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

8/12/21 -

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

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