Saving Rare Wine Grapes from Extinction

A leading vine geneticist and others are preserving an old Swiss vineyard with very rare varieties, including Chardonnay's and Riesling's parent
Dec 17, 2014

For more than five years now, one of the world's foremost grapevine geneticists and a dedicated team of volunteers have been working to save an unwanted half-acre vineyard from destruction. Why? Because four of the grape varieties planted in this parcel in Switzerland's mountains are incredibly rare and historic.

In 2010, Swiss winemaker Josef-Marie Chanton, a pioneer in grapevine preservation, contacted his fellow countryman and grapevine geneticist José Vouillamoz about a terraced vineyard in Switzerland's Haut Valais region. Located in the German-speaking part of the country, the area is home to the Matterhorn and the headwaters of the Rhône and has a winemaking history that stretches back hundreds of years.

Some of the vines in the vineyard are upwards of 80 years old, and the entire parcel was supposed to be ripped up. But Chanton told Vouillamoz that among the 12 planted varieties in the vineyard, several were quite rare. According to Vouillamoz, those four are Gwäss, Completer, Himbertscha and VinEsch Roter.

Gwäss, more commonly known as Gouais Blanc, is a white grape variety that was once widely planted in northern France and Germany. Despite a reputation for producing low-quality wines, it parented a surprising number of “noble” grape varieties. Crosses with a Pinot, for instance, gave rise to Chardonnay, Aligoté and Gamay Noir, while crosses with another grape produced Riesling.

Because of its propensity for high yields, Gouais Blanc often made uninteresting “peasant” wines, and it was eventually widely ripped up and even banned in some regions. "Valais is one of the only places on earth where Gouais Blanc has been continuously cultivated since the Middle Ages," said Vouillamoz. "In France it has been banned many times in all regions and there only remains one vineyard in Marin in the Haute-Savoie."

A red grape variety in the vineyard, which the pair has dubbed Rouge de VinEsch, or VinEsch Roter (Esch is a nearby town), is so rare that Vouillamoz, an international authority on grape-vine identification, says he has never seen it outside of the Valais region.

It took the two men a few weeks to find enough people to pitch in on the purchase of the vineyard, saving it from destruction. They then spent a couple years raising public awareness and funds for renovation and maintenance of the vineyard, which they have dubbed VinEsch.

Since 2011, bands of volunteers from all over Switzerland have spent their weekends rebuilding the stone walls of the 27 vineyard terraces. The half-acre parcel, accessible only on foot, sits on a 60 to 70 percent incline. Volunteers receive a bottle of wine made from the vineyard for their efforts.

Future plans include planting the four historic grape varieties “en foule," in a mixed vineyard, as is the tradition in the region, and creating a museum at the vineyard. Vouillamoz said that, ultimately, they plan to make varietal wines of the four rare grape varieties, “as has always been the tradition in Valais.”

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