29 Jun 2014

It's a quaint and not altogether satisfying descriptor but "alternative varieties" seems to have some public acceptance when people want to talk about grape varieties that are not mainstream. We all know what these mainstream varieties are--you can see them in any bottle shop, any restaurant wine list and indeed on the counter at Squitchy Lane. And they are mainstream because they have proven themselves capable of providing great wine when grown in the right place, in the right way and very good wine in most other places.
Let's not forget, however, that there are several thousand grape varieties that can be used to make wine. Some are great, some good, many ordinary and some downright poor. Many are hardly known outside their regional homes, many are in danger of extinction and many perhaps have yet to show their true colours.
I am writing this blog after a recent trip to France where I had the opportunity to taste many great wines, visit some famous chateaux and indulge in the gastronomic treasure that is France. All this was wonderful but two vinous memories linger above all else--the first removed a prejudice I had held unreasonably for too long and the second featured the discovery of a variety I had only heard about.
The prejudice concerned Cabernet Franc from the Loire--many of these that I had tasted in Australia were green, hard, thin and often marred by Brettanomyces. On my second day in France I was in Saumur, the famous equestrian town on the Loire River. At dinner that night I chose a wine from Saumur-Champigny, a small appellation in a privileged position on a small plateau above the Loire. It was an excellent wine--smooth, rich, generous and as the back label said "charnu" which I interpret as fleshy. I chased down some more Saumur-Champigny wines and was never less than impressed. What's more, the price was right--no more than 10-12 euros a bottle and often less. One less prejudice and a more open-minded view of wine!

The alternative variety was the name in the title of this blog--Fer Servadou. This grape has a reasonably wide spread across the south of France and in particular, the south-west, but it is not common anywhere except in the small appellation of Marcillac. Here it is the chief red grape with a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot allowed to be used.
The origin of the name is poetically linked to the hardness of the vine's wood, likened to iron. However, an alternative and probably more likely explanation suggests that the name comes from the Latin "ferus" meaning wild or savage (see the excellent "Wine Grapes" by Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz for more information).

(Terraced vineyards of Marcillac)

No matter what the origin of the name, there is no doubting the quality of the wine. It's full of fruit (raspberry, redcurrant and some more black fruit characters in the riper versions), vibrant, never heavy and always eminently drinkable. It was certainly thus at our 5-course, 15 euro lunch one rainy day in a "routier" near Marcillac (itself a beautiful and unusual region). The experts talk about a certain "rusticity" in the wines although I have to confess i am not at all sure what that means. The sense seems to be that it is not entirely a negative but it is certainly not a real positive. More tasting on my part is needed.
Some limited research indicates that Fer Servadou is growing in popularity and that growers in Marcillac are committed to increasing quality. I am all for that and hope to talk about some other interesting varieties in this blog. It's a wonderful world of wine out there....