By Any Other Name

There is a place on the French Mediterranean coast filled with vineyards. The soil is sandy, because in this part of the French Mediterranean coast near Montpellier, the sky is blue, water is wet, and soil is sandy. The vines are tossed to and fro more or less constantly by the northbound wind off the water, gently coated with a salty spray. The grapes ripen cheerfully under the sun, get picked in September, and yield an intensely acidic wine called Picpoul de Pinet, the “lip stinger” wine, perfect for the squids and powerfully seasoned fish of the Mediterranean diet.

There is a place on France’s Atlantic coast filled with vineyards. In this part of France, surrounding the ancient Celtic city of Nantes, there are two vast, essentially flat and almost perfectly overlapping appellations. The first is Muscadet, turning Melon de Bourgogne into one of the Loire’s proudest wines; salty, fresh and famously inexpensive. If you ever want to crack up a clerk at a wine shop, ask for something like Muscadet, but cheaper. It’s like asking for wetter water, but there is actually an answer. The other appellation, rarely exported and never celebrated, is Gros Plant du Pays Nantais, a thoroughly workaday wine made from the Folle Blanche grape. As the Appellation title suggests, it’s a grape of prodigious, and perfectly reliable yields, something to treasure in a climate as cold, wet, and stormy as that of the French Atlantic coast, and something equally fit for a plate of fresh oysters.

There is a place on the north coast of Spain filled with vineyards. Though the village of Getaria is very close to France, the people are neither Spanish nor French, but Basque. From villages like Getaria and later cities like Bilbao, the Basques have been fishing the Bay of Biscay for at least 10,000 years. Elvers and cod, and barnacles, and crab, and all the other things they’ve been pulling from the ocean all this time demand a crisp, intensely bright, salty wine; and the Hondarrabi Zuri grape answers the bell. Resistant to the rot that comes with Atlantic mists, the grape has been the main ingredient of Txakolina for at least hundreds of years.

These places are pretty far from each other by European standards. They’re separated by mountains, represent three entirely distinct cultures and cuisines. But, they all make wine from the same grape. Picpoul, Folle Blanche, and Hondarrabi Zuri are three names for the same globe-trotting grape. It sounds like non-sense until you try them side by side and realize they taste more or less identical. Powerfully sour lemon alongside electric acidity, a distinct salty element that in some cases comes so strong that the wine actually tastes like seawater, and very little body to insulate the palate from all this intensity. No one knows who had this grape first, or how it travelled from one place to the others. It may have gone by boat on well-travelled trade routes. It may have bounced along with a pilgrim making his way to or from Santiago de Compostella. However it happened, these vines found their way to the three places they were most needed.

It’s a common refrain (especially in France) that grapes have a particular spiritual origin. One place that’s better than all the others for this or that particular grape. How can it be, then, that this grape has three?

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