What the grape? Gouais blanc

David Brookes
By David Brookes
about 1 year ago
3 min read

There are many under appreciated grape varieties out there that deserve our attention. They deserve a glass to be raised in their general direction and a heartfelt nod of thanks bestowed upon them. It just seems like the polite thing to do. Today, we’ll raise a glass to that little grape variety, gouais blanc, for without its flirty exploits in the vineyard, we would be without some of my, and I’m sure your, favourite grapes. 

You see, gouais blanc has been given a bit of a hard time. It’s been vilified by major wine critics and was once banned in Europe because it was seen as a low quality variety grape. We on the other hand, seeing we are all-inclusive and in general, all-round ace, supportive human beings, will give this fine grape its dues.

You can consider it the viticultural equivalent of the swinging 60s… you know, the letting down of grapey inhibitions, all “free love” and that sort of thing... I’m not here to judge. All I know is, if it wasn’t for the free-spirit of gouais blanc, the varietal landscape today might look very different, as it was the progenitor of around eighty different grape varieties.  

Gouais blanc was widely planted throughout France in the Middle Ages, originally thought to have been transported in from Croatia. And advanced DNA analysis has indicated that ol’ gouais blanc was quite a promiscuous little thing. In those days, it was planted in close proximity to pinot noir and before long, a bit of Barry White on the turntable and one thing led to another and the two grape varieties crossed and the result was, well, you might have heard of it? Chardonnay.

With two such genetically disparate parents, many of the crosses showed a little heterosis over the years and spawned such grape varieties as aligoté, auxerrois, bachet noir, beaunoir, franc noir de la-Haute-Haône, gamay blanc, gloriod, gamay noir, melon de Bourgogne, knipperlé, peurion, roublot, sacy and dameron. Aligoté is lovely and I’m pretty sure gamay is my spirit animal, so I’m pretty happy.

Its dalliances are legendary. A fling with traminer gave us riesling and elbling. Another, this time with chenin blanc gifted us colombard, balzac blanc and meslier saint françois. A tryst with that dubiously named character bastardo resulted in genouillet; yet another with savignin gave us räuschling, petit meslier and aubin and as recently as the 1980s, a late night with gewurztraminer led to a  new grape variety called mennas which is grown in one, solitary vineyard in Switzerland.

Quite a busy little grape variety huh? I only know of one winery in Australia that has a commercially released gouais blanc and that is the amazing Chambers Rosewood in Rutherglen. It’s a fairly neutral wine with Spinal Tap levels of acidity and it really needs some food. Fatty stuff, maybe a plate heaving with charcuterie… that sort of thing.

It’s kind of ironic, that a grape variety, once seen as the ugly duckling in French vineyards, could have such beautiful offspring. So next time you have a glass of chardonnay, riesling or gamay, perhaps raise a glass to good old gouais blanc and give thanks to its delightful, well-behaved children. Merci mon ami!