|Is the sun setting on Roussin de Morgex?|
I tasted wine made from a northern Italian grape that is even more rare than a grape called "almost extinct" in José Vouillamoz's definitive tome Wine Grapes. Ian D'Agata, author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy, said, "This wine didn't exist. It still doesn't exist." But we tasted it.
The grape is called Roussin de Morgex. It's not actually related to the nearly extinct grape Roussin, which is cultivated in just one vineyard in Valle d'Aosta. That is one more vineyard than Roussin de Morgex, which is from the same region but is not cultivated at all.
"Not cultivated and extinct are not the same thing," D'Agata told me by email.
|Ian D'Agata, left, with "I'll Drink To That" podcast host Levi Dalton|
They didn't, however, eradicate every remaining vine of it like smallpox. Grapevines, even fancy ones like Cabernet and Pinot, are essentially weeds. Left alone they will find a place to grow. Vineyard land in Valle d'Aosta, the least populated region of Italy, is not as precious as in much of the fine wine world. D'Agata persuaded the technical director of the co-op Cave Mont Blanc to ask its 60 grower-members to look for pink-berry vines on their property; they found a few.
"Unlike other varieties where confusion happens easily, with Roussin de Morgex, given the very unique look of its leaf and pale red berries, it's virtually impossible to mistake it," D'Agata said. "Nobody cultivated it with the goals of making a specific wine from it, but it has always been there in the field."
D'Agata persuaded growers who found the grapevines to harvest it and vinify it. You think a 50-case Pinot is rare? These wines, from single vines, were made in lots measured not in barrels, but in bottles.
So was it delicious? Not at first.
"We made the first wine from it, a red wine, and it was terrible," D'Agata said.
At that point you would think the growers or D'Agata or both would have lost interest in the project. Instead, D'Agata somehow persuaded the co-op the following year to make a sparkling wine from the grapes. And that is the wine I tasted at a seminar in New York on rare Italian grapes. It was easily the rarest of the bunch. Other wines included an elegant mutation of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a variety you can find on wine lists everywhere, and an Oseleta, which was extremely rare a decade ago but is making a comeback as a beefy substitute for Cabernet as the second grape to Corvina in Amarone. If you like Amarone, you've probably had Oseleta. Nobody in the US who wasn't at the seminar has had Roussin de Morgex.
That was why I hesitated to write this post. The wine isn't commercially available and probably D'Agata shouldn't have even been allowed to bring it into the US. It was the first experiment with making bubbly out of the grape, and if it had also been terrible, the whole project would probably have been abandoned.
Fortunately, Cave Mont Blanc Roussin de Morgex Spumante Brut 2014 is really interesting. It's smoky and tangy and has a light tannic backbone you don't expect from sparkling wine. It's not fruit-driven, but the fruit you do taste -- though the wine is white in color -- is like smoked red berries. I wish I'd had the chance to have an entire bottle of it, but to do so would have consumed more than 5% of the total worldwide supply.
"This is the first time this wine has been tasted outside Italy," D'Agata said. "It's only been tasted twice before in Italy."
Fortunately, D'Agata says, those two tastings were successful enough that space in an experimental vineyard has been set aside for cuttings of Roussin de Morgex.
|Lonesome George, the last of his species, died in 2012|
And that, at the end of the day, is why I wrote this post. I'm sorry, dear reader, that I can't tell you where to buy a wine made from Roussin de Morgex. But now a record of it exists in English on the Internet, and that is another kind of second life.