In his cellar near the shores of eastern Austria’s Neusiedlersee, Gernot Heinrich dipped his thief into a wine barrel and drew out something luminously geranium red. Redolent of roses and heliotrope, orange and grapefruit rinds, it felt rich, yet was brightly refreshing. Black-tea smokiness, salinity and peppery bite led to a mouth-shaking finish. The conflicting aromatic, textural and visual signals were disconcerting, even for a seasoned taster.
Most oenophiles are aware that their impressions of wine are influenced by hue; and sensory scientists are increasingly demonstrating the extent of that influence. Tasters would probably be less nonchalant about their color prejudice if professional “scoring systems” for rating wine quality did not routinely, however indefensibly, award points for color. A deeply golden or bronze-tinged hue arouses in most 21st-century tasters suspicions of decline. And genuine red, as opposed to dark purple or garnet, signals weakness or insufficiency, as if any grower who could make deeply colored wine from red varieties surely would. But some don’t wish to (see this column’s predecessor, W&S October 2017, for examples), while others are drawn to “black” grapes (cépages noirs) that naturally resist deep color extraction. And Heinrich’s mysterious 2012? It came from a “white wine” variety, although the word “red” appears in its name.
By early in the new millennium, Heinrich, then in his early forties, could have rested on his laurels. Austria’s most influential wine critics placed his deeply colored, distinctive blends of blaufränkisch, merlot and zweigelt at the apex of that country’s red wines. But, in 2007, Heinrich began exploring rugged schistic and chalky slopes on the lakeshore opposite his native Gols. Some of the old blaufränkisch vineyards he coveted came with patches of traditional white wine varieties, two of these classic cépages gris, grapes with a purple or reddish tinge when ripe. Heinrich’s stoplight red was roter traminer fermented for two weeks on its skins. The following year, he launched a no less startlingly bright red pinot gris tasting of peach and blood orange laced with toasted nuts, caraway and black pepper. “Orange wines,” which had begun to attract international attention, were generally unfiltered and low sulfur. So were Heinrich’s latest efforts, but “orange” didn’t capture their hue; and to view them as fashion statements would discount their uniqueness and profundity, which have been confirmed in subsequent vintages.
Heinrich labeled his skin-fermented wines from gris or blanc grapes “Freyheit,” an archaic spelling of the German word for “freedom,” because for him they signified a vintner liberated from contemporary convention, his grapes and wine liberated from intervention, thereby paying homage to the methods of an earlier, less self-conscious winegrowing era. Similar motives led another prestigious Austrian grower, Fred Loimer, to treat traminer and pinot gris from the Thermenregion and Kamptal to a month on their skins, relying, like Heinrich, largely on infusion rather than “punching down” or “pumping over.” Loimer labels his intriguing bottlings “mit Achtung,” meaning “with respect” but also “heads up!”
An Unlikely Hero
You could say that cépages gris are not the only grape varieties to inhabit a gray area. Poulsard, a Jura autochthon, has always been classed as a cépage noir, although when backlit its translucent ripe berries can evoke a glowing glass of Heinrich Freyheit Gris. In their 1867 Histoire naturelle du Jura, Jean Charles Marie Grenier and Jean-Auguste Étienne praised the “parfum exquis” and “robe d’un clair grenat orange” acquired by mature examples of this “Bordeaux du Jura,” and expressed dismay that it was losing ground to inferior, less demanding varieties. They needn’t have fretted. Poulsard was among the handful of Jura natives to be reinstated post-phylloxera and incorporated into France’s first (1936) appellation contrôlée; with 14 percent of today’s acreage, it’s the region’s dominant non-white grape. And one particular poulsard is the sole 21st-century light red wine to have achieved cult status: Pierre Overnoy and Emmanuel Houillon’s red Arbois Pupillin. This notoriety is rooted not only in unique deliciousness, but also in the octogenarian Overnoy’s status as a guru of sulfur-free winemaking, a family tradition he readopted in 1985, four years before Houillon, at age 14, began helping out, eventually becoming proprietor.
Poulsard is a pretty improbable candidate for fame. The wines seldom exceed 12 percent potential alcohol, and their acidity suggests a red that thinks it’s white. Locals serve poulsard at cellar temperature (whereas they prefer their flagship whites warmer). Poulsard wines are subject to bouts of reduction that, charitably speaking, evoke pork rind. But “like the proverbial naughty little girl,” as Jura expert Wink Lorch puts it, “when it is good, poulsard is very, very good,” yielding fascinating floral and herbal nuances along with tangy, infectiously juicy red currant or sour cherry flavors and mouthwatering salinity.
Good luck locating a bottle of Overnoy and Houillon. But bottlings from Overnoy protégé Philippe Bornard are consistently impressive, if quirky. He labels them “ploussard,” which is how one refers to poulsard in its alleged “birthplace,” Pupillin. Bornard’s Point Barre can conjure faded hibiscus and hyssop, musk and nut oils, with savory undertones of veal stock or beef marrow; La Chamade gains sweetness and spice from its oak upbringing but remains light in color despite three weeks fermenting on the skins. Where Bornard’s poulsards are atypical is in often approaching 13 percent alcohol.
Domaine du Pont de Breux makes a scarce yet affordable poulsard, a fascinating, barely 11 percent alcohol Côtes du Jura rouge from the Jura’s northerly growing area. Distinguished by Kimmeridgian chalk and, nowadays, only sparsely planted, the villages of Salins-les-Bains, Les Arsures and Marnoz, where the estate is based, were singled out by André Julien in his groundbreaking 1832 Topographie de Tous les Vignobles Connus as rivaled solely by Arbois for prémiere classe [sic] Jura red status. One other thing hasn’t changed since Julien’s day, when “clairet”-colored reds were both plentiful and prestigious: poulsard’s pale color (“plutôt légère que foncée”).
Clos Roche Blanche, overlooking the river Cher 30 miles east of Tours, has exercised an influence in favor of pineau d’Aunis disproportional to the diminutive size of its parcel. Didier Barrouillet landed there in 1981—trained as a mathematician and engineer, but by his own admission rootless and restless. Catherine Roussel, who had recently inherited her family’s domaine, asked if he would try running the cellar. When the two retired 34 years later, they left legions of fans, as well as a legacy of pineau d’Aunis partisans in a neighborhood featuring numerous old-vine parcels. “If you have something midway between rosé and red,” Catherine Roussel observed, “people can be standoffish.” So she and Barrouillet determined vintage by vintage whether to render rosé or L’Arpent Rouge, the latter named for an ancient measure of surface area corresponding to their just over one acre of 70-year-old pineau d’Aunis. L’Arpent’s allure included heady scents of freesia and violet, black tea and clove; a caressingly silken palate; luscious sour cherry and pomegranate flavors; and umami-rich suggestions of lobster-shell reduction. The invigoratingly pepper- and chalk-tinged finish is always strikingly buoyant. “It’s the charm of the Loire,” noted Barrouillet when serving this red, “that you can get ripeness at eleven-and-a-half or twelve percent potential alcohol.”
In 2015, Julien Pineau acquired half of the Clos Roche Blanche’s vines. His inaugural Sucettes á l’Aunis, from whole clusters fermented for two weeks, is an ideal introduction to that grape for both fans and skeptics of “natural wine.” It looks like cloudy red raspberry juice but smells and tastes irresistible, conjuring sour cherry and pomegranate on a velvety, succulent palate and finishing with hints of licorice and a musky bite of watermelon radish. Two talented growers based near Cheverny also source old-vine pineau d’Aunis from this stretch of the Cher. Olivier Lemasson’s aptly named Poivre et Sel shares the typical silken texture, levity and floral red-berry alliance, while Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme’s alluringly violet-scented La Tesnière finishes with intriguing hints of iodine. French authorities recently struck pineau d’Aunis from the roster of grapes permitted for wines labeled “AOC Touraine.” These growers continue to blithely ignore that stoplight. They could care less about appellation contrôlée.
This story was featured in W&S December 2017.
illustration by Vivian Ho