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Winemakers champion the next perfect grape for climate change

Little-known or almost extinct varieties are making a comeback as vintners adjust to changing weather

Vintners from California, Texas, Europe and South America are planting or reviving these little-known, sometimes nearly extinct varieties. (Photo: Dziana Hasanbekava, Unsplash)

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Last year you probably tasted your way through any number of well-known wine grape varieties, whether cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir or sauvignon blanc. 

In your future, however, are the drinking delights of less familiar names: counoise, vaccarèse, mencía, picpoul blanc and cabernet Pfeffer. 

Vintners from California, Texas, Europe and South America are planting or reviving these little-known, sometimes nearly extinct varieties. Part of their aim is to save the world’s viticultural heritage. 

But the biggest reason they’re championing these grapes is because they may fare better in a changing climate than popular ones such as temperature-sensitive pinot noir.

Take counoise, one of the 13 varieties permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape blends in France’s Rhône Valley. Growers abandoned it because the grapes only mature late in a growing season, so in cooler years they didn’t fully ripen. And they’re susceptible to various diseases including gray rot. 

But as temperatures climb, counoise is making a comeback. Its late-ripening characteristic is now a plus. The grapes also maintain high acidity even with heat waves and increasing drought. Coincidentally, the light-colored wines fit into today’s vogue for low-tannin, lower-alcohol, easy-drinking, chillable reds.

The first California producer to plant it was Paso Robles winery Tablas Creek, founded in 1989 by the American Haas family and the French Perrin family, owners of Château de Beaucastel in the Rhône Valley. 

“Our original long-term goal was always to invest in all the grapes grown in the Rhône, including those that had practically disappeared,” says Jason Haas, the second-generation proprietor of Tablas Creek. “Now we see that all the higher-acid varieties are going to be increasingly useful as the climate warms.” 

Haas bottles 100% versions of 20 different varieties, which are all sold out. He says counoise, picpoul, grenache blanc and vaccarèse are the most likely to be great on their own. Grenache blanc has already been a success story, becoming the second-most planted white Rhône grape in California, after viognier, used in the blend for Tablas Creek’s excellent Cotes de Tablas Blanc. 

The Rhône Valley is just one of the many European wine regions getting even warmer. The threat of climate change is pushing new interest in unusual, abandoned grapes as well in Italy, Portugal and Spain, among others, and is inspiring winemakers in the new world to grow them.

California winemakers are especially taking up the call to action and embracing uncommon varieties. 

Andy Smith of DuMOL winery in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley is noted for his luscious single-vineyard pinots and chardonnays, but he took a chance on mencía, a red grape from Spain’s Galicia region. After the winery purchased a contiguous 10-acre ancient apple orchard, he discovered mencía vines had just been approved for release in California. “It’s a tough, late-ripening variety, drought-resistant,” Smith says. “The perfect grape for climate change.”

He first planted it in 2016, picks it a month later than pinot noir and is planting more. “The heat didn’t affect the grapes at all,” Smith says. Mencía also appeals to wine lovers looking for something new. The first vintage of Smith’s purple-fruited, floral-scented red—in 2018—was snapped up by the winery’s club in 48 hours. Now he’s mulling over the ancient Italian grape timorasso. 

Dozens of rare grapes are having a moment, and there’s hot competition in California for those discovered in old vineyards, like cabernet Pfeffer. California’s Lodi region, a hotbed of experimentation, boasts 125 grape varieties. 

But the trend goes far beyond the US and Europe to China and Australia, where grower Bruce Bassham found that the Portuguese grape arinto thrives even in temperatures of almost 120F. 

And some winemakers just can’t resist the challenge of the unknown. As Matthew Rorick of Napa’s Forlorn Hope puts it: “We love the long shots. We love the outsiders, the lost causes.” 

The seven grapes below are just a sampling of the rare varietals available right now. 

The Whites

GRENACHE BLANC
Widely planted in the southern Rhône, this grape has had recent success in California and South Africa. 
One to try: 2020 Ridge Grenache Blanc Halter Ranch
Vivid and juicy, this medium-bodied, round, refreshing white includes 20% picpoul. It has enticing aromas of pears and honeysuckle. $37

FALANGHINA
This ancient variety holds on to its natural acidity in hotter climates. Although it isn’t seen much outside Italy’s Campania, it’s flourishing in several California regions, including Paso Robles in the Central Coast, Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma and Yolo County in Napa Valley. 
One to try: 2021 Matthiasson Lost Slough Vineyard Falanghina
Steve Matthiasson keeps all the bright, fresh mineral flavors in this white from grapes grown in hot-climate Yolo County. $44

PETIT MANSENG 
In southwestern France, this late-ripening grape is made into rich, sweet wines. In Virginia it’s a dry white success. The variety thrives in the state’s heat, humidity and heavy rainfall. 
One to try: 2020 Early Mountain Vineyards Petit Manseng
In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley this winery makes a golden-colored, creamy-textured, refreshing example with notes of mango and dried peaches. $30

PICPOUL
The name of this zingy variety means “lip stinger,” for its sharp acidity. It was long found only in France’s Languedoc region but is now at home in California. 
One to try: 2021 Bonny Doon Picpoul Beeswax Vineyard Central Coast
Crisp and tart, this high-acid white with bright lemony notes pairs ideally with steamed clams, plus it’s a great value and has only 11% alcohol. It’s blended with 10% grenache blanc. $19

The Reds

CABERNET PFEFFERDN
A testing shows century-old vines of this mysterious, heat-tolerant grape in California are the same as mourtaou, which is almost extinct in France.
One to try: 2020 Stirm Siletto Vineyard Cabernet Pfeffer
Light, delicate, perfumed and peppery, this wine with cranberry-pomegranate flavors is the kind of fresh, low-alcohol red that tastes best chilled. It resembles a light, savory nebbiolo. $35

COUNOISE 
This dark-skinned grape is gaining adherents in California’s Paso Robles and Sierra Foothills, as well as Texas and Washington state. 
Two to try: 2021 C.L. Butaud Carbonic Counoise
Texas’ answer to Beaujolais. Randy Hester of C.L. Butaud uses a winemaking method seen in France’s Beaujolais region to create an especially light, vibrant, fruity-spicy red that’s best slightly chilled. $25
2021 Railsback Frères Le Counoise
This juicy, fresh red from California’s Santa Ynez Valley has the style, elegance and structure of a cru Beaujolais. $45

MENCÍA 
If you’re a fan of pinot noir, you may also go for the floral-scented reds from this grape primarily found in northwestern Spain.
One to try: 2020 DuMOL Mencía
This pure, silky-textured wine is deeply fruity, with plum and mint aromas. It was aged in Tuscan amphorae. $70

 

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