If you’ve ever entertained thoughts of resuscitating a barely breathing grape variety you may want to give Olivier Pittet a call. He’s a fine young man and a terrific winemaker who, in his spare time, lays it all on the line for a little known cultivar that may never be commercially viable. He will no doubt warn you that grape reclamation is tedious, expensive and frustrating work, but, if you persist, as he has, you may find it rewarding, if only in the spiritual sense. After all, rescuing things from the brink of extinction may be the noblest calling of our time.
From a near stand-still start with four virus-infected vines in hand, Olivier parlayed a thorough search of his neighbor’s vineyards in Fully and Saillon into sixty more samples of the variety known as Grosse Arvine. Genetic testing tells us it’s a natural cross between another ancient rescuee from Valais, Rèze, and an unknown partner. Further testing informs us that it’s probably a grandchild of Petite Arvine — thus Arvine great and small.
From this seeming bounty of parent material, Olivier culled the most infected plants leaving just a few, somewhat healthy examples to propagate with the help of a sympathetic nurseryman. Since federal and local agencies refused to lend financial or technical assistance, Olivier eschewed the time consuming process of virus elimination — both Microshoot Tip Tissue Culture Therapy (see insert) and the preferred Swiss option of thermotherapy — and rolled the dice with untreated vines.
In 2010 he planted 500 square meters (.05 hectares) in Fully — that is, once he received permission from local authorities. You see, Grosse Arvine is not a permitted variety in its place of birth. Quelle ironie. Of the early issues with the first wave of vines, millerandage (“hens and chicks”) seems to be the most serious. The problem is likely due to viral infection but whatever the cause it’s a tremendous drag on yields and potential profits. He bottled the first wine in 2015 from minuscule yields and blended it with two other varieties which netted him all of a hundred bottles.
Grosse Arvine enjoyed a moment in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was extensively planted in the contiguous villages of Martigny, Fully and Saillon. It is presumed to be responsible for the famous wines from the climats of La Marque and Coquimpey in Martigny, which were considered the finest in Valais. In subsequent years phylloxera laid waste to everything in its path, including Grosse Arvine, which hastened the ascendancy of Chasselas (Fendant) — a more reliable, highly productive variety. After years of dominance, Fendant is steadily losing ground throughout Valais and, at least in Olivier’s little corner of the world, suffers from the revenge of Grosse Arvine. Yes, the 500 square meters he planted was at the expense of Chasselas.
In addition to Olivier, another local vigneron, Benoît Dorsaz, has planted a two-hundred square meter parcel of Grosse Arvine and, with a group of newly enthused colleagues, has instituted a program of virus elimination that aims to get the variety back on track for certification and a place on the roster of permitted varieties.
Persistence — with a little help from a friend — pays off.
Microshoot Tip Tissue Culture Therapy
Microshoot tips are excised aseptically in a transfer hood under 10–50X magnification with the aid of a zoom binocular dissecting scope. Individual leaf scales are removed to expose the shoot tip; after each cut, the forceps and scalpel are flame sterilized and cooled to
prevent contaminating younger, inner tissues with virus particles from older tissue which might be transferred by the blade. When the meristematic dome becomes visible, a final cut is made just at the base of the last several leaf primordia, and the tip is gently placed on the surface of the initiation medium. If the cut was made at the correct place, the shoot tip will come off easily with a slight touch of the scalpel to the medium surface. It should not be too sticky and the dome should remain turgid and dome-shaped. Microshoot tips are approximately 0.4 to 0.5 mm and include 1 to 3 pairs of leaf primordia.
Virus Elimination from Grape Selections Using Tissue Culture: by Susan T. Sim; Foundation Plant Services Grape Program Newsletter, November 2006
Grosse Arvine is not the only native grape Olivier fusses with. He’s one of a handful of producers to work with the rare red variety Durize (Rouge de Fully). Among the other native whites he’s handy with are Humagne Blanche, Rèze and Petite Arvine. Among the transplants he makes a concentrated and finely scented Syrah and a tangy, old-vines Gamay. Most interesting perhaps are two assemblages: one red and one white. The white, ARH, is a mix of Petite Arvine, Humagne Blanche and Rèze. The red, known as Chimère, is a blend of Syrah, Gamay and Durize. Both punch above their weight and reveal the deft hand of their maker.
Olivier is a devout non-interventionist currently working organically but on his way to biodynamic conversion. He goes against the prevailing Valais wisdom by patiently waiting for the malolactic fermentation of his whites, which he achieves without any loss of freshness. All of his wines offer extraordinary finesse and fine aromatics. I look forward to seeing how well they age. And, by the way, quantities are limited with all of his offerings numbered in the hundreds of bottles.
2017 Les Temps Passés (Valais): This cuvée is 80% Grosse Arvine, 10% Humagne Blanche and Rèze and 10% unidentified native. I did a double-take when I heard this but apparently this unidentified variety is co-planted with the others. Olivier’s friend, the grape geneticist José Vouillamoz, confirms that he has not yet identified the variety in question.
Very pale straw in color. The nose is delicately scented with lemon oil, fennel pollen and ripe pear. It is also highly perfumed in the mouth with subtle notes of white flowers and green apple. The texture is pear-like with a slight mealiness yet it has pronounced but highly digestible acids. This is what one might imagine an alpine white to taste and smell like.