Richard Dudley Craig talks about the forgotten grapes of the Loire and in particular Fié Gris, its near extinction and subsequent revival thanks to a few enlightened winemakers.
In the 19th century, the Loire Valley boasted many more grape varieties than can now be found. Varieties such as Pineau d’Aunis, Grolleau, Romorantin and Fié Gris, nowadays all bit-part players at best, were widely and enthusiastically planted.
Their demise was twofold: the phylloxera scourge at the end of that century was the catalyst. Those microscopic, sap-sucking aphids destroyed swathes of wine-producing land throughout France, leading to the rapid and uncontrolled replanting of many vineyards. In the Loire, diversity suffered as high yielding, easy-to-grow varieties were needed to fulfil the ever-increasing demand for crisp white wine from the nation’s burgeoning café, bar and restaurant scene. Sadly, the interesting, lower-yielding and more difficult varieties simply didn’t make the cut.
Soon after (and as a direct result) the new appellation regulations of the time ceased to recognise the old varieties, in favour of the ubiquitous Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Growers, quite naturally, switched to these ‘approved’ varieties (for which they received a premium) and grubbed up everything else. This led, in some cases, to near extinction of these old and vulnerable grapes.
Fié Gris is the Loire moniker for Sauvignon Gris, a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc with rather gorgeous pink-tinged berries. As a low-yielding variety, the grapes provide concentrated, aromatic juice with plenty of sugar and acidity and a notable rich smokiness in the finished wine. The variety had almost completely died out until a Loire winemaker, Jacky Preys, discovered a forgotten plot of Fié Gris within a parcel of vineyards he’d purchased. It is he that we have to thank for its re-establishment as one of the region’s viable crops.
Since its rescue from the edge, Fié Gris has become quite fashionable, both in blends and as a single-varietal, of which Domaine de L’Aujardière’s 2015 vintage is an excellent example. On first analysis, it offers little more than subtle notes of lemon and melon, but is one of those white wines that gives more and more the longer it remains in your glass. Opening with lightly spiced grapefruit cocktail notes, on the palate it hums with ripe citrus and apple notes, reflecting admirably the warmth of the vintage. The finish remains fresh, zesty and moreish. Whilst lovely on its own, it begs to be paired with something salty and savoury, such as olives or anchovies. Did someone mention Pissaladière?
So raise a glass to the vignerons who have worked hard to bring this lovely grape back from the brink of extinction: vive la difference – variety is the spice of good winemaking!
Domaine de L’Aujardière Fié Gris 2015, £16.75, available from Lea & Sandeman, www.leaandsandeman.co.uk (see website for branches)
Richard Dudley Craig, Wine Consultant and Importer