You might think that there would be little more to write about grape varieties, following the publication of Wine Grapes (detailing 1,368 varieties) in 2012 by the three Js, joined in 2015, by a new edition (in French) of the nonagenarian Pierre Galet’s encyclopaedia of grape varieties. Yet, for those of us specialising in certain wine regions, where rare grapes abound, that simply isn’t the case – there is a mass of information to be uncovered.
Indeed, in the past decade, there has been an encouraging resurgence of interest in rescuing obscure grape varieties from oblivion and many vine conservatories, as well as associations of wine pros and amateurs, have taken on this mission.
This book is only in French and the nearest translation of the title that I can come up with is ‘Discovering humble and forgotten grape varieties’. André Deyrieux is named on the cover as the author, but he was, more realistically, the content editor, working with several other enthusiastic writers, including Jean Rosen. For some years, the latter has organised an annual conference on rare grape varieties and through this, the book was born and later, almost miraculously, taken on by the publisher Dunod, part of the Hachette group.
The first 45 pages of the book provide an introduction to the subject, through essays and explanations written by several different people. They vary in their usefulness, but do set the scene well overall. The essence of the book though is the profiles of the 50 grape varieties they have chosen to highlight, all of which are being made into wine somewhere in France. Some choices, like Alsace’s Sylvaner or the Languedoc’s Cinsaut may be surprising, but fall into the ‘humble’ category, I guess. However, at the other extreme are Genouillet (central Loire) and Rieyrenc & Oiellade (Languedoc), grapes that I’d never heard of, and rare Alpine varieties that I know well including Mollard, Etraire de l’Adui and Persan – only a few hectares of each of these are planted today.
The writing style of the profiles is much easier for a non- French native to understand and given a light humorous, but informative touch. Each one ends with a short piece about a vigneron, who is growing and making a wine from the variety concerned.
I have often complained about the presentation of wine books published in France, but this one is a sheer delight in terms of layout and overall design. The only let-down is the quality of the photographs, but no doubt there was no budget to pay for professional ones. A real bête noir of mine is that the landscapes photographs used (rather than pictures of specific grape varieties or vignerons) are utterly useless without a caption and these are glaringly absent.
Quotations and sayings are dotted throughout the book. I love this one from Leonard Humbrecht of Alsace: “Le cépage est le prénom; le terroir est le nom de famille” meaning ‘the grape variety is the first name, and the terroir is the surname’. For readers of French, this book is a must for grape geeks.
By Wink Lorch
André Deyrieux: A la Rencontre des Cépages Modestes & Oubliés available from Dunod, €29.