By Robert Haas
This week we are filing a petition to recognize Terret Noir, Vaccarese, Picardan, and Bourboulenc for use as grape varietal names on labels in the United States. The petition, ready to go out yesterday afternoon:
In 1990, when Tablas Creek Vineyard was founded, it was our intention to establish a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-like, Rhône-style vineyard and winery in the Paso Robles AVA. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is famous for planting thirteen grape varieties, although over 70% of the acreage in the appellation is Grenache Noir, and many estates use only the “big three” of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre for their red wines and Clairette and Grenache Blanc for their whites. Beaucastel is noteworthy for planting and using all thirteen (actually fourteen if you count Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc as two) approved grape varieties. We wanted to do all thirteen here, too. Because some of the thirteen didn’t exist in California, and we had doubts about the quality of those that did exist here, we decided to import cuttings from France and put them through USDA quarantine.
The first imports of cuttings of the major varieties were in 1990, and because the California USDA station was closed, they were brought through the USDA station in Geneva, NY. Indexing was finished in 1993. Nursery Manager Dick Hoenisch and I went out to Geneva in wintertime, washed the bare roots of the dormant plants and prepared the FedEx shipment to California. I remember that Geneva winter trip. There were several feet of snow on the ground and it was freezing cold. It seemed a long way from grape planting territory.
Those cuttings included Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Picpoul Blanc. All except Counoise, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul had already been recognized varietals in the U.S. Tablas Creek subsequently successfully petitioned for acceptance of the last three, each of which has proven to have value both in our blends and on its own.
We have always wanted to plant, experiment, and work with all thirteen varieties authorized in the Châteauneuf-du Pape appellation of origin, but at the time we began, the other varieties weren’t available in the French nursery service for us to import, and we felt that taking field cuttings (which would likely be virused) would add a long, unpredictable delay to our launch. But once we saw how successful the trace varieties in the first wave had been, we decided to move forward. In 2004, we took cuttings of the remaining unrepresented varieties in a selection massale [field selection] from the Château de Beaucastel vineyard and sent them to (the now operating) Davis station for indexing and for eventual release to us.
We were right that the vines were likely to have a tortuous process ahead of them. All tested positive for virus, and had to be cleaned up by the scientists at UC Davis. We received the first two of these (Terret Noir and Clairette) in 2010 and we just received news that Cinsault, Picardan, Vaccarèse, and Bourboulenc are being released. When we get Muscardin (hopefully in 2014) it will complete the virus-free collection of all the authorized Châteauneuf-du-Pape varietals in the United States.
What these grapes will do in Paso Robles is a good question. For a few, there is so little planted in France that there is not much to go on. But the success we and others in California have had with our other formerly unknown varieties such as Counoise, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc makes us hopeful. Here’s what the literature says:
- Bourboulenc is a vigorous and late budding white grape, which should be good news in our frequent spring frosts. It ripens late and maintains moderate sugars and good acidity.
- Picardan is also a late budding white variety that gives a pale colored wine with good acidity. This grape is one on which there is the least information available; we’ll likely be planting the first new block anywhere in the world in several decades.
- Terret Noir is one of the Languedoc’s oldest red varieties. It too buds late, and in southern France brings lightness and freshness to its blends with varietals such as Grenache. We hope that it will do the same thing in our vineyard.
- Vaccarèse is a fourth late budding variety that, according to the ampelographer Pierre Galet is said to have an “uncontestable original floral aroma, a fresh and elegant taste, particularly interesting for modifying the alcoholic ardor of the Grenache in the rosé wines of Chusclan and the red wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”
Before we or anyone else can use the grapes on a wine label, they need to be accepted by the TTB into the lexicon of recognized American grapes. Cinsault and Clairette are already recognized. The petition we are sending off this week has assembled the available research for Picardan, Bourboulenc, Terret Noir, and Vaccarèse.
It will require patience to test our theories. First, the bud material will have to be multiplied and then grafted. Then, once the vines are propagated in sufficient quantities, we’ll plant a small block (perhaps a half-acre) of each. We’ll wait three years to get our first crop and vinify each separately. Only then will we start to see what they’re good for.
We should have the vines’ names recognized in plenty of time.