Whilst walking the doggo around the hills of the Charente-Limousine, an area not renowned for quality wine production, if wine production at all - Pineau des Charente isn’t really wine, it’s a fortified grape juice, which is deliciously juicy sweet with a kick of poorly integrated alcohol - I stumbled across a rather small allotment of very well-groomed bush vines.
Flagging down a tractor and interrogating the unsuspecting farmer, he revealed who the vines belonged to, that they were 80 years old and that the cépage was Noah. Then he told they were illegal grapes because the wine sends drinkers mad. I rushed home to look it up and now I’ll explain just how grapes lose legality.
All European wine grape varieties are derived from a single species: Vitis Vinifera. The United States has several grape species including Vitis Rupestris, Vitis Riparia, Vitis Rotundifolia and Vitis Labrusca. Both naturally occurring hybrids and deliberate crosses have been made between the species and varieties and Noah is one of these, a spontaneous cross between the North American species Vitis Riparia and Vitis Labrusca dating back to 1869.
In 1873 it was discovered that Phylloxera had been imported along with the American plants and this root pest went on to wipe out the European vineyards. At the darkest hour for European vine growing it was discovered that some American varieties were resistant to Phylloxera, in addition to protecting against mildew, Powdery Mildew and being frost resistant. By grafting the “noble” European varieties onto rootstocks of American hybrids, total disaster was averted at the last moment and the wine production industry saved. In addition to Noah, varieties included Clinton, Othello, Oberlin, Baco, Herbemont, Jacquez and others.
By the 1930s the population of France was 35 million; wine production was around 91 million hectolitres! There were huge problems associated with overproduction alongside alcohol-related health issues and the French government were unsure how to deal with either. The result was a carrots and sticks approach, grants and propaganda on the one hand and a series of poorly thought out laws which, amongst other things, banned the growing of the American hybrid vines. As late as 1950 posters were produced suggesting the wine made from these varieties was inferior and there was talk of Methanol and other dangerous chemicals found in the wine. The myth of poisonous foreign varieties undoubtedly helped protect the interests of large producers, while discouraging home production and folk memories persist in tales of “mad wine”.
Notwithstanding the extremely harsh legal provisions and accompanying campaign against them, hectares of the forbidden wine grape varieties still exist in France; and numerous actors, amongst them the association “Fruits oubliés”, work for the rehabilitation of the six forbidden varieties. Where the wine production trends encourage organic and biodynamic practices, would we not choose grape varietals which are at inherently lower risk of pests and diseases?