It takes a special gift to make a subject like genetic profiling of grape varieties thrilling. Dr José Vouillamoz, botanist, grape geneticist and specialist in DNA profiling and parentage analysis of the world’s grape varieties has it. The first time we met was in 2009 at an event hosted in Visp by the Chanton family, specialists in rare Valais grape varieties, which they have nursed back to life in their vineyards in the Upper Valais. The event was titled Gipfeltreffen Gwäss and standing at centre-stage was the important – but virtually unknown – grape variety Gwäss (Gouais blanc in French).
After a visit to the vineyards to see Gwäss growing sur place, we adjourned to the Chanton cellars in the old part of this historic town for a presentation and a tasting of rare grape varieties. Dr Vouillamoz was the chief speaker. In a lively and wide-ranging presentation, he introduced Gwäss as if it were a slightly roguish but much-loved old friend: it’s highly productive, he explained, with pronounced acidity so always planted at the end of a row of vines that bore sweeter fruit to deter passers-by from pilfering the grapes. We learnt that it probably hailed originally from northeastern France or southwestern Germany, where it was once widely planted, and has countless synonyms. We also heard about its promiscuous behaviour and multiple offspring (around 60, with another 20 or so when it shacked up with Pinot). “Gwäss is the Casanova of the grapevine world!”.
Finally we tasted a fascinating range of other rarities rejoicing in names like Himbertscha, Lafnetscha, Resi, Plantscher and Eyholzer Roter, each of which Vouillamoz introduced in turn as if they were old friends, worth cultivating and worth preserving. “We should be much more curious about our old cépages!”, he observed. Chatting together after the presentation, I discovered that he was engaged at the time in research for a tome on the world’s grape varieties, to be co-authored with Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW. (In 2012, Wine Grapes was duly published to huge critical acclaim.) Now Vouillamoz has brought out a new book on the history and origins of Swiss grape varieties, Cépages Suisses, Histoires et Origines.
It’s a book for specialists, or at least for those with more than a passing interest in wine (and for the moment only in French, though English and German editions are in the air). But – just as in his presentation at the Gwäss summit – Vouillamoz manages to season scholarly/specialist information with a light touch to give a highly personal and thoroughly readable account of the vine varieties found in Switzerland – of which there are more than 250. “C’est une diversité énorme!”, he exclaims, adding that it’s probably a world record for so tiny a country, whose vine surface (some 15,000 hectares) is about half that of Burgundy and similar to that of Alsace.
In the introduction we learn that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 vine varieties worldwide, 1368 of which are listed in Wine Grapes. Of the 252 varieties growing in Switzerland today, Vouillamoz makes the distinction between those which can reliably be said to be native (‘les indigènes‘), those that were present before 1900 (‘les traditionnels‘), and those introduced post-1900 after the great phylloxera devastation of European vineyards (‘les allogènes’).
It’s the first (‘indigène‘) category that forms the subject matter of the book, which chronicles every native grapevine growing in Switzerland today, with a mention of those producers considered by Vouillamoz to be doing a particularly good job with them. Thus you find the obvious varieties (for Switzerland) like Chasselas, as well as the new darlings such as [Petite] Arvine, the prized but scarce Räuschling, the vanishingly rare Lafnetscha and the estimable Cornalin – more generally (and mistakenly, Vouillamoz informs us) known as Humagne Rouge. (Search in vain for Pinot Noir, Syrah or Merlot, all of them significantly present in Swiss vineyards but not native.)
Also included are Switzerland’s innovative varieties, including crossings like Doral, Diolinoir, Gamaret, Garanoir & Co., and a handful of PIWIs, the new generation of fungus-resistant hybrids that carry great promise for wine-growers wishing to reduce or eliminate the need for synthetic or natural (copper-based) treatments for their vines. (And I particularly appreciated his explanation of the distinction between [oft-maligned] hybrids and [generally accepted] crossings, which has always foxed me (sorry) – see p. 134 for elucidation).
If you’re at all interested in Swiss wine (is anyone not interested?), curious about the grape varieties that give rise to them and passionate about conserving them, this small tome (160pp) should be in your wine library.
Cépages Suisses: Histoires et Origines
Dr José Vouillamoz
Published by Favre