Tucked into a half-acre of the Willamette Valley resides a viticultural legend, a genetic insurance policy for grape-growers, and a time capsule of grape production. It’s a wine grape that’s responsible for shaping the wine world we live in today, and yet, it goes largely unnoticed, ignored, banished to the annals of viticultural history. It’s Gouais Blanc, the parent grape of over 80 of the most well-known Vitis vinifera varieties in the world. And, with the help of Björnson Vineyard, it’s finding new footing in the United States, far from the vineyards it has historically occupied.
Gouais Blanc is the parent grape of iconic varieties like Gamay, Riesling, and Chardonnay, among many, many others; but, chances are, you won’t come across a bottle of it at your local wine shop. A notoriously high-yielding variety, it was once used to make large quantities of French table wine, but these wines were generally considered to be of low quality, reserved for the peasants working vineyards planted with better grapes destined for the tables of the nobility.
According to José Vouillamoz, grape geneticist and co-author of Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours, high-yielding Gouais Blanc will produce a wine with little aromatics but bracing, unbalanced acidity. “We used to say… that it requires three people to drink it: one drinking and two holding him to prevent the drinker from falling,” he says. This, and the fact that it’s so susceptible to botrytis, led to a sharp decline in Gouais production—very little of it is produced for commercial consumption today.
As the climate continues to warm vineyards across the world and vintners begin to better understand how to control its yields, though, Gouais Blanc may be getting a new lease on life. “When the yields are reduced by appropriate pruning and by green harvesting, the wines are delicately perfumed with aromas of green apple, pear blossom and lemon,” says Vouillamoz. “The structure is rather light, with a pleasant, citrusy finish.”
In the past, cooler temperatures prevented it from developing noticeable aromatics, but higher temperatures are yielding more complex, more interesting wines. Vinification also plays an important role. Mark Björnson, co-founder of Björnson Vineyard, says that their 2022 harvest of Gouais was fermented in a concrete egg, which helped to tame its wild acidity. “People seem to enjoy the wine,” he says. “It reminds me of a Muscadet or Melon de Bourgogne, and… given the good acidity, it should age well.”
Apart from the appeal of experimentation, many believe it’s important to grow Gouais for the purpose of preserving genetic grape diversity, especially in the face of climate change. “I absolutely think it’s important to preserve this grape and several others in the face of continued erratic climate conditions,” says Bree Boskov, MW. The future of our climate is uncertain, and we don’t know which grapes will grow well 10, 20, or 30 years from now, especially as extreme temperatures, increased disease pressure, and drought all take their toll on vineyards. Gouais, however, is believed to be able to withstand warmer temperatures than many other types of grapes. “Given that it ripens later and retains acidity, it should tolerate a warmer climate very well,” says Björnson.
If climate or disease push other varieties to extinction, Gouais Blanc could be used to produce new varieties that are better able to withstand hotter temperatures or increased pest and disease pressure. In the Valais of Switzerland, Gouais Blanc is called Gwäss and was the main variety before the onset of the phylloxera epidemic. According to Josef-Marie Chanton of Chanton Weine, located in the Valais, “Chardonnay, an early ripening variety, has an uncertain future with climate change. Gwäss, as a late-ripening variety, certainly has chances.” Björnson agrees. “Plant breeders and researchers are interested in Gouais for exactly those reasons,” he says.
But Gouais isn’t just relevant from the perspective of genetic diversity. As such a historically crucial grape, its legacy is important on a cultural level as well. For areas that have traditionally grown Gouais, modern-day production of the grape is a way of preserving the past. Chanton Weine is dedicated to preserving many obscure grapes that have grown in the region for centuries, including Plantscher, Himbertscha, and Eyholzer Roter. Gouais Blanc is just another one of those grape varieties that would potentially be lost if it weren’t for the work of the Swiss winery. “I wanted to save from extinction grape varieties that have been cultivated here in Valais for centuries,” explains Chanton.
Gouais Blanc is not native to the Willamette Valley, of course, and Björnson Vineyard is the only winery in the U.S. growing the grape. Here, wine made from Gouais Blanc functions as a novelty, a learning tool to give us more context for how the world of wine has been shaped throughout centuries of history. “Now that it is known as the parent of so many varieties through DNA testing, I don’t think it will ever be allowed to go extinct,” says Björnson. “I grow it to satisfy curiosity; both mine and for others that have never tasted it.” After all, whether you personally appreciate the flavor profile of wine made from Gouais, it’s hard to deny the intrigue of a grape that has played such a significant role in birthing the modern wine industry, especially as it undergoes drastic changes once more.
Growing and making wine from a simple, overly acidic grape may strike some as pointless or unproductive, a waste of land that could be used for Aligoté or Auxerrois or Blaufränkisch, all Gouais Blanc’s offspring. But preserving Gouais, both from a genetic and a historical perspective, can teach us about grape history, about our history, at the critical juncture we now face as a wine community and as a world. What could be more delicious?