10 Grape Myths and Legends

10 Grape Myths and Legends

A good story is a great aid for a winery or a region. It adds romance, it makes the place memorable and people like to remember little stories and facts to tell their friends. The wine trade has an absolutely vast repository of stories to draw on. Wine seeps through the pages of human history at every corner. Sometimes it’s integral to the moment in question, at other times it’s a bit player but it’s certainly there.

The problem is, not every story being told today about wine is true. Facts get half-forgotten and they’re confused with something else in the re-telling. It’s the same with famous movie lines.

In The Empire Strikes Back for example, Darth Vader’s immortal line to Luke Skywalker is not delivered in the way you are almost certainly imagining it. You’ve added a word that isn’t there. It’s not much but it’s an example of how something incredibly well-known and famous can be changed over time to make it not quite right. It’s the same in Casablanca where Rick never actually tells Sam to “play it again”, not like that anyway. Go and look it up if you don’t believe me.

There are all kinds of little facts and myths in the wine trade and while plenty are thoroughly charming, it doesn’t hurt to give them a debunking every once in a while.

Armed, therefore, with a copy of Wine Grapes, here are nine myths concerning famous grape varieties that aren’t true – and one that (probably) is.

1. Syrah

The myth: ‘It’s originally from Shiraz in Iran’

There are several origin myths for Syrah which suggest its home region was everywhere from Iran to Syria to Albania, Greece and even Egypt.

Possibly the most famous and enduring of all grape myths is that Syrah or Shiraz is a grape variety that originated near the ancient city of Shiraz in Iran.

This myth took off in part, no doubt, because the city of Shiraz has a well-documented and important role in the very earliest days of viticulture and produced ‘Shirazi’ wine. Not only is there evidence of winemaking in Shiraz in the early Bronze Age when it may have been a supplier to the early civilisations of Mesopotamia, as late as the 18th  century, French and English travellers to the area were singing the wine’s praises.

How it made its way to the Rhône is generally attributed to Roman soldiers who perhaps picked it up during a campaign against the Persians and then took cuttings when redeployed to Gaul. Another story has it that it was the emperor Probus (more on him later) whose troops brought it into the area around 280 AD from Syracuse (see?) on their march to Lugdunum (Lyon).

Yet another theory holds that the Phoceans, the Greeks who founded Marseilles, were the ones that brought the grape with them and that it then spread due to their contact with the local Celts.

Finally, there is the tale of the variety being brought back to the Rhône by a crusader knight returning from any of the crusades that occurred between 1095 and 1291. This also ties in neatly with the legend of the chapel on top of the hill of Hermitage which was supposedly founded by a crusader called Gaspare de Sterimberg (readers will note that invading armies taking grapes back home with them is a common theme in these tales).

The truth: Exotic as these stories are there’s absolutely no concrete truth to any of them. The link with Shiraz was likely concocted by French travellers to Iran in the 17th and 18th century who were enthused by the wines of Shiraz and made up a link between those wines and the grape. The link was given greater credence when it was noted down by James Busby while he was in France finding grapes to bring back to Australia. Not that he necessarily believed it but he wrote down it was what some said and over time this has come to be seen as a stamp of authenticity.

Busby certainly referred to it as ‘Scyras’, which was used in conjunction with ‘Hermitage’ in Australia as the name for the grape before ‘Shiraz’ (which is likely a ‘strinization‘ of ‘Scyras’) came to be the accepted term.

DNA research in 1998 revealed Syrah’s parents to be Mondeuse Blanche (its mother) and Dureza (the father), both old varieties native to the modern departments of the Ain, Isère, Drôme and Haute-Savoie.

It is more likely that Syrah emerged in the Rhône at some point (and saying when is again impossible) and its ancestors, the proto-Mondeuse family, were possibly cultivated by the Celtic tribe in this area, the Allobroges and subsequently the Romans.

2. Chardonnay

The myth: ‘It was brought back from the Lebanon by crusaders’

One of the most well-known grape varieties in the world and one both lauded and vilified in equal measure.

The now oft-retold story of drinkers saying they don’t like Chardonnay but love Chablis and Champagne is perhaps the better known now but there is a hypothesis that Chardonnay originated in the Lebanon.

Obaideh is a native grape to the Middle Eastern country and there are many who say it is Chardonnay.

As with Syrah, it is sometimes argued that crusading Franks picked up a taste for the local wine on their campaigns and made sure to take some seeds or cuttings back home with them.

The truth: They didn’t. There is an, as yet, unproven link that Obaideh is related to Chardonnay but if it is then it will have been a European bringing it to the Levant and not the other way round.

Chardonnay itself has been shown to be an offspring of that famous viticultural partnership, Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc.

The first recorded mention of it is in the late 1680s in the village of Saint-Sorlin (now La Roche-Vineuse) in southern Burgundy, where it is mentioned in various sources that the best white wine in the area is made from ‘chardonnet’.

Its final name was taken from another nearby village, Chardonnay, but the spelling did not become standard until the 20th century.

3. Pedro Ximénez

The myth: ‘It was brought back from Germany by a Spanish soldier’

The grape that makes the darkest and stickiest and sweetest of all Sherries, was originally from the Rhineland.

At least, that’s the story. In 1661 the German ampelographer Dr Sachs suggested, in a highly improbably chain of events, that the grape was originally from either the Canary Islands or Madeira, was later brought to the German Rhineland (through various unexplained reasons and adventures) and from there was picked up by a Spanish soldier or Cardinal (called ‘Ximénez’) and taken to southern Spain.

The truth: It’s an odd story and while there were a lot of Spanish in the Rhineland in the late 16th and early to mid 17th centuries where they were fighting the Dutch and Ximénez is a common name in southern Spain, none of it stacks up.

Most importantly of all, the DNA evidence places it firmly in Andalucía where one parent was very likely the table grape ‘Gibi’ – an Arabic variety probably introduced by the Moors during their long rule in Spain.

The ‘German’ story was backed up and spread by some German writers in the 19th century and they even suggested it was linked to Elbling and Riesling.

This is pure Germanic mythmaking in the very finest 19th century style. The grape may have been named after a man called Pedro Ximénez and maybe he did serve as a soldier before turning his hand to winemaking but the grape is very definitely Spanish.

For one thing, PX would never ripen in Germany particularly during the mini ice age that was experienced in the 17th century so why would any right-minded winzer be growing it there?

4. Tokay d’Alsace

The myth: ‘Pinot Gris is originally from Hungary’

This is a multi-layered myth but which essentially boils down to the argument that an Austrian general brought Pinot Gris cuttings back from Hungary to Alsace (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) and that’s how it got the name ‘Tokay d’Alsace’.

The truth: Pinot Gris has been pretty well documented from the Middle Ages. A colour mutation of Pinot Noir, it was probably referred to as ‘Fromentau’ and its home was Burgundy, although it may have spread to Switzerland and western Germany too. In fact the first reliable mention of it is 1711 when it was found in the garden of one Johann Seger Ruland in Speyer; which is why it’s still sometimes referred to as ‘Rülander’ in Germanic countries.

The legend though is that it became a favourite of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV who sent some back to Hungary in about 1375 where it was grown by Cistercians near Lake Balaton. Its Hungarian name of ‘Szürkebarát’ meaning ‘grey monk’ is used to back this hypothesis up.

A little later, in 1568, the story goes on, an Austrian noble and soldier, Lazarus von Schwendi, had the variety reintroduced to Alsace.

Appointed as the governor or constable of Tokay by the emperor Charles V, Schwendi also owned lands around Kientzheim in Alsace. This explains why Pinot Gris was given the synonym Tokay d’Alsace.

Except it almost certainly isn’t. It is far more likely that Pinot Gris was already being used to make sweet wines in Alsace by this date (as they still are today) and as Tokaji was then as it is now one of the most famous and sought after wines in the world, local vintners probably decided to cash in on the name to make their wines easier to sell (and for higher prices).

When Hungary began negotiations to join the European Union it was realised the name would have to go from Alsace due to the protected designation of origin laws the EU had introduced in 1980 and while a deadline of 2007 was set, most producers changed over to just ‘Pinot Gris’ several years before that date.

5. Gamay

The myth: ‘It was banished to Beaujolais from the Côte d’Or’

Poor Gamay, like Chardonnay another offspring of Pinot Noir and Gouais, as soon as it appeared it was damned and cursed as “disloyal” by the big bad Duke of Burgundy who banished it from the Côte d’Or, deeming it worthy only to grow in Beaujolais to the south.

The truth: Gamay did indeed appear in the Côte d’Or, probably in the 13th century though possibly as late as 1360.

Easy to grow and with a bigger crop than the finicky Pinot Noir, it quickly found a following among vine growers keen for a cash crop after years of their land being ravaged by war and plague.

The new variety was considered inferior to Pinot and the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, made great pains to see it did not supplant his preferred grape.

In order to keep the quality of Burgundian wine high he ordered Gamay to be grubbed up and called it “disloyal” (possibly meaning it was disloyal of his subjects to grow it).

So far, so close to the legend. There are important differences though and the reasons behind the duke’s actions are all laid out here.

The biggest myth is that he banished it to Beaujolais which he most explicitly did not do.

In 1395 when he issued his ban, Beaujolais was ruled by the Dukes of Bourbon, not Burgundy so it wouldn’t have crossed his mind to send it there.

As it happened his call for the extirpation of Gamay was not widely heeded. Philip sacked one mayor of Dijon for failing to enforce his wishes and the grape kept coming back as his grandson (Philip the Good) in the 15th century also ordered the “good people” of Dijon and Beaune not to plant it anymore, as did future dukes well into the 18th century.

Gamay probably didn’t become the main grape of Beaujolais until the 17th century.

6. Viognier

The myth: ‘It was introduced to the Rhône by the Romans’

Another Roman myth and, like Syrah, one with a link to that most vine-friendly of emperors, Probus.

Hailing from the province of Illyria Probus is (or rather his soldiers are) reputed to have taken the grape from the Dalmatian coast to the Rhône in the third century AD; sometimes it’s on the same trip as Syrah, which in that particular alternate universe is coming up from Syracuse.

Another entertaining tale says it was being taken up-river to Beaujolais when the boat the cuttings were on was captured by pirates who were based in Condrieu. Neat!

The truth: And all untrue. Once again there is absolutely no genetic link to any plant material currently grown in Croatia and every other link possible to grapes that have likely been growing in the Rhône for many hundreds if not thousands of years.

A link has been established with Mondeuse Blanche but whether it’s a parent or an offspring of that variety is unclear. As such it is either a grandparent or half sibling to Syrah.

7. Falanghina Flegrea

The myth: ‘It was the grape “Falernian” wine was made from’

Falernian wine was the most famous in all of ancient Rome. Made from vines grown on Mount Falernus on the border of Latium and Camapania, Falernian is mentioned by Roman writers and poets from Horace to Varro, Galen and Pliny the Elder, the latter also mentioning that the 121 BC vintage was served to Julius Caesar in 60 BC and the grape behind it all was Falanghina.

The truth: Falanghina is certainly a very old variety and possibly was brought to Italy by Greek colonists in the seventh century BC.

Again, there is no current link known between it and any modern Greek varieties and the Greeks did call Italy, ‘Enotria’ because of the abundance of vines they found there so perhaps it’s always been Italian.

Falernian wine was certainly among the most highly regarded wines available to the Romans and is mentioned by the great writers and was drunk by Caesar and co.

As to the claim it was Falanghina that was used to make Falernian, this likely stems from one of its synonyms, ‘Uva Falerna’.

However, there were three vineyards used by the Romans to make Falernian and there’s no record as to what grapes they used, it was probably a mix of varieties of which Falanghina may have been one.

8. Altesse

The myth: ‘It’s from Byzantium and is identical to Furmint’

A supposed eastern origin and a case of mistaken identity, it’s the stuff of penny dreadfuls and rip-roaring yarns. The signature white grape of Savoie (Savoy) so the story goes, was originally grown around Byzantium or Cyprus.

Altesse’s roots in the eastern Mediterranean normally revolve around one of two counts/dukes of Savoy.

The first is that Count Amadeus VI (pictured), who supposedly brought the variety back to his mountain domains after a campaign against the Ottomans alongside his cousin, the Byzantine emperor John V Palaiologos, in 1366-67.

Another Greek origin is suggested through Louis of Savoy, second son of Duke Louis, who married Charlotte of Cyprus in 1459.

King of Cyprus and titular King of Jerusalem and Armenian Cilicia, Louis and Charlotte were deposed in 1464, whereupon they returned to his family’s lands in Europe bringing the grape with them, presumably because it had been the source of their favourite wine.

Its connection, through either figure, with the ruling house of Savoy and the fact it had ducal favour and graced their tables, thus gave rise to its name ‘Altesse’, which means ‘highness’.

Another theory is that it is identical to Furmint and has been masquerading under another name for centuries. The popularity of Furmint and Tokaji in royal courts across Europe caused it to be given the synonym ‘Altesse’ as a result.

The truth: Although for many years ampelographers were fairly open to the idea that Altesse may have an eastern origin, there have always been doubts as well.

The Marquis Costa de Beauregard, writing in 1774, puts the case for Altesse being brought back from Cyprus by Louis and Charlotte but he horribly mangles the family genealogy.

To begin with, he states that, “it is known that Louis II, Duke of Savoy, succeeded Amadeus IV.”

He didn’t, however. There has only been one Duke Louis of Savoy and he ruled from 1434-65 and his father was Amadeus VIII.

Amadeus IV ruled from 1233-53, before the rule of Amadeus VI in 1343-83 even, so for him to have been Louis’s father would be a miraculous turn of events. Perhaps the Marquis confused his Amadeii?

The Greek link was dealt a fatal blow in more recent years by genetic studies which showed it is very close to Chasselas which is known to have originated around Lake Geneva.

Modern DNA techniques have thoroughly disproved Altesse is related to Furmint in any way and even the etymology of the name has changed through further study. The accepted root now is that Altesse probably originates from the name local name for terraces where the grape has long been grown.

Altesse is a native Savoyard.

9. Furmint

The myth: ‘Furmint is from Italy’

Furmint’s confusion with Altesse was covered in the previous slide but there have also been persistent legends about it having an Italian origin.

Like all good legends there is never one concrete story but the two most plausible centre around the Middle Ages.

In the first instance it is suggested that Italian monks invited in by Stephen II in the 12th century brought the grape with them, likely for use in the Eucharist and/or to provide wine for their new monastic community.

Another story from around 1250 says that, following the devastation of Hungary by the Mongols, King Béla IV called for foreign workers, particularly those with viticultural knowledge, and many people from the town of Formia in Lazio answered the call, bringing their local grapes with them.

The rather taller tale concerns an Italian soldier during the Seven Years War (1756-63) called Forment. Apparently so-called after the Italian for wheat (‘fromento’) because of his reddish-blond beard, Forment distinguished himself during the war and was made Count Formentin and given land in Tokay by a grateful Empress Maria Theresa. Whereupon, of course, he swiftly introduced Furmint from his homeland of Friuli.

The Italian connection is sometimes supported by the idea that its name derives from ‘fiore dei monti’ (flower of the mountains).

The truth: Although one of Furmint’s parents is Gouais Blanc (making it a half-sibling of Chardonnay, Gamay and Riesling among others), Furmint is very solidly Hungarian.

Appealing as the picaresque tale of the Count of Formentin is, we have documentary evidence of Furmint being grown in Hungary a good 200 years before the outbreak of the Seven Years War.

The earlier Italian connections are also, at most, highly improbable. To begin with Furmint has never been observed or documented in Italy.

Secondly, Furmint has no genetic link to any other grape variety being grown in the Italian peninsula today.

One might argue that the missing link was lost to us forever due to phylloxera and it’s ‘possible’ but given the huge number of grape varieties that still exist in Italy, the fact Furmint can’t be linked to any of them makes the hypothesis highly suspect.

10. And the one that is likely to be true? – Merlot

The myth: ‘Merlot means “blackbird” in French’

People have always thought up stories for how plants and animals got their names, how the leopard got is spots and so on. The folklore in southwestern France is that Merlot got its name from the blackbird.

Not only is it the bird called ‘merle‘ in French, the black grapes of the vine match the blackbird’s plumage and the animal has a particular fondness for the fruit.

The truth: Although blackbirds may not be the greatest scourge known to Merlot-growers, the etymology of its name is, in all likelihood, true.

The earliest mention of Merlot in Libourne is dated to 1783-4 where it is described as making, “a black and excellent wine”. A further treatise on the grape in 1824 introduces the modern spelling and explains: “The name merlot was given to this variety because the blackbird likes this grape very much.”

The link is made all the stronger because although the French for blackbird is already a very close fit, in the local Occitan dialect its name is ‘merlau‘, which is even closer as you’ll no doubt agree.

Stories like these have always been an important part of the human experience and have shaped the world we live in. Next time you are in San Francisco, be sure to drop by our showroom at 2337 Ocean Avenue and let’s swap tales of Napa Wine! Or, if you can’t make it in, give me a call or shoot me an email!