Sommelier Alex Augustine from Aba in Chicago credits Trousseau for his decision to become a wine professional. He tried it for the first time on a trip to the Jura, a region in eastern France wedged between Burgundy and Switzerland where the grape originated. “I’d never had wine that was as complex and savory, plus a little funky,” he explains. “It changed my whole opinion about wine.”
Augustine isn’t alone in his fascination with this once-obscure grape, which has become a darling of the natural wine movement in the last decade. When Braithe Tidwell, wine director at Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans, originally sampled Trousseau, she was struck by “how musky and different it was,” she says. “I like that it’s light-bodied, yet richly textured, and a lower-alcohol wine.”
Luckily for Trousseau fans, the grape’s plantings have been increasing of late—yet far from its native territory. American winemakers throughout Oregon and California are cultivating both Trousseau Noir and Trousseau Gris to craft a range of intriguing still, sparkling, fortified, and skin-contact wines.
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“Being from the Jura, Trousseau has become sort of iconic,” says Tidwell. “The natural wine movement has been so huge in shaping our thinking for the last 10 years, and I believe more and more American producers will be following what we’ve seen in the Jura and plantings will continue to grow.”
Trousseau’s Old World Origins
According to Fanny Breuil, export director for Genuine Wines, winemakers in Jura prized the grape so highly that when the threat of phylloxera was looming in 1896, Trousseau was one of the few varieties they selected to replant. Its status was affirmed when it was one of five grapes included in the Arbois AOC in 1936—one of France’s first AOCs.
“Trousseau was originally used as a blending grape, but in the 1970s, it started appearing as a single-variety red wine,” Breuil describes. Domaine Rolet from Arbois was the first in France to produce a 100 percent Trousseau wine, soon followed by other locals who began to recognize its potential. With approachable tannins yet some structure, it’s generally marked by delicate cherry and plum flavors when young, she explains, then takes on earthy leather characteristics over time.
Trousseau made its way to the Iberian Peninsula in the 1800s and has become a treasured staple for many producers throughout Spain and Portugal. Known as Merenzao, Maturana Tinta, Tintilla, and Verdejo Negro in Spain, the variety is now cultivated on on 736 acres and growing. It is one of the preferred red varieties of the DO Monterrei in Galicia, having become more prized in recent years, reports Natalia Gonzáles, a representative of the DO organization.
“In Galicia, Merenzao was extensively used for more than 200 years, so although the origins come from France, it is considered a local variety,” said Robert Penades, brand manager for Iberia Wines. It’s also recognized by the DO Ribeira Sacra and, more recently, the IGP Tierra de Barbanza e Iria. Used mostly for reds, the well-known Rías Baixas producer Martín Códax is now making a Merenzao rosé.
Portugal is home to more Trousseau plantings than any other country. Known locally as Bastardo or Graciosa, it’s primarily grown in the Douro (with some pockets in the Beira Interior and Dão) and mostly sold to port producers. In hot climates, the grape ripens very fast, produces a high level of alcohol, and provides a different flavor and lower level of tannin than many Portuguese grapes.
Some wineries are saving a portion of their Bastardo for still wines, however. “Bastardo has to be picked before everything else, and because we had to pick it earlier, we realized it’s quite a different variety,” says Rita Ferreira Marques of Conceito Wines. “It’s lighter in color, especially compared to other Douro reds.”
While most Douro reds tend to be highly concentrated and fruit-driven, “Bastardo is the opposite of that,” explains Marques. “It speaks to the style wine somms and consumers are increasingly drawn to: lighter, less concentrated, more savory.”
An American Future?
Given Trousseau’s propensity to ripen fast in hot climates, its success stories are in cooler areas, including Santa Barbara, Sonoma, and the Willamette Valley.
“Trousseau must be planted in well-draining soil that won’t retain too much humidity, as well as one that has deep water reserves,” says Breuil. In the 20th century, most Portuguese vineyards stopped planting it because it can be finicky and sensitive to disease. Even in the Jura, where it thrives in the marl soils covered by stones called limestone screes, which allow for draining yet help retain water, only 10 percent of the area’s acreage is suitable for the grape to grow successfully.
Jason Lett, winemaker at The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, became convinced that his region shared similar climatic conditions to the Jura and planted a small plot of Trousseau a decade ago. It has thrived, showcasing the grape’s characteristic combination of “wild, musky, mossy aromas, sort of like walking in a forest, combined with intense fruit,” he describes.
Trousseau has a higher amount of natural tannin than many other light-bodied red wines, which he believes makes it well-suited for low or no sulfur winemaking techniques. “It’s low-alcohol, fruity, and refreshing—a great bridge wine with food,” says Lett.
Steven Thompson at Analemma Wines has 2.5 acres planted to Trousseau Noir at the Mosier Hills Estate Vineyard in the Columbia River Gorge AVA—and plans to plant more. It grows alongside other common Galician grapes, including Mencia and Godello. “Trousseau expresses itself very authentically in the Columbia Gorge and other Pacific Northwest AVAs in general,” he says.
Sommelier and winemaker Rajat Parr is making Trousseau Noir from a 3.5-acre plot owned by Stolpman Vineyards on the Central Coast under his Combe label. He crafts it traditionally: whole cluster fermentation in concrete tanks, followed by six to eight months of aging in concrete or a mix of concrete and neutral barrels. He also makes a pale pink Trousseau pet-nat. “It’s not a high-acid grape to start with—it’s just simple and delicious,” says Parr.
“We have grown Bastardo since 1997 and used it as one of five varieties in our Portuguese/Douro style ports since 1999,” says Dr. Earl Jones with Abacela in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. “One year, we had excess fruit and bottled a 100 percent Bastardo. We think the grape contributes tangerine-like aromatics to the ports, while the red table wine didn’t show similar aromatics; given that port and table wine are so different, that’s not particularly surprising.”
Trousseau’s Grey Twin
Even rarer than Trousseau Noir is Trousseau Gris, which winemakers use to make whites and rosés. In Jura, Trousseau Gris is always used in field blends.
William Allen winemaker and owner at Two Shepherds in Sonoma has been making a Trousseau Gris rosé for the last several years, sourcing grapes from Fanucchi Vineyards’ 10-acre plot in the Russian River Valley. “It’s a travesty to not showcase the grape in the most wonderful way you can,” he says. “Grey grapes have such a unique flavor, and they have such an interesting expression. Skin contact is transformative.”
He has experimented with numerous maceration types, from no skin contact to 14 days, stem and no stem. “By keeping it five days on the skin, we pick up really good aromatics and saline notes,” explains Allen. “Destemming provides freshness and vibrancy, creating a really good, salty rosé. Most people who try it fall in love with it.”
The Learning Curve Begins
Pax Mahle with Pax Wines in Sebastopol, who makes a white Trousseau with grapes from Fanucchi and a red Trousseau with grapes from his own 2.5-acre vineyard, believes American winemakers still have a lot to learn about the grape. “It’s been made in Jura for hundreds of years and is still superior,” he says. “We’re very much just scratching the surface.” It’s still unusual to find Trousseau Noir outside a field blend, and varietal bottlings are very recent. “We’re starting to understand the variety better and make some legit Trousseau Noir, yet I think we have a long way to go.”
In addition to catching up to Europeans’ centuries-old head start, one of the challenges for American viticulturalists remains finding the right places to plant. “A lot of people want to make it, but they don’t have appropriate sites for it,” said Turley Wine Cellars’ director of winemaking Tegan Passalacqua, who makes a Trousseau Noir under his Sandlands label using grapes from the single acre parcel at Bohan Ranch in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. “You need sites that are cooler and rockier,” he adds. But many of those spots are also appropriate for Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Whether people are willing to take a risk on a relative newcomer over these established grapes remains to be seen.
Despite this, Augustine remains bullish on American Trousseau. “Alpine-style wines like these are really fun and really great with food,” he says. “But I think the most exciting wines being made with Trousseau are the domestic ones. The Trousseau of the Jura is less up-and-coming because I feel like the Jura and Savoie secret got out a couple years ago. I believe more American versions are coming.”
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Sophia McDonald is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and on websites, including Wine Enthusiast, Eating Well, Sip Northwest, and 1859 Oregon’s Magazine.