How Persan found a new lease of life

In the past few months the unusual Savoyard grape Persan attracted attention from American wine lovers in New York and from Vinocamp – the French social media and wine meet-ups. It’s as if there is a rare Alpine grape ripple effect, or perhaps a wonderful spider’s web in which wine professionals and geeks tiptoe around hoping to catch the latest forgotten or rare grape variety.

Back in October a few days before I was due to attend Vinocamp Savoie, a meeting of mainly French wine and social media fans at the Maison de Savoie in Apremont, my friend Arnold Waldstein in New York tagged me in a picture of a bottle of Domaine St-Germain Savoie Persan. It made me smile for there are currently less than ten hectares, or 25 acres in production of the Persan grape, split between several producers.

Persan illustrationI first heard about Persan some years back from Michel Grisard, the energetic Savoie vigneron of Domaine Prieuré St-Christophe, who has devoted the past three decades of his life to various projects including ones to ensure traditional varieties historically grown in Savoie and beyond are properly preserved and recognized. He is currently the president of the Centre Ampélographie Alpine Pierre Galet (CAAPG), Centre for Alpine grape studies named for the author and eminent 20th century grape scientist Pierre Galet, and an organisation that goes from strength to strength.

Persan was once one of the most planted grape varieties in the Isère department, and also in neighbouring Savoie on the south-facing slopes of the Maurienne valley, which runs east of Grenoble through St-Jean de Maurienne to the Fréjus tunnel, a gateway into Italy.

Maurienne vineyard

Young hillside vineyard above the industrial Maurienne valley ©Brett Jones

At a small festival in the rain early last October to celebrate the harvest of Persan recently planted near Princens, thought to be where the grape originated, I learnt how the vineyards all but disappeared from the Maurienne valley partly in the wake of major pollution issues after the 1950s connected with the valley’s huge aluminium industry. The pollution lasted till the 1980s and ironically today, as a group of enthusiasts are reviving old vineyard plots and re-planting new vineyards, alongside plantations of another traditional local product, saffron, the Maurienne valley is most concerned about losing the giant aluminium producer Rio Tinto and the subsequent unemployment. Solid’Art Maurienne the group responsible for the revival of both the saffron and the vineyards are a group that link cultural and traditional activities with providing employment to disabled people, a worthy organisation led by Yves Pasquier.

PersanThe first Savoie Persan that I ever tasted was made by Domaine Grisard (run by Jean-Pierre Grisard, brother of Michel) in 2001. Doubling as a nursery, Grisard sold cuttings to other growers and now, as well as a few blends, you can find at least four other pure Savoie Persan wines, most notable in quality that from Domaine St-Germain and from Adrien Berlioz of Cellier de Cray. There are also several IGPs (the former Vin de Pays category) from Isère, particularly good is that of Nicolas Gonin (IGP Balmes Dauphinoises). The grape gives wines of deep red colour, with a corresponding inky and dark mulberry fruit, sometimes herbal nose with a well-structured palate that can be overly acidic if not handled well. Persan is certainly as interesting as the main indigenous Savoie red grape Mondeuse, in terms of both quality and ageing ability. According to Wine Grapes, Persan is identical to the just as rare Bécuet grown in the Val du Susa in Piemonte and part of the blend making up the delicious Ramié from Daniele Coutandin.

At one of the discussions at the Savoie Vinocamp a few local winegrowers joined the wine bloggers and social media experts to discuss how Savoie could raise its profile through social media. It turned out that hardly any producers were on Facebook (Michel Grisard, an honourable exception) and they had not realized how important this medium was, in particular for communicating about Savoie beyond France’s borders. I told my story about the photo of Persan (which many Vinocampeurs had never tasted themselves until later that day) on Facebook, and how I believed – and someone else confirmed – that there were more Savoie wines available in New York than Paris. I think it set Savoyard minds turning … slowly.

CAAPG

Roger Raffin and Michel Grisard at back (founders of the CAAPG) with José Vouillamoz having his ear bent by 93-year old Pierre Galet

Rare grapes postscript
Some of the Persan wines I tasted recently were at the very stimulating Rencontre Ampélographique (grape variety encounter) after the annual general meeting of the CAAPG earlier this month, at which both José Vouillamoz and Pierre Galet (now 93) were present and speaking.

Interest in rare grapes is taking on real momentum right now, encouraged partly I believe by the appearance of José, Julia Harding and Jancis Robinson’s new Wine Grapes book, but also by several independent initiatives being set up around France and beyond, with whom the CAAPG maintains friendly links.

One such is Wine Mosaic established by Jean-Luc Etievent who also went to EWBC in Turkey, as did José Vouillamoz, and where we all had the pleasure of discovering the fabulous heritage of rare grapes in Turkey as well as hearing José, together with Dr Patrick McGovern discuss the origins of vitis vinifera. Wine Mosaic has a focus on rare Mediterranean grapes and hopes to stage a symposium on this theme in Porto in the autumn. Another is Cépages Modestes, an annual get-together orchestrated by a group of keen wine amateurs and supported by Gaillac vigneron Robert Plageoles. Their next meeting is also in the autumn.

The theme of the CAAPG meeting was about grape conservatories around the world and how to raise awareness of their existence with wine consumers. Many exciting initiatives are happening in Europe, though some sadly are hampered – especially in Italy – by financial constraints.

Rare grapes vineyard

What rare grapes are hidden here? ©Brett Jones

Through Facebook I learned this week from Nicolas Gonin, Vice-President of CAAPG that the Isère Agricultural Office is providing a trainee to help work on re-establishing plantings of some of the rarest and most recently discovered grapes in that region. Of course, raising awareness of these issues can and does to an extent happen through social media – thank goodness some #WineLovers at EWBC encouraged José Vouillamoz onto Twitter!

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8 thoughts on “How Persan found a new lease of life

  1. Harold Partain

    Wink you simply continue to amaze me with the hidden treasures in your neck of the woods (vineyards, I correct myself)… Truly fascinating. Thanks for all your efforts to promote these remote areas.

    1. Wink Lorch

      Thank you, Harold – it’s really good that you appreciate this vocally! And, believe you me, if I had time to do more for them I would, as it is all so fascinating!

  2. Arnold Waldstein

    Nice…thanks Wink.

    Years ago I wrote a post about the perfectwave of convergence between the artisanal wine movement, the internet and the changes in consumer behavior. We could add the interest in and support of indigenous grapes.

    These connections inspire me. The web has made possible that small winemakers can make honest, natural wine (don’t fight me please!) and find global markets that uplift them as brands and let them financially pursue their dreams.

    Great stuff. I love living inside this bubble!

    And I really do enjoy Persan.

  3. Wink Lorch

    Arnold, I just love the fact that you and your fellow New Yorkers get a small allocation of the tiny number of bottles available made with Persan and other rare grapes, all because certain producers know you appreciate it 🙂

    1. Arnold Waldstein

      Yes we do!

      I’m really interested in the idea of mini festivals around regions and grapes.

      There are probably a dozen shops for example that sell Persan and have a strong passion for Savoie. Be really fun to have a Saturday cross city tasting and raise awareness.

      Just of of the things I’m planning for the new theLocalsip.

      Have a great weekend.

  4. Georges Meekers

    Did I read correctly: there’s less of 10 ha of Persan in the world!? That’s even less than there’s to be found of the native Maltese grape Ġellewża! I can’t wait to taste it for the first time…

    1. Wink Lorch

      Hello Georges,
      In Wine Grapes it’s stated as 9ha, so I estimated under 10ha – that figure is probably ‘in production’ right now, but there may be a little more coming on stream. There is a wealth of rare grape varieties in the Alpine valleys in particular – Savoie, Aosta and Valais/Switzerland all with tiny quantities, either that have been rescued like Persan, or who have managed to survive thanks to one or two producers. Good to know that Malta has these rarities too.

      As for tasting Persan, well apart from in the region, NYC is your best chance!
      Wink

  5. Charles Neal

    Nice article Wink! Let it be known that Persan is not just available in the US state of New York, but nearly 600 bottles of Jean-Francois Quenard’s beauty came in for California, North Carolina, Washington and a couple of other states too!