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, October 10, 2012

Folle Blanche (Gros Plant) - Nantais, Loire Valley, France

Folle Blanche was, at one point in time, a very important grape, but not for wine production.  Rather, it was the most important variety grown for the production of Armagnac and Cognac, the famous distilled spirits of western France.  It was the workhorse grape of these regions before phylloxera struck, but once those vineyards were decimated by the pest, the grape was never able to reclaim its former glory.  Plantings have declined throughout the 20th Century from nearly 30,000 acres in 1968 to fewer than 6,500 by 2000.  We'll take a look at some of the reasons for this decline and also take a look at a few table wines made from the grape below.

You might think that whatever grape makes a good wine would also make a great brandy, since brandies are essentially just distilled wines, but it turns out that isn't the case.  The qualities that distillers look for in a base wine for brandy are high acid and light flavor, as heavily flavored base wines apparently make for clumsy brandies while high acids amplify aromas and help balance the finished liquor.  Wines made from Folle Blanche grapes posses both of these characteristics, and for many years the vine was prized for the fine brandies that resulted from its distillation.  The vine was somewhat problematic to grow, though, as it tended to be very vegetatively vigorous and demanded a lot of pruning in order to avoid problems with botrytis bunch rot and black rot, two fungal diseases to which it is particularly prone.  This problem actually got worse after the phylloxera epidemic, as it turned out that Folle Blanche vines became much more vigorous after being grafted onto native American rootstocks.

As we've covered many times on this site, the war against phylloxera was fought on several different fronts.  Once people began to notice that native American grape varieties were largely unaffected by the louse, many people, like Albert Seibel and JF Ravat, tried to create new grape varieties by breeding vinifera vines with native American vines in order to try to retain the quality winemaking characteristics of vinifera with the phylloxera resistance of the other varieties.  One of those hybridizers was François Baco who, in 1898, crossed Folle Blanche with Noah (itself a riparia x labrusca hybrid that is definitely not the same as the Hondarrabi Zuri grape) to create Baco 22A, or Baco Blanc (he also created Baco Noir which also has Folle Blanche as one parent but a different riparia vine for the other).  Baco Blanc also made wines that were lightly flavored and high in acid, but the vines were also resistant to many of the diseases that plagued Folle Blanche vines, and many growers opted for Baco Blanc over Folle Blanche for these reasons.  It turns out that the EU ban on hybrid grapes only applies to quality wine production, so the use of a hybrid vine to make a distilled spirit was legally fine.  Plantings of Baco Blanc have been steadily declining, though (to about 5,000 acres as of 2000), as many Armagnac and Cognac growers have begun either making their own wines from their grapes or trying to sell some of their crop to table wine producers.  Since Baco Blanc is a hybrid, it cannot be used for this purpose, and many growers are opting to plant more Colombard and Ugni Blanc, the other great vinifera vines used in the production of Cognac and Armagnac, in order to have more options for the fruits of their vines.

Folle Blanche is thought to be a half-sibling to many of the great grapes of France. One of its parents has been identified as Gouais Blanc, which was also parent to Romorantin, Chardonnay, Gamay, Auxerrois, Aligoté, Melon de Bourgogne (aka Muscadet) and many others.  Pinot Noir was identified as the other parent for those grapes, but Folle Blanche's other parent is currently unknown.  Folle Blanche has many synonyms, many of which can be confusing.  It is known as Picpoul, or lip-stinger, though it doesn't seem to be related to Picpoul-de-Pinet.  It also has Dolcetto and Ugne Blanche as accepted synonyms, but is not related to the Italian Dolcetto or Ugni Blanc, as far as I know.  It is also known as Enrage, Enrageade and Enrageat, which I just find kind of funny.  The VIVC lists 62 accepted synonyms for Folle Blanche, which you can peruse at your leisure here.  The only one I happened across was Gros Plant, which is commonly used on the labels of wines made from Folle Blanche in the Nantais region at the far western end of the Loire Valley.

I was able to find a bottle of the 2009 Domaine des Troit Toits Gros Plant from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet for around $16.  In the glass the wine was a pale silvery lemon color with greenish tints.  The nose was moderately intense but delicate and subtle with white pear and golden apple fruits along with a touch of lees (the wine is aged sur lie, as you can see at right).  On the palate the wine was light bodied with searingly high acidity.  There were flavors of raw lemon-lime citrus and green apple, but it was difficult to get a bead on anything as the acid was just sky high.  I've had some wines before that people told me were high-acid, but I've never had anything quite like this.  It was just raw, tooth-stripping power that was frankly a little difficult to even drink.  I'm a fan of acidic wines and love sour candy, but this was a little bit too much for me.  If the ideal base wine for brandy is high acid and light flavor, this bottle would seem to be the Platonic ideal.

High acid wines are not only good for distillation, though.  The Champagne region of France has made many fortunes turning the high-acid, underripe juice of grapes into beautiful wines by forcing them through a second fermentation in bottle and trapping the resulting bubbles in the wine.  The second wine that I tried, the NV "Atmosphères" from Jo Landron ($18 from the Wine Bottega), was a traditional method sparkler made from 80% Folle Blanche and 20% Pinot Noir.  In the glass this wine was a medium lemon gold color with big, steady bubbles.  On the nose the wine was fairly intense with funky apple and lemon fruits wrapped up in a freshly baked yeast roll.  On the palate the wine was light bodied with high acidity.  There were flavors of toasted bread, golden apples, lemon juice and fresh yeast rolls again.  This wine was highly acidic, but it was much more manageable and better integrated into the wine.  It wasn't a deeply complex wine, but it was simple and clean and would make a nice aperitif.  It was certainly much more approachable and friendly than its still wine counterpart and, for only $2 more, is a much better value as well.

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