The Wines That Haunt Us
What does the term "obscure wine" even mean at the end of 2022? A very special bottle recently put things into perspective.
It’s been more than five years since I wrote the manuscript for Godforsaken Grapes, my book with the unwieldy subtitle: “A Slightly Tipsy Journey Through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine.” In the years since it was published, the whole idea of what we might call “obscure wine” has changed a great deal.
Is there a wine list these days that doesn’t have Austrian grüner veltliner or listán negro from the Canary Islands or an amphora wine from the Republic of Georgia? I’ve had a few Wine People, who read my book post-pandemic, mildly sneer at me about grapes I featured, insisting that Swiss chasselas or altesse from the French Alps, or schiava from Alto Adige or whatever else “isn’t really that obscure.” That’s fine. The world keeps moving forward and the words on the printed page stay the same. It’s all a matter of perspective.
I’ve been rethinking my own ideas about “obscurity” recently, particularly after a memorable dinner with some friends at Chambers in Tribeca. Chambers is the reincarnation of Racines, the beloved “clubhouse for wine nerds,” as Pete Wells writes in his glowing New York Times review. The beverage director at Chambers (and previously Racines) is Pascaline Lepeltier, one of the wine world’s great minds and co-author of The Dirty Guide to Wine. As Wells writes, “Ms. Lepeltier always seems to have the last vintage some cranky old vintner from the Loire made before dying, or the first one from a novice producer in territory everybody else has written off.” Wells was tossing off a clever line there, but it took on a different meaning during our meal.
As we surveyed Lepeltier’s list for a white to pair with our first course of veal sweetbreads, shrimp, and steelhead trout, one bottle immediately jumped out at me: Domaine Belluard ‘Les Alpes’ 2019, which I ordered. Now, by most definitions, this is an obscure wine, made from a grape called gringet of which there are only about 25 hectares in the world. The winemaker, Dominique Belluard, rescued gringet from extinction in his Haute-Savoie village of Ayze, near Chamonix in the Alps.
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I’d visited Domaine Belluard in 2015 with a group called Wine Mosaic, a French organization committed to saving endangered and nearly-extinct grapes. I wrote about this visit in Godforsaken Grapes, where I called gringet “fleshy, crunchy, spicy, pebbly, and possibly even a little peanutty. The gringet was a strange wine—a bad boy who was also a heartthrob.” One of my travel companions, nicknamed Petit Verdot said, “I feel like there is some sort of unknown stone in this.” But what I remember most about our late afternoon visit to Domaine Belluard was a palpable sense of tension.
The sun was setting and we needed to be in Chamonix soon for a dinner. We arrived at Domaine Belluard amid a lot of buzzing activity. The last of the day’s harvest was arriving to be sorted and pressed, while another group seemed to having a drinking party. Cloud of cigarette smoke hung thick through the tasting area of the winery. Belluard sat at a table scattered with empty bottles along with some friends, a Parisian chef who was apparently of some renown, and two women he was vacationing with.
Belluard graciously poured us his wines, but by that time of the day he’d moved from tasting to drinking, and was tipsy and a little irritable. At the time, I chalked it up to our group arriving almost two hours later than we were supposed to. I depicted the tenseness of the visit in the book, and I wish we’d visited under different circumstances.
I never got the chance to return. In June 2021, Belluard tragically took his own life. As Wink Lorch sadly reported at the time in Wine-Searcher:
Along with constant demands to buy stock and increasing requests to visit from sommeliers and wine lovers from around the world, one of the biggest stresses Dominique endured was to find the essential manpower to help in the vineyards. He himself suffered extreme back problems for many years and biodynamics requires much manual labour. Finding a reliable workforce to work in all weathers on steep vineyards (whether full or part-time) is an increasing challenge, especially for biodynamic producers. The stresses, only alluded to here, mount up and those whose exacting standards of winemaking are the highest may be the most affected.
When Lepeltier came back to the table with the 2019 Domaine Belluard Les Alpes, it quietly struck all of us how profound it was to open this bottle on a random rainy November night.
At first, the nose had a little pleasant funk, goats grazing on wildflowers in a beautiful high Alpine pasture, but that quickly blew off and the wine blossomed into something lacy, complex, mineral-driven, and thrilling, at turns rich and then delicate, with layers of fleshy stone fruit, juicy citrus, and cool evergreen forest aromas and flavors.
So those are the tasting notes. So what? How do you drink a wine like this—knowing the underlying tragedy, understanding that you’re drinking one of the last bottles that will ever exist—without some gratitude and self-reflection? A wine like this is deeper than just its obscurity, or scarcity, or whatever it is people brag about when chasing so-called unicorn wines. How do you honor the privilege to drink a bottle like this?
I’ve felt sadness in a wine only a few other times in my life. Once had also been on that Wine Mosaic trip across the Alps. In Valle d’Aosta, on the Italian side, we tasted Giulio Moriondo’s Souche Méres (“Mother Vines”) made from vines planted in 1906, a blend of little-known Alpine grapes like petite rouge, vien de nus, cornalin, fumin, and others. As I wrote about Souche Méres:
I’ve always maintained that wine is not art. My main reason for feeling this way is that, no matter how great the wine, I’ve almost never encountered one that conveys complex emotions like fear or loss or grief in the way a great painting or piece of music can. But in Moriondo’s Souche Méres, in one of the few times in my life, I felt a profound sadness in the wine. I jotted down very few notes that day. Sure, I could tell you that there were autumnal and forest notes and a spicy, smoky character. But there was more to it than that. A few months later, I read wine writer and importer Terry Theise’s description of this exact same wine, Souche Méres. Theise wrote: “I sensed the smell of chimney smoke, which alongside the sweet leaf decay comprised a sort of portrait of the eerie yet comforting tristesse of this season, the moment before the first snows, the last breath of ruddiness and gold.” He added: “Death and beauty often walk arm in arm, after all.” While a little more baroque than I might put it, I couldn’t agree with Theise more.
I’m sure the reason I felt that sadness in Moriondo’s wine was because his vineyards also seemed so precarious. He was a high school teacher, tending to his vines and making wine as a side hustle. I remember my travel companion from Wine Mosaic telling me that they worried about his vineyards in the long-term, such a delicate ecosystem in an uncaring world. At the time, Moriondo, in his late 50s, had no one he was mentoring, and no heir to pass on the knowledge. “He did an amazing job of preserving these varieties,” the guy from Wine Mosaic said. “But he is alone here. The work stops with him.”
I think it too often gets lost just how difficult it is to be a small, high-quality winemaker, trying to grow grapes the right way and to produce something different and extraordinary. The stress of existing within a giant industry that would prefer to eradicate small producers who complicate its marketing of middling industrial wines must be incredible. Equally stressful, though, must be the sudden attention and hype of people who love these quirky, small-production wines—the somms, the journalists, the collectors, the aficionados. I don’t think it’s too much to say that you can sometimes feel this tension in the wines themselves.
This is not to say that wines like Moriondo’s or Belluard’s don’t give pleasure. In fact, as a testament to their excellence, they give incredible pleasure. Belluard’s Les Alpes (perhaps with bitter irony) is actually a joyous wine—which makes the internal struggle of the man himself even more tragic. Still, the fact that great wines can outlive their producer, and be enjoyed years after that person is gone, is part of what makes wine special, and different than just about any other aspect of gastronomy.
I find that the pleasure of drinking a truly rare or obscure wine always has some melancholy to it. As Thiese wrote, “Death and beauty often walk arm in arm, after all.” It’s similar to the way that we experience moments of great happiness along with a twinge of sadness, because they can’t last forever. In that way, wine is no different than the rest of life.
When I read Godforsaken Grapes, I actually wasn’t much of a wine drinker, but I found the premise fascinating. As a commercial cidermaker it made perfect sense that there could be value in wines made from so many different, even obscure varieties, not just the small handful of noble grapes. We are still so early on in our process of discovering or re-discovering what apple varieties truly make an excellent cider, and we have no gatekeepers telling us what is and isn’t good. Random forest seedling crab apple? Hell yeah, let’s ferment it!