Food & Wine Thursdays: Three Marginal French Grapes I Love

Europe in the 19th century was very good at two things: war, and displacing its agrarian class. As the continent rapidly industrialized, independent farmers and shepherds were marginalized and, seeing little opportunity in Old Europe, emigrated to the New World. As has occurred since the dawn of the domesticated grape vine, these immigrant brought their favorite Vitis vinifera varieties with them as well. As subsequent phylloxera epidemics, war and economic turmoil radically changed the composition of European vineyards, many of these grapes fell out of favor in their native countries but remained popular in their adopted homelands. Here are three of the best.

Tannat. This thick-skinned grape is native to Southwest France, particularly the Basque-influenced regions of Madiran and Irouleguy. Basque immigrants brought the vine to South America, where it was widely planted in Uruguay and remains that country’s most significant red grape. It is also widely grown in Argentina and has seen an insurgent popularity in California. For whatever reason, the climate and soil of the New World–plus a penchant for micro-oxygenation–creates a softer, less tannic (yes, they share an etymology) example of Tannat when compared against the wines still made in France. New World Tannat and Tannat-based blends are delicious, full-bodied wines that remarkably require little aging and can be excellent substitutes for Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux-style blends. From France, seek out a Tannat-based wine from Madiran with several years of age to experience one of France’s most rustic and complex red wines.

Petite Sirah. Known as Durif in much of the world, Petite Sirah is the result of cross-pollination of Syrah and Peloursin that was discovered by clearly egomaniacal French botanist Francois Durif in 1880. This means that the oft-stated claim that Syrah and Petite Sirah are not related is clearly false, so make sure you correct every wine seller and tasting room staff member you encounter as it will no doubt endear you to them and not result in spittle ending up in your glass. Virtually non-existent in France today, California has become the new spiritual homeland of Petite Sirah. While the resilient, high-yielding grape can produce jammy, simple wines, when well-tended the wines produced from Petite Sirah are complex and interesting and, at their best, taste like blueberries and bacon dipped in dark chocolate.

Petit Verdot. This is a grape that is inexplicably trendy to bash right now amongst CMS and WSET trainees, but I find it, again, to make some of the most approachable and interesting full-bodied red wines in California. Although still a common grape in Bordeaux, there it is used only in very small amounts to give structure to the blends as it is late to ripen and when under-ripe can impart undesirable aromas. In more even climates with frost-free autumns, however, Petit Verdot reaches full maturity and has amazing floral and earthy aromas. Since it needs more fruit flavors for balance, it’s still at its best when taking a leading role in California Meritage (Bordeaux-style) blends, but varietal Petit Verdot from warmer pockets of Sonoma County and Lodi I’ve found to be excellent.

All three of these grapes make for excellent replacements for that Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel at your next dinner and are being produced in increasing amounts in many regions of North and South America, both established and emergent. Ask your local wine monger today!

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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