Centuries ago other grape varieties were used in making Bordeaux wines. Gros Verdot is a grape that seems to have disappeared from Bordeaux and was allegedly used by Château Lafite who used it in 1868 for its blends. Although its not widely planted you can find it in Chile, Argentina and in the California based Meritage wines of the USA.
There seems to be some confusion over the name of Gros Verdot in the states as it is also known as Cabernet Pfeffer. According to some sources Cabernet Pfeffer is a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Trousseau by William Pheffer in the mid to late 1860s in the Los Altos Hills area in California. However some sources quote that DNA testing shows that Cabernet Pfeffer is none other than Gros Verdot. On the odd occasion, the grape has been used to create a varietal wine, reported to offer a rich peppery and spicy character.
Old plots of vines throughout France are a living museum of grape varieties – if you are lucky enough to spot them. Sometimes regional French wines – usually table wines – are made with some of these varieties that have either dropped out of favour or been demolished in the phylloxerra epidemic of the 19th century. Mérille is one such as these – it originates in the Garonne and makes a regional table wine. It must have been more widely used in the past as its synonyms are Plante de Bordeaux and Bordelais!
Most of these old varietals were used in blending wines and you can find wines made with Bouillet and Abouriou on French shelves. There has been a revived interest in rediscovering some of these forgotten grapes - Vin de Pays des Côtes du Tarn Prunelart 2004 is made with Prunelart – an almost extinct variety revived by Plageoles. Robert Plageoles is well known in France for his commitment to using Gaillac's obscure varietals rather than better known and more accessible varietals.
Saint Macaire is another of red grapes of Bordeaux that has become virtually extinct there but has been resurrected in California where it may be used in Meritage reds and in Australia. Back in February mysterious vines, a century old, at La Vielle Chapelle were found to be the Bouchalès grape. Fabienne and Frédéric Mallier have owned La Vielle Chapelle since 2006 and these ancient vines were amongst the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The vineyard is located in Lugon et l'Ile du Carney which lies in the Fronsac AOC and takes its name from a 12th century chapel. Benedictine priests lived at La Vielle Chapelle until 1772.
The Bouchalès grape is said to originate from the Garonne River valley and has virtually disappeared from France's vineyards today. It has several synonym names including Capbreton Rouge and Prolongeau. It's a red grape with medium to small clusters but is susceptible to mildew and botrytis which may explain it's disappearance.
Pontac is another ancient grape that has found new pastures. It was originally native to south west France and may even have links to the Pontac family who owned Chateau Haut Brion in the 16th century. Nowadays the Pontac grape can be found in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa. In the past it was used to make the South African dessert wine Constantia or Vin de Constance which was a favourite of European kings and emperors, such as Frederick the Great and Napoleon who had it ordered from his exile on St Helena.
Apparently Pontac has a tendency to bear biennial fruit and also has the unusual use of monkey deterrence in South Africa. Planted at the end of vine rows, and usually the first vine to attract marauding baboons, it stains their paws with the red juice. Thinking it is blood the creatures depart in a great hurry. The Pontac grape is now becoming increasingly rare and new stocks are hard to find.
It seems to me that Bordeaux is missing out a trick with the loss of these grapes. As varietal wines are becoming increasingly popular and wine lovers want to know more about the grapes that make their wines wouldn't it make sense for Bordeaux to rediscover some of its ancient heritage? There is even a Cabernet Gernischt flourishing away happily in Shandong Province in China. Apparently its name could be a spelling of Cabernet Gemischt once used in France during the 19th century (although I can find no record of it).