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Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Bourboulenc

It's been an exciting couple of years for us getting to discover new grapes. Ten days ago, Muscardin became the fourteenth and final grape in the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape collection to make it into the cellar at Tablas Creek. I wrote about it on the occasion of its grafting into the vineyard last June, and we're hoping to ferment maybe 10 gallons this year. I've written this summer about two red grapes that we harvested for the first time in 2019: Vaccarèse and Cinsaut. These are both sitting quietly in the cellar, awaiting bottling next year. But somehow I haven't yet written about Bourboulenc, which we've already put into bottle and even sent out to the members of our white wine VINsider club this fall. It's particularly egregious that I haven't taken up Bourboulenc given that it was the grape my dad was the most excited about when we decided to import seven obscure Chateauneuf du Pape grapes in 2003. So, let's dive in.

Bourboulenc lithoBourboulenc's History
The grape Bourboulenc first appears in the historical record in 1515 in a description of a vineyard near Cavaillon, an ancient village about ten miles south-east of Avignon.1 It appears to have been named after another vineyard near Avignon that was known as Barbolenquiera. Never very widely planted or exceptionally rare, Bourboulenc has seen a gradual decline in acreage since 1970, when it peaked at some 3,000 acres. Its decline is likely due to a fashion for richer white wines in the 1980s and 1990s and a shift in focus across the south of France from white to rosé in more recent years. 

Today, Bourboulenc is the fourth-most planted white grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (after Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Roussanne) at nearly 85 acres2, making it roughly 1% of total plantings and 15% of white acreage. As of 2016, there were about 1,230 acres planted worldwide, all of it in France3 except the handful of acres that were planted from our clones here in California. It appears never to have gone far from where it originated, and today can be found in the regions surrounding Avignon, including Costières de Nîmes, Tavel, Cassis, Bandol, Languedoc, Corbières, Minervois, and (of course) Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Bourboulenc is pronounced boor-boo-lenk. Like nearly all French words, the syllables are emphasized equally.

Bourboulenc at Tablas Creek
In our first round of grape imports, which we brought into quarantine in 1989 and were released in 1992, we focused on the main grapes at Beaucastel: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier. Shortly after, we brought in Picpoul Blanc.

By 2003, we were sufficiently convinced that the more obscure Rhone grapes could shine here that we decided to import the complete Beaucastel collection, which meant another seven grapes. Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche were the first two to be released to us, in 2009. Picardan was next in 2012. Cinsaut, Bourboulenc, and Vaccarese were released in 2015, propagated, and then planted at Tablas in 2017. Muscardin, the seventh and final of those grapes, was released to us in 2017.

We chose a small (0.66 acre) block with a west-facing slope at the far western edge of Tablas Creek for Bourboulenc, and harvested our first small crop in 2019.

Bourboulenc juiceBourboulenc in the Vineyard and Cellar
Bourboulenc vines are fairly vigorous, the berries relatively large, and the clusters loose, which makes it resistant to rot. In France, it is known as drought-tolerant and prized for its ability to retain good acids while still achieving above-average body, but can be a risk because it is late-ripening. We haven't found that to be true here. In 2019 (our first harvest) we picked 2.15 tons of Bourboulenc at 20° Brix (roughly 12.4% potential alcohol), and a pH of 3.38. In 2020 we harvested 3.05 tons at 19° Brix and a pH of 3.38. Both years we picked in September, at roughly the one-third mark of harvest. That puts the grape in synch with Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. The sugars were among the lower levels that we picked, and the acids toward the lower pH (higher acid) end.

In 2019, and to a lesser extent in 2020, we noticed a distinctive orange color in the Bourboulenc juice as it came out of the press. Much of that color dropped out during fermentation, but it remained a darker gold than most of our white wines. This is not mentioned in the literature anywhere that we've been able to find, nor is it a phenomenon that the Perrins have seen at Beaucastel. We're working on the tentative hypothesis that perhaps because the vines were young the clusters were exposed to too much sun, and worked in 2020 to leave more canopy to shade the clusters better.

In the cellar we have fermented  Bourboulenc in a small stainless steel tank each of the last two years and then moved it to neutral barrels to complete its malolactic fermentation.

In the long run, we're excited to have Bourboulenc become a part of our blends. But we always prefer to bottle new grapes on their own the first few years so we can wrap our own heads around their character and share it with our guests and fans. So, it was exciting that it showed well in our blending trials this spring. We bottled some 145 cases of our 2019 Bourboulenc. 80 of those cases we set aside to go out to the members of our White Wine-Only VINsider Club this fall. We sold out of the other 65 in less than six weeks, as it quickly became a favorite among both our team and our guests.

Flavors and Aromas
Our experience with Bourboulenc here is only one vintage long, but that debut vintage showed a nose of lychee and wet rocks, lightly floral, with an unusual and appealing fresh almond note. On the palate, it was richly textured and softly mineral, with pineapple and Seville orange fruit and a little mintiness, pretty and delicate and lovely. We have no idea how this will age, but given its slightly oxidative note even in its youth I'm guessing it might be best suited to drinking younger rather than older. We will know more in coming years.

Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins, 2012
  2. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
  3. Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen, Which Wine Grapes Are Grown Where, University of Adelaida Press, 2020

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