Wine has long been tied to power and money. Mr. Vouillamoz poured a wine made from gouais blanc, a white grape that had been banned across Europe, by various royal decrees, since the Middle Ages. Monarchs considered it a peasant grape that made bad wine — “gou,” in medieval French, was a term of derision. Through DNA testing, though, gouais blanc was found to be the “mother” of around 80 modern varieties, including chardonnay.
Throughout the centuries, one monarchy after another decided which noble grapes were to be grown, and then they outlawed others. In the Holy Roman Empire, Frankish wines were favored over ones that were Heunisch (“from the Huns”), a pejorative describing anything from the eastern Slavic lands.
In 1395, the Duke of Burgundy banned gamay (“a very bad and disloyal variety”) and insisted that only pinot noir be planted. For hundreds of years, the wines of the Hapsburg Empire were counted among the world’s most important; once the empire fell, many of its wines were forgotten for almost a century.
Wine has always been intertwined with such geopolitics. Why, for example, don’t more people know about the delicious and good-value wines of southwest France, made from such grapes as braucol from Gaillac, or tannat from Madiran, or négrette from Fronton?
Well, back in the 13th and 14th centuries, the merchants of Bordeaux began to see the wines of southwest France as a threat to their economic interests. So Bordeaux, wanting to keep its dominance over the wine trade with England, decreed that no wine could be traded out of Bordeaux until the majority of Bordelais wine had already been sold. This dealt a crushing blow to the winemakers in southwest France, while keeping the Bordeaux wines, made from noble grapes like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc, on top.
When the winemakers in southwest France could no longer sell wine at premium prices, those areas settled into a provincial backwater. Some of the growers ripped out their vineyards and replanted with noble grapes. Others continued to work with local grapes and made low-cost, everyday “peasant” wine. The rest of the world mostly forgot about braucol and négrette and tannat. Because of Bordeaux’s power and influence, it’s taken more than 500 years for us wine geeks to rediscover the indigenous wines of southwest France.