A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Petit Courbu - Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh & Irouleguy, France

I had high hopes that today's grape would lead me into some interesting research.  There are a handful of grapes with names similar to Petit Courbu, and there are suggestions in a few different sources that these grapes may all be related.  These other grapes are things that we've taken a look at here before, and I was really hoping that this grape could maybe pull a lot of those different threads together, but it just doesn't look like it's going to work out that way.

My initial excitement really kicked off when I read an article in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture called "Molecular Characterization of Bonarda-type Grapevine
(Vitis vinifera L.) Cultivars from Argentina, Italy, and France" (full citation below).  In that paper, the researchers show definitively that Argentine Bonarda is the same as the french grape Corbeau, which they note is the same as the grape grown in California as Charbono.  The paper goes on to say "DNA profiles of synonymous varieties of Corbeau (Courbu, Courbu noir, and Petit Courbu) from Montpellier vines also matched Charbono."  I was excited because that sentence seems to suggest that the DNA for Petit Courbu and Charbono were the same, which would make Petit Courbu a mutation of Charbono.  Further, the DNA of those grapes also matched Courbu, which I was reading as Courbu Blanc, the grape that we discovered was the same as the Hondarrabi Zuri of Spain.  It was starting to look like all my favorite grape capers might not only be related, but might all ultimately be the same grape!

Alas, this was not the case.  When I tried to follow the reference listed in the paper, I couldn't find anything about Charbono, Courbu or Petit Courbu.  When I did a little extra digging, I found that there was an Erratum published for that article shortly after its initial appearance where the paragraph quoted above is corrected to read: "Researchers found that all Charbono selections at Foundation Plant Services (FPS), University of California, Davis, matched the DNA of Corbeau when they compared the FPS Charbono selections to DNA profiles of Corbeau, Courbu, Courbu noir, and Petit Courbu from Montpellier vines (Meredith 1999)."  The prior article also lacked a key reference, which was given in this Erratum, and which led me to this newsletter from UC Davis.  For those who don't feel like scrolling through the whole thing, the relevant paragraph reads:

"Charbono– Anna Schneider from Italy told us some time ago that the FPMS vines labeled Charbono are not the same variety as Charbono in Italy.  Jean-Michel Boursiquot agreed and thought they were probably an old variety called Corbeau. One of Corbeau’s many synonyms is Charbonneau. We compared all six FPMS Charbono selections to DNA profiles in our database from Montpellier vines of Corbeau, Courbu, Courbu noir and Petit Courbu.  Boursiquot was right—the FPMS Charbono matched the DNA profile of Corbeau but not that of the others. Contrary to Galet’s opinion, we found that Corbeau is not the same as Dolcetto."

This paragraph makes it abundantly clear that not only are Charbono and Corbeau genetically identical, but they're also genetically distinct from Courbu, Courbu Noir and Petit Courbu.  The implication is that these latter three grapes are also genetically distinct from one another, but that point isn't made explicit.  There is also no further explanation as to whether any of the grapes were related to one another in anyway other than linguistically.  Wikipedia discusses Petit Courbu, Courbu Blanc and Courbu Noir together in a single entry labeled as "Courbu," and states that the varieties are different, but related, but gives no source for this claim.  The Oxford Companion to Wine does not make any mention of a relationship between the two grapes, but does note their viticultural similarity, as does Wine-Searcher.com.  Both of those sources reference Pierre Galet's opinion on the two vines and both note that the main feature that differentiates them is the darker color that Courbu Blanc's leaves have.  

I found some pictures and descriptions of each vine from the French Institute of Vine and Wine's (IFV) Southwest France outpost, and it looks to me like there's a lot more difference between the two vines that just leaf color.  The shape of Petit Courbu's leaves is much different than that of Courbu Blanc, and the grape bunches look very different as well.  I am, admittedly, not an ampelographer, but the differences on those two pages are pretty striking to me.  I searched high and low for any information on the genetic profile of the two grapes, but was unable to find anything.  

So now that we've established what we don't know about Petit Courbu, let's take a look at what we do know.  The grape is found mostly in southwest France, where it is thought to be native, and covers about 66 hectares of land there.  It's also grown just over the border in the Basque region of Spain where it finds its way into some Txakoli blends under the name Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratie.  The vine produces relatively small bunches of relatively small grapes that are apparently very susceptible to botrytis.  It is typically used as a blending grape in SW France along with Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Arrufiac, where it is prized for the body, perfume and richness that it can contribute to a blend.

A few months ago, I took part in a virtual tasting of wines from southwest France and one of the bottles that they sent to me was the 2008 Chateau Montus.  My tasting note was initially published in my post on that tasting, but is also included below.

For the third wine, we went back to the whites and had a 2008 Château Montus Blanc that was from the Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, which is the name for white wines made in the Madiran region. The wine is made up of 90% Petit Courbu and 10% Petit Manseng with an SRP of $27. The wine is aged on the lees in very large (600 gallon) new French Oak barrels for between 6-8 months before bottling. In the glass, the wine had a deep golden straw color. The nose was nicely aromatic with vanilla, butterscotch and baked apple aromas with some pear, pineapple and pastry crust. On the palate, the wine was just on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity. There were flavors of lemony citrus, ripe apple and tropical pineapple flavors with side notes of pastry dough, butter and vanilla. I am usually not a fan of oak in white wines, but the oak is integrated beautifully here and the wine is exceptionally balanced. It's very similar to a fine white Burgundy and would pair with essentially the same kinds of dishes. This wine suffered a bit on day two, but it was one of only two of the bottles that I completely finished and it was the second best wine of the tasting in my opinion. $27 is a little high, but the quality is exceptional here and I wouldn't hesitate to pay full retail for this wine should I run across it again.

I was also able to find the 2008 Brana "i Lori" from the Irouleguy region of southwest France.  This wine was 50% Petit Courbu and 50% Gros Manseng, and I picked it up from my friends at the Wine Bottega for about $20.  In the glass this wine was a fairly deep lemon gold color.  The nose was reserved with aromas of pears, honey, pineapple, lemon and lemon peel.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with high acidity.  There were flavors of lemon, grapefruit, lemon peel and honey with a touch of grassy herbaceousness to it.  At fridge temperature, this was lean and sharp and the acidity had a hard, searing kind of edge to it.  As it approached room temperature the fruits rounded out a bit more and the flavor palate became a little more forgiving.  It was still tart and very lemony, but its edges were softened up a bit.  Make no mistake, though, this is a very high acid wine so if you're looking for a California Chardonnay substitute, stay very far away from this wine.  Acid freaks will find a lot to love here but other drinkers may find it a bit too harsh and austere.


1) Martinez, L., Cavagnara, P., Boursiquot, J.M., Aguero, C. (2008) Molecular characterization of Bonarda-type grapevine (Vitis vinifera L.) cultivars from Argentina, Italy and France. American Journal of Enology and Viticulture. 59(3). 287-291

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