Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tasting the world's rarest wine grape

Is the sun setting on Roussin de Morgex?
I hate this kind of wine story: I tasted something so rare that you can't have it. But in this case, it's not because the wine is super-expensive or highly rated or even sought after at all.

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
Roussin de Morgex is not really a red grape or a white grape, instead producing pink-skinned berries with pink juice. This is awkward in Valle d'Aosta, in extreme northwestern Italy at the Swiss border, because Valle d'Aosta is known for white wines. So few people, even locally, wanted a pink or light red wine from the region that D'Agata said nobody had made wine from it in 300 years.

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
"When all the data is in we'll publish an academic paper on all of this and hopefully have the wine available for sale in the next few years so that others like you might get a thrill in sipping something that had almost gone the way of the dodo, a veritable case of wine archeology," D'Agata said. "That said, I doubt there will ever be much available, if for no other reasons because there just aren't that many vines right now. But who knows? If people really do like it, it will be a push for the Valle's growers to replant it and produce more wine from it. My only goal, a hope really, was not to have the thing disappear forever."

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.

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jo6pac said...

O/T but fun


Rarest of the rare sounded like a lot trouble for nothing. Then again what do I know since I drink mad dog 20/20

Unknown said...

Glad you decided to write about it, Blake. Even if I never get to taste it, this kind of stuff makes being a wine enthusiast a little more fun.

W. Blake Gray said...

Jo6pac: I hope that one day you and I can get together for a drink, but now that I know what you're packing, I'm bringing the wine.

Bob Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Henry said...

(The above comment was deleted after some light editing . . . here.)

A pink-skinned grape (similar to Gewurztraminer or Pinot Gris?) yielding pink juice could be a good candidate for being fermented using carbonic maceration.

Cab mac avoids the extraction of skin tannins in the wine. (Think Beaujolais.)

Blake observed "[Cave Mont Blanc Roussin de Morgex Spumante Brut 2014] has a light tannic backbone you don't expect from sparkling wine."

At least one Oregon winery of my acquaintance uses cab mac to make Pinot Gris:

Johan Vineyards Estate Pinot Gris “Drueskall”

[Quoting the winery: "'The Drueskall' (grape skin in Norwegian) is an Orange wine made from the Pinot Gris grape. Our goal is to craft a wine that has the structure of a red wine combined with a full range of tertiary white wine aromas."]

Cab mac is used by some Styrian (Austria) winemakers. One example (let Google translate):


Cab mac is used to make this Galicia (Spain) Albariño:


Fabio Bartolomei in Spain makes a carbonic macerated Airén:


Unknown said...

Nice article about the tasting of Roussin de Morgex, Blake! I wish I can taste this wine one day. This variety was rediscovered and rescued in 1998 by my coauthor and friend Giulio Moriondo, as we explain in our out-of-print book (in French)

José F. Vouillamoz & Giulio Moriondo (2011). "Origine des cépages valaisans et valdôtains". Editions du Belvédère, Neuchâtel/Pontarlier, 224p.

I paste here some sections of our text (in French, sorry) on Roussin de Morgex:

"L’unique mention du ‘Roussin de Morgex’ dans les textes anciens se trouverait dans le Bollettino Ampelografico della Commissione Ampelografica delle province subalpine de 1877 sous le nom de ‘Rossano Rosso’, cépage alors présent en faible quantité au Val d’Aoste, exclusivement dans les vignobles de Morgex. Tenu pour disparu, le ‘Roussin de Morgex’ a été récupéré in extremis en 1998 par Giulio Moriondo, qui l’a sauvegardé à l’Institut Agricole Régional (IAR) d’Aoste. Ce cépage n’est aujourd’hui pratiquement plus cultivé et risque à nouveau l’extinction. Comme son nom l’indique, il est certainement originaire des vignobles de Morgex, seule région où l’on en rencontre encore quelques pieds épars.

Le test ADN confirme les analyses morphologiques de Moriondo (1999) en démontrant que le ‘Roussin de Morgex’ n’a aucun lien génétique avec le ‘Roussin’. Le test de paternité a ensuite permis de déceler un lien direct de type parent-enfant entre le ‘Roussin de Morgex’ et le ‘Prié’.

Ainsi, on peut raisonnablement concevoir que le croisement donnant naissance au ‘Roussin
de Morgex’ ait eu lieu dans le courant du 19e siècle dans les vignobles de Morgex.

Une meilleure connaissance des qualités oenologiques du ‘Roussin de Morgex’, fils du ‘Prié’ emblématique du Valdigne, pourrait permettre de conserver cette rareté ampélographique du Val d’Aoste.

Best regards

Bob Henry said...

I only read and speak "wine bottle French."

So let's turn to Google's artificial intelligence-based translation service [https://translate.google.com/] for José's book excerpt.

José F. Vouillamoz & Giulio Moriondo (2011). "Origin of Valaisan and Valdostan grape varieties". Editions du Belvédère, Neuchâtel / Pontarlier, 224p.

"The only mention of 'Roussin de Morgex' in the old texts would be found in the Bollettino Ampelografico della Commissione Ampelografica of the subalpine province of 1877 under the name of 'Rossano Rosso', a grape then present in small quantities in the Val d'Aosta, The Morgex 'Roussin' was recovered in extremis in 1998 by Giulio Moriondo, who saved it at the Regional Agricultural Institute (IAR) in Aosta, Is now practically cultivated and is at risk of extinction, as its name implies, it is certainly originating from the vineyards of Morgex, the only region where there are still a few scattered feet.

The DNA test confirms morphological analyzes of Moriondo (1999) by demonstrating that the 'Roussin de Morgex' has no genetic link with 'Roussin'. The paternity test then revealed a direct parent-child relationship between 'Roussin de Morgex' and 'Prié'.

Thus, it can be reasonably conceived that the crossing giving rise to the Roussin
De Morgex 'was held in the 19th century in the vineyards of Morgex.

A better knowledge of the oenological qualities of 'Roussin de Morgex', son of the 'Prié' emblematic of the Valdigne, could preserve this ampelographic rarity of the Val d'Aosta.

Bob Henry said...

Sorry . . . not quite getting everything.