Marsanne (dominant in the blend) and Clairette. Beeswax aromas hint at the honeyed fruit to come. The use of oak adds structure and roundness but is otherwise barely notable. On the palate, there is ripe tropical fruit, with Clairette’s characteristic hint of pineapple. The sweet ripeness of the fruit creates a rich intensity balanced by juicy, crunchy green apple acidity, fresh minerality, and the long salinity typical of this maritime appellation.
Clairette was more dominant in this vintage and was blended with Roussanne, Piquepoul, and Bourboulenc. The Clairette, harvested in October, is important for its long, slow ripening and its freshness, bringing intensity of fruit and vibrancy to the blend. Malolactic fermentation was carried out to add richness, but there was minimal lees aging. The Roussanne and Grenache Blanc (60% of the wine) were fermented and aged in barrels. The impression of oak on the nose is gentle, with notes of bitter almonds. On the palate, the almond notes continue with rich marzipan, accompanied by white blossoms, aromatic pears, and salted plums. Roussanne provides richness, but Clairette brings precision. The wine is silky smooth, with ripe orchard fruit and a crisp, zesty finish.
Pépites de Schistes is made of 90% Roussanne and 10% Rolle, with 18 months of élevage in oak. Violet notes on the nose spill onto the palate, with perfumed fruit balanced by saline notes as well as aromas of crisp apple and nuts. The firm minerality and the long acidity create freshness, balancing the tight, oaked structure that slowly emerges with time in the glass. This is a remarkably elegant and fresh Roussanne, showing the benefits of cooler site selection on schist.
Elizabeth... very good article. Thank you!