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.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Abouriou - Cotes du Marmandais, France

A few months ago, I went to a cellar clean-out sale at one of my favorite wine shops, The Wine Bottega.  While I usually find a lot of really amazing wines at the Bottega, I wasn't really expecting to find anything all that unusual this time around since most of their really weird stuff tends to move off the shelves pretty quickly and doesn't hang around long enough for clearance sales.  Some of the bottles were things that Matt, one of the co-owners, had socked away, though, so there was a chance that something really cool was there to be found.  I poked around for a few minutes and quickly found a bottle with an odd little orange label and the word "Abouriou" on the front.  Thinking that the word sounded vaguely familiar, I asked Matt what it was and he told me it was a really obscure grape from southwestern France.  It was the last bottle that they had in the shop and I eagerly took it off their hands.  I recently pulled the cork on it and today I'd like to tell you a little bit about the grape itself before getting into my impressions of the wine.

Abouriou was once rather widely grown in the Lot-et-Garonne region of southwestern France, but after phylloxera swept through Europe, Abouriou nearly became extinct.  It was rescued from oblivion by Numa Naugé, a grapevine breeder from Casseneuil in the Lot-et-Garonne department of France, and one of the local names for the grape, Précoce Naugé, is an homage to the person who preserved Abouriou for all of us.  Naugé's story was that the vine was a local seedling discovered growing on a local castle's walls by a farmer in the 1840's.  The other part of the name, Précoce, is a reference to the grape's early ripening, and in fact, Abouriou actually means "early" in  the local dialect.  For many years, there was a grape grown in California called Early Burgundy and it has recently been discovered that many of those vines were actually Abouriou (though some are actually Blauer Portuguesier).  Only a few acres remain there today, though, and OddBacchus has a really cool interview with Steven Washuta of Old World Winery who makes wine from some of those old Abouriou vines.

In some areas of France, Abouriou is also known as Beaujolais, Gamay Beaujolais and Gamay-Saint-Laurent, but it is not related to either Gamay Noir or Pinot Noir from Burgundy, and it is a little unclear where those synonyms came from.  Interestingly, Abouriou does seem to be related to both Merlot and Malbec, though the precise relationship is unclear.  In 2009, a French team (citation 1) set out to try and find the parents of Merlot.  They analyzed over 2300 different vines in the INRA grape repository and discovered that Merlot's parents were Cabernet Franc and an obscure grape that had no name.  This unknown grape was added to the repository in 1996 when someone took cuttings from an abandoned vine growing on the slopes of Mont Garrot  near Saint-Malo in Brittany.  In 2004, 2005 and 2007, four more vines were found growing on arbors in front of people's homes around the area of Charentes, nearly 400 km away from the original finding.  The local growers called the vine "Raisin de la Madeleine" or "Madeleina," because the vine ripened very early and was said to be ripe in time for Sainte-Madeleine's day, which is July 22.  Because there are many other grapes called Madeleine or which have Madeleine in the name, these researchers decided to name this particular grape Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, after a reference in an 1847 work to a grape known as Magdeleine that was known for ripening in July, and the Charentes region where so many of the vines were found.

It turned out that Magdeleine Noire des Charentes was the mother of both Merlot and Malbec (Malbec's father is Prunelard).  Furthermore, the authors discovered that Magdeleine Noire des Charentes had a parent-offspring relationship with Abouriou, though they were unable to find the other parent in the triad and so they are not sure which direction the relationship arrow points (see my post on Ciliegiolo for more details on parent/offspring relationships in grapevines).  If Abouriou is the parent of Magdeleine Noire, then that means it is a grandparent to both Merlot and Malbec.  If it is an offspring, then that means that Abouriou is a half sibling to those grapes (which are themselves half-siblings of one another).  Because of its early ripening and its ability to resist many fungal diseases, Abouriou has been used to breed some other grapes.  Most notably, it is one of the parents of Egiodola, which we'll cover shortly, and in the 1970's it was crossed with a grape called Castets in order to breed a handful of grapes in Slovakia.

Current plantings of Abouriou stand around 800 acres, which is about half of what the totals were 50 years ago.  Nearly all of those plantings can be found in the district of Marmande, which is apparently most famous for the tomatoes grown there.  Marmande is just up the Garonne river from Sauternes, Cadillac and Loupiac and up until the French revolution, this area was considered to be a part of Bordeaux and wines from here were sold with the Bordeaux name on them.  After the French revolution, a gentleman by the name of Monsieur Lakanal was sent to the area to remove all traces of the nobility there.  He also stuck his fingers in various aspects of the local wine trade and one of his decrees stated that only wines made in the department of the Gironde were permitted to use the name Bordeaux.  The vineyards of the Marmandais were just over the border in the Lot-et-Garonne, and so the wine makers here suddenly found that they no longer had access to the prestigious Bordeaux name and sales immediately suffered.  It wasn't until the 1950's that the region was granted VDQS status and an upgrade to AOC status has only recently been approved on the condition that one quarter of the vines in every vineyard should consist of the specific local grape varieties Syrah, Malbec, Tannat and/or Abouriou.

In his South-West France: The Wines and Winemakers (which much of the above is indebted to), Paul Strang describes Abouriou as "a rustic plant giving juice of an amazingly deep colour and big, heavy tannins, a sort of super-tannat."  I pulled the cork on my 2008 Elian da Ros Abouriou ($27 on sale) to see for myself.  In the glass the wine was a deep, opaque purple-ruby color.  The nose was moderately intense with aromas of blackberry, black cherry, bacon, smoke, charcoal and crushed wild berries.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with medium acidity and medium tannins.  There were flavors of smoke, blackberry, black raspberry, bacon, wild strawberry and a touch of sweaty funk.  The wine was dark and smoky with soft berryish fruits and some savory meaty flavors as well.  I found it very interesting and distinctive and thought it was a reasonable value for the money.  Fans of rustic French wines (those from Cahors or Madiran or made from the Fer Servadou or Duras grape variety) will definitely find a lot to like here.  I'd be very interested to try one of the few California examples being produced to see how it compares with a wine from the grape's home.


Boursiquot, JM, Lacombe, T, Laucou, V, Julliard, S, Perrin, FX, Lanier, N, Legrand, D, Meredith, C, & This, P.  2009.  Parentage of Merlot and related winegrape cultivars of southwestern France: discovery of the missing link.  Australian Journal of Wine and Grape Research, 15(2), pp 144-155.

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