Swiss Grapes: Plantscher, Blanchier, Bordeaux Blanc, Gros Bourgogne — Who’s Your Daddy?

The ancient Swiss variety, Plantscher (aka Blanchier, Gros Bourgogne or Bordeaux Blanc), is perhaps best known for having nothing to do with Burgundy or Bordeaux. In fact, it’s an off-spring of the Hungarian grape Furmint and its likely place of origin is Central Europe. What makes the Plantscher story particularly vexing (and ironic) is that it’s nowhere to be found in its putative birthplace—just as its half-brother, Hárslevelü, is nowhere to be found in Switzerland. It’s as if the two grapes were ripped from their mother’s arms as infants and raised in separate worlds unbeknownst to each other.

In his book, Cépages Suisses, Dr. José Vouillamoz is forced to conclude that Plantscher is native to Switzerland simply because it exists nowhere else. Beyond that, he’s at a loss to explain where it’s been and how it got here.

There is a gathering consensus that Plantscher migrated to Valais from one of its other Swiss stops—perhaps Vaud, the upper Rhine Valley near Lichtenstein, or Schaffhausen—but there’s nothing solid to support that hypothesis and no vestige of the variety in any of those locales.

Long since discredited is the romantic notion that a holdover population of Huns in the isolated Val d’Anniviers promulgated the variety in the aftermath of centuries of migration and war. Unfortunately, here, the math doesn’t add up. The fifth century invasion of Western Europe by Attila and the tenth century Magyar invasion that followed, predate the first mention of Furmint by hundreds of years. So much for romance.

Recently an intriguing new wrinkle developed when the vigneronne Marie-Thérèse Chappaz of Fully discovered several rows of Furmint in one of her vineyards. That little nugget places the three main actors in this drama—Plantscher, Furmint and Gouais Blanc (one of Furmint’s parents)—in the same place for the first time. What if Plantscher cosied up to Gouais Blanc and together they begat Furmint; and what if it then migrated east with some homesick Huns? The timing sort of works: Plantscher was first mentioned in Swiss documents in 1586 and Furmint in Hungarian documents in 1571. Could Furmint be a Swiss grape?

Not according to Dr. Vouillamoz, who weighs in once again: DNA profiling is not consistent with Furmint being a cross between Gouais Blanc and Plantscher—even though he considered it a possibility.

Case closed, and with that the mystery continues.

Sadly, without the emergence of a few geeky benefactors it’s unlikely Plantscher will spread beyond its current footprint of one hectare in the upper Valais town of Visp. It’s only known presence is in the vineyards of the winery-cum-vine museum, Chanton Kellerei, which is also a safe-house for several other at-risk varieties. As of now, it is the only producer of varietal Plantscher in the world.

I qualify the last statement because my latest visit with Steve Bettschen in La Sarraz gave me pause. As I concluded a tasting of his new releases, he handed me a bottle of his latest experiment—an unlabeled version of Plantscher (which he calls Blanchier), sourced from a recent planting in Neuveville, miles from Visp in the Lac de Bienne region. It seems appropriate to me that Steve is the first outside Valais to work with Plantscher, since he was also the first to work with Furmint from the aforementioned Chappaz parcel. He clearly has a love for Furmint’s extended family and a well-known appreciation for nuance and delicacy in his tastes. These are qualities that are needed in the alpine expression of these high acid varieties.

On Valentine’s Day I finally opened what he gave me, and based on that tasting, I’m rooting for others to find the love and get to planting more of this very promising variety.

2016 Blanchier, La Neuveville, Lac de Bienne: Medium-straw in color. Laser-like nose of green apples, lime zest and fennel seed with some feathery lactic notes. There is nothing feathery on the palate though, just a steely sheath of lime-inflected fruit that once penetrated opens into a wealth of fresh herbs, sour plums and minerals. There is the beginning of roundness and richness with significant aeration and chewing. In the end, it reminds me a bit of Savagnin with its suggestive nuttiness and sharpness.

This is definitely something I’d like to see more of and I think Steve Bettschen is the right man for the job. Plantscher needs wider exposure and perhaps a different winemaking perspective to fill in some of the gaps, if not in its history, then in its appreciation.

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