This isn't Jack & the Beanstalk - this is Nicolas Gonin & the Persan Vine! (MFW Wine Co website)

Winegrowing in the Isere, Part 2: Nicolas Gonin and the region's rare grapes!

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On Monday, we featured the innovative Antoine Depierre, of Domaine Mayoussier, who is planting international grapes, like Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, in the southern part of the Isère near the national park of Vercors. There couldn't be a starker contrast between Antoine and the winemaker we're featuring today, the prolific Nicolas Gonin, who is at the north of the Isère, relatively close to neighboring Bugey. Nicolas is entirely focused on his region's traditional varieties, like Persan, Verdesse, and even rarer examples like Mècle de Bourgoin. "We speak of native yeasts," he explained to me in an email, "but we unfortunately forget to speak about native grapes." To draw out the complete essence of the Isère, Nicolas no doubt believes it's imperative to farm and vinify fruit that boasts local lineage. In the wine community, he's revered for protecting and nurturing the historically important grapes of the French Alps.

Domaine Nicolas Gonin, halfway between Lyon and Grenoble

"Most people of my generation wanted to work in South Africa or New Zealand," Nicolas wrote to me. "Personally, I preferred working in the Loire, Provence, Northern Rhone, and Burgundy... I wanted to discover the real diversity of French wines," he added. "I was working at Tempier when I discovered the existence of Isère grapes," he said, referring to the celebrated estate in Bandol on the Mediterranean coast. During his time there "he found a book that outlined the great old grapes of all the regions of France," according to his importer's website, MFW Wine Co. That was in 1997, and as Wink Lorch put it in her book, Wines of the French Alps, Nicolas caught "the rare grape bug in a big way." Today, he is probably best known for his work with Persan.

In Italy, the red grape Persan is called Becuet. There is some argument whether it originated in France or Italy (or if Becuet is truly Persan at all, actually...), but in his book, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Ian D'Agata suggests it's "more than likely that it was brought over to Piedmont from France." There is a lack of documentation in Italy compared to the substantial proof of early cultivation on the French side of the mountains. In fact, the earliest record of Persan is from 1846, written by Albin Gras, who was both the secretary of the Statistical Society of Isère and a board member of the Agricultural Society of Grenoble. In our correspondence, Nicolas Gonin listed many specific areas that he believes could be the spot of Persan's mysterious provenance, including his own region of Balmes Dauphinoises. He's positive it's from somewhere very close to where he currently grows it. For what it's worth, he's convinced me. But even if Persan first had its roots in the red sands of Mars, nothing changes the fact that this smart and talented winemaker is a master of it. Don't miss the bottle we're featuring here. It's a delicious trip.

Domaine Nicolas Gonin’s 2019 Persan has dark violet color. On the nose, it shows a full force of aromas, with black cherry, plum and red apple. Above the fruit are expressive nuances of espresso, mint, and smoke. The palate is absolutely Alpine in character, with a salty, mineral core that drives flavors of cassis and blackberry. On the wine’s finish, orange peel, black pepper, and dark cocoa appear. I found the structure to be incredibly engaging, with an initial edge that softens with air. After a few hours, a full and tender tannic form develops.

So, if Nicolas only produces wines made with grapes from the Alps, how can we also be offering a Viognier from him today? Well... "In the sixties, Viognier was on the way to disappear. Only fourteen hectares left at this time. Viognier was historically grown in Northern Rhone, in Southern Beaujolais, and in many places of Isère under the name Galopine," Nicolas explained. After citing more evidence, like the time Paul Truel, one of history's most important ampelographers, established "an unidentified grape from Chignan in Savoie as Viognier," Nicolas asked me if I could feel the acidity in his wine. I figured his question was really, "Doesn't this taste like Viognier is home in the Alps?" I'm no real expert on the history of grapes but this wine does have fantastic acidity!

Domaine Nicolas Gonin’s 2019 Viognier shows a full but flashy gold in the glass. Like his Persan, the nose here is powerful in character. Great aromas of apricot, roasted almonds, white tea and fresh pine come first, followed by darker smells of earl grey and smoke. It is just as expressive in flavor, showing papaya, cured lemon, lime zest and salt. A long, minerally finish rides a beam of grand acidity, extending through a generous, supple mouthfeel.

Looking out from Nicolas Gonin's vines (MFW Wine Co website)

In 2005, Nicolas started his domaine in the village of Saint-Chef with vineyards he took over from his uncle. Between then and now, his holdings have grown to a modest 5.5 hectares. He is also the vice president of the Centre of d'Ampélographie Alpine Pierre Galet, a group whose mission "is to save the genetic heritage of grapes and encourage the diversity in the Alpine vineyard environment,"  as Wink describes in her book. Known as CAAPG, it is headed by Michel Grisard, the original force behind Domaine des Ardoisières.

I want to thank Nicolas Gonin for all his responses to my many, many emails. Although he is incredibly serious about his career in the vineyards of the Isère, he is also so full of good spirit and humor. Unfortunately, the stock you see below is all we’re going to be able to snag of his Viognier and Persan until the next shipment reaches our shores. David Hatzopoulos

Nicolas Gonin 2019 Isère - Balmes Dauphinoises Viognier

From Viognier planted in 2009, on slopes with southern exposure in the Isère. Soils are gravely with pebbles onto of a sandstone subsoil. Fermented and aged in tank to preserve the grape's true flavors. This Viognier shows a full but flashy gold in the glass. Like his Persan, the nose here is powerful in character. Great aromas of apricot, roasted almonds, white tea and fresh pine come first, followed by darker smells of earl grey and smoke. It is just as expressive in flavor, showing papaya, cured lemon, lime zest and salt. A long, minerally finish rides a beam of grand acidity, extending through a generous, supple mouthfeel. David Hatzopoulos

  • white
  • 5 in stock
  • $26.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Domaine Mayoussier 2019 Auberives-en-Royans VDF Culotte de Mayoussier

"This is a dry white wine from a blend of Sauvignon and Roussanne. As much as Roussanne is common in the north Rhone and in Savoie (there under the name of Bergeron), cultivating Sauvignon Blanc is unheard of, hence the name of the wine – le culotté, which means “cheeky”. Antoine told us the many struggles he faced with the administration to be able to grow and produce wine from this variety in this area. Harvested by hand, the wine is unfined and unfiltered, vinified and aged on lees in stainless steel tanks for six months." - Roland Benedetti, owner of Living Wine

The color is a glimmering yellow with flashes of green. The nose is fragrant, with ripe pear and yellow apple supporting softer, loose smells of moss, mountain air, and green tea. The palate is rather spicy, with a zip of green pepper, salt, and milled white pepper, before gaining weight on the finish and showing flavors of roasted orchard fruits. The wine has engaging, crunchy minerality and great acidity.  David Hatzopoulos

  • white
  • 2 in stock
  • $32.99

  • Organic
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Nicolas Gonin 2019 Isère - Balmes Dauphinoises Persan

This Persan from the Isère was produced by the fantastic Nicolas Gonin. Fruit was destemmed before a seventeen day maceration. Bottled without fining or filtration. This Persan has dark violet color. On the nose, it shows a full force of aromas, with black cherry, plum and red apple. Above the fruit are expressive nuances of espresso, mint, and smoke. The palate is absolutely Alpine in character, with a salty, mineral core that drives flavors of cassis and blackberry. On the wine’s finish, orange peel, black pepper, and dark cocoa appear. I found the structure to be incredibly engaging, with an initial edge that softens with air. After a few hours, a full and tender tannic form develops. David Hatzopoulos

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $26.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Domaine Mayoussier 2019 Auberives-en-Royans Isere Syrah

Syrah planted on the outskirts of Vercors in the Isere of the French Alps. Land is worked with organic methods by hospitality professional turned winemaker, Antoine Depierre. After two weeks of fermentation the wine ages in neutral barriques.  In the glass, the color is a lighter red, with highlights of violet. The nose has fantastic fruit, showing a medley of raspberry, strawberry, and blueberry. An accent of savory cinnamon and a dash of zingy black minerals adds a lift to the denser aromas of forest berries. On the palate, slim and zesty cassis and cherry are the base for herbaceous mint and black pepper. Not a very tannic wine, it is successfully hinged to a core of great fruit and lovely acidity, and structurally softens on the tongue during a long finish. David Hatzopoulos

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $34.99

  • Organic