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A Case for Cornalin: Why Care About Weird Wine Anyway?

Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Bet you can't try them all.

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As it turns out, the name "Cornalin" is a bit of a problem here—and for producers in Switzerland's Valais and Italy's Valle d'Aosta. As Dr. José Vouillamoz shows off, one bottle labeled Cornalin is actually the Valais' "Rouge du Pays" grape; the other is the Valle d'Aosta's "Cornalin." [Photograph: Sedrik Nemeth]

Wine takes you places. New wine opens doors and makes introductions. I mean this figuratively, of course, but I also mean it very literally: I've met new best friends over shared bottles of wild, uncharted territory. I've gotten to travel to new parts of the world and virtually explore new chambers of my mind and heart simply by saying "yes" to a new, unfamiliar wine.

In fact, I met Dr. José Vouillamoz over a bottle of Cornalin. Well...we didn't actually share a bottle of Cornalin live and in person. But still, a fortuitous meeting ensued:

The very first weird wine grape I stumbled upon after officially embarking on my Wine Grapes journey was Cornalin. The book summarizes it as an "ancient red from the Valle d'Aosta in northern Italy; widespread in the Valais in Switzerland as Humagne Rouge." (As I was to later learn, I was actually drinking a different grape entirely: Rouge du Pays. Huh?! Read on.)

I cracked into a gamy-as-all-getup bottle of 2009 Cornalin Les Bernunes from the producer Cave Caloz in the Valais. The foxy, brambly nose gave way to soft yet bold fig, black raspberry and date fruit. I might have briefly hoped for more acidity—and probably more tannins, too (I like my wines to bite, just a little bit)—but then I got distracted.

Between glasses, I mentioned the Cornalin to my friend Ceri Smith, owner of the tiny gem wine shop Biondivino and new wine bar Et Al (both in San Francisco). "Oh!" she gushed, "You have to meet José!"

As in, Dr. José Vouillamoz, co-author of Wine Grapes. As in, the ampelographic genius responsible for much of the DNA testing that's identified the parentage of many of the 1,368 grapes covered in the tome. As in, the man whose predecessor to Wine Grapes was an über-geeky, written-in-French, Swiss wine grapes book, focusing on the Valais region—home to none other than little old Cornalin.

The wine geek in me got very excited, and I think you will, too, since Ceri introduced me to Dr. Vouillamoz himself, and without further ado, I hereby present to you my interview with him, shedding some light on the difference between Cornalin and Rouge du Pays, and why we should all care about weird wine grapes in the first place...

What do you think about Cornalin? And what would you cook to go with a bottle of it?

First of all, you must know that the prime name of this Valais (Switzerland) variety in Wine Grapes is Rouge du Pays, and that it was inappropriately renamed Cornalin in 1972 by "borrowing" this name from a distinct variety still existing in the Aosta Valley.

In Valais, Cornalin/Rouge du Pays is one of the most ancient grape varieties and is able to give us some of the best reds, but since it is very difficult to tame in the vineyard, it is unfortunately also capable of giving the worst. My recommendation: Domaine des Muses, Cornalin Tradition. It is THE best producer in Valais, to my opinion.

As for cooking to pair with it, it's better for my guests that I do not cook myself! But Cornalin/Rouge du Pays goes well with poultry, game or tasty cheese.

Author's note: It turned out I was drinking Rouge du Pays the whole time! Color me confused.

What exactly is ampelography, and what's the point of it?

It comes from the Greek ampelos, meaning 'grapevine,' and graphos, meaning 'description.' This is the science describing grape varieties according to the shape, size or color of the leaves, bunches, shoots, etc. The real point is to distinguish one grape variety from another. Since 1993, DNA profiling has significantly complemented this science by providing unique profiles for each variety and by discovering unsuspected synonyms (different names for the same variety) and parentages.

Can we get a 20-second version of how grapes first started to create offspring and how come we have so many thousands of different grapes today?

To summarize Wine Grapes in 20 seconds, thank you for the challenge! Let's go: In a natural population of wild grapevines, we usually observe male-only and female-only flowers on a single plant, but 2 to 3% can be hermaphroditic: the flowers having both male and female parts on the same plant. These hermaphroditic plants were domesticated about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago somewhere in the Near East, and frequent crossings among these domesticated plants have created the roughly 5,000 to 10,000 grape varieties in existence today.

Why do you care about specific, rare grapes so much? And why should the rest of us care?

Some of them have had a significant impact on the genesis of what we all drink today: just think that Gouais Blanc, a variety that used to be widespread all over Europe in the Middle Ages and that has today almost disappeared, is the direct parent of more than 80 grape varieties, among which we find Chardonnay, Riesling, Gamay, Blaufänkisch, Furmint, etc.

The rest of you should care about rare and unusual grapes for the sake of diversity in your palate. There are so many different aromas and tastes when you browse the fascinating world of wine grapes!

If each grape has a figurative "mom" and "dad" (and entire family tree), how come they taste so different? Take the newfound relationship between Syrah and Pinot Noir: If they really come from the same family, how come they taste nothing alike?

Do you look, think and behave exactly like your brother/sister/parents? Certainly not, and although we can surely notice some common family traits, you are all distinct individuals with your own personality. After my 2006 discovery of Pinot being most likely the great-grandparent of Syrah, I was surprised to hear many wine professionals telling me how often they mix one for the other in blind tastings!

What "weird" grape do you think is going to be the next to make it big, and why?

Assyrtiko from Santorini island in Greece. It offers good resistance to drought and diseases, and it delivers fantastic aromas and a wonderful citrusy acidity, making excellent dry and sweet wines. It has also very recently been planted in Australia.

If you were a grape, what would you be and why?

I would be a Teroldego in northern Italy, just to be pruned by the lovely Elisabetta Foradori...

2009 Cave Caloz Cornalin Les Bernunes (Valais, Switzerland)
The Grape: Cornalin (aka Rouge du Pays)
The Region: Valais, Switzerland
Retail Price: $40
The Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchant

About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in the new Wine Grapes tome. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks with Friends TV.

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