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Meet Gouais Blanc, the Mother of Beloved Varietals

Meet Gouais Blanc, the Mother of Beloved Varietals

In 1999, Bill Chambers, a fifth-generation Australian winemaker, was about to rip out the century-old vines of an obscure grape variety called Gouais Blanc on his historic family property in Rutherglen, a wine region about 180 miles northeast of Melbourne. After all, Gouais was considered a “peasant” variety incapable of greatness and the vines had fallen into neglect over the years. Better to grow something worthwhile.  

But just before the Gouais vines met their unfortunate fate, a staff member surfing the World Wide Web (this was the ’90s, after all) stumbled upon the research of Carole Meredith, a grape geneticist and viticulture professor at the University of California, Davis, who was studying the grape. The variety, as she and her team uncovered had a far more fascinating lineage than previously believed. The humble Gouais Blanc was, in fact, the “mother” grape for at least 81 different varieties, including Chardonnay and Gamay.  

In reading about Meredith’s research, Chambers and his team learned that his vineyard contained one of the only commercial plantings of the grape on the planet. The vineyard team contacted Meredith about their vines and she urged them not to destroy the Gouais Blanc. This series of events helped to usher a revival of the varietal. 

An International Effort to Revive Gouais Blanc 

That Gouais Blanc’s historical significance was discovered at all is due in large part to international teamwork.  

Late 20th-century grape genetics were rudimentary compared to today. In the early 1990s, there were no DNA markers available in grapes, says Meredith, referring to the genetic “fingerprinting” that’s common today. So, she formed an international consortium with 20 other researchers across 10 countries to develop a database of markers. “We knew they would become an invaluable tool to develop a better understanding of grapevine biology,” she says. The consortium collected data on over 300 grape cultivars—some of which were nearly extinct, like Gouais—in order to learn the grapes’ parent relationships and genetic makeup. 

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By the late ’90s, the researchers’ collaboration had begun to pay off. They started to see patterns in the varieties’ lineage and were surprised to discover how many grapes shared a common set of parents, in particular Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc.  

“We, like most other grape genetics researchers, had never heard of Gouais Blanc and had included it in our study because it was one of several hundred varieties historically associated with northeastern France,” Meredith says.  

While believed to have originated in Eastern Europe, Gouais plantings were widespread across northeastern France throughout the Middle Ages. The vines were grown on “the mediocre sites, the better sites being reserved for more noble varieties such as Pinot,” reads the 1999 paper Meredith and five other researchers co-authored. Gouais was “a variety considered so mediocre that it was banned (unsuccessfully) at various times in at least two regions and is no longer planted in France,” the paper stated. Even the name Gouais, which derives from the old French adjective “gou,” is a term of disparagement.  

Affectionately nicknamed the “Casanova of Cultivars,” Gouais is the “mother” of Chardonnay and Gamay, most famously, but also to well-known vinifera varieties like Aligoté, Blaufränkisch, Melon de Bourgogne (the grape used for Muscadet), Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Furmint (the variety used in Hungary’s famed Tokaji wines), as well as over 70 more. 

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Gouais’s undesirability could have been due to the grape’s high-yields, susceptibility to botrytis, high acidity and low sugar content, which often resulted in a low-alcohol wine of neutral character. But for such a downtrodden variety, it sure got around. There are over 50 different aliases for Gouais; it’s known as Weisser Heunisch in Germany and Gwäss, in Switzerland, to name a couple. It once populated almost every corner of Europe, from Portugal to Hungary.  

Gouais Blanc Travels to the Southern Hemisphere 

Bill and Stephen Chambers – Photography by Sue Davis Photography

At the turn of the 20th century, Gouais escaped Europe’s borders and traveled to Australia. The vines landed in Rutherglen, a region famed for its fortified wines. Winemaker Stephen Chambers, Bill Chambers’s son and the sixth generation of his family to make wine, believes that his vineyard obtained the Gouais vines from Rutherglen Viticultural Station, a research institute that experimented with recently imported varieties for suitability. “As part of the program they would have wanted a commercial quantity planted,” Chambers says.  

Once Meredith learned of the Aussie plantings in the late ’90s, she asked Bill Chambers to send sample cuttings to California for DNA fingerprinting, which would further the researchers’ studies on the variety.  

Bill Chambers died in December 2023, but, more than 25 years later, the over 120-year-old Gouais Blanc vines are still going strong in Rutherglen. Utilizing mostly original equipment in the 166-year-old winery, Stephen Chambers, who has been at the winemaking helm since 2001, makes both a still and sparkling wine from Gouais. Occasionally, he’ll produce a wine called “The Family,” which blends Gouais with genetically related Riesling and Gewürztraminer. 

As the climate in northeast Victoria warms, Gouais, once known for its neutral aromas and high acid, is making more flavorful wines. 

When Chambers started working with Gouais in the early 2000s, “it was a very late white which tended to retain its acid and was quite austere as a variety,” he says. “Now it has developed some aromatics and ripens closer to the other white varieties we have in the vineyard, albeit at a lower sugar level; even an occasional acid addition is required.” 

A New-World Companion 

Mark Björnson next to Gouais Blanc grape vines
Mark Björnson next to Gouais Blanc grape vines – Image Courtesy of Björnson Wine

The sole commercial Gouais Blanc producer in wine’s “New World” for over a century, Chambers now finds itself in the company of another Gouais producer, Björnson Vineyard, in the Eola-Amity Hills region of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In 2019, it became the first American producer to grow the variety. 

Björnson Vineyards owner Mark Björnson decided to plant the grape out of curiosity after he read about its history but couldn’t find it in the U.S. “I thought it would be interesting to plant some and produce wine,” he says.  

There’s been a learning curve with the grape. Björnson noticed that Gouais ripens later than Pinot Noir and always has a large crop load. Located in a cooler region than Rutherglen, he sees the prominent acidity inherent to Gouais. “It reminds me of a Muscadet,” he says, referring to the Loire wine made from Melon de Bourgogne, one of Gouais’s offspring. “[It has] floral notes on the nose with bright lemon flavor and a long finish. It goes very well with raw oysters.” 

The winery sold just 60 cases of its first Gouais, released in 2022, which was fermented in concrete egg then finished in neutral oak. It will soon release 75 cases of the 2023 vintage, which is fermented in stainless steel, sometime this year. 

Swiss Champions 

José Vouillamoz
José Vouillamoz – Photography vy Edouard Vouillamoz

While Americans and Australians may get to taste singular domestic examples of this ancestral variety, back in Europe the variety remains mostly a museum curiosity.  

While a smattering of German producers and one Italian, make minuscule quantities of wine from the variety, almost everywhere except Switzerland has forgotten it. That Gouais still grows in the country—no one knows how much, as it might be a row or block scattered around here or there—is thanks to preservation initiatives like  that are targeting the country’s many historic grape varieties. VinEsch that are targeting the country’s many historic grape varieties. 

José Vouillamoz—a Swiss botanist, grape geneticist, co-author of the book Wine Grapes and mentee of Carole Meredith—is leading those efforts. He has been instrumental in raising awareness of Gouais, which was once a major varietal player in Switzerland before phylloxera decimated Europe’s vines in the mid-19th century. 

In 2009, Vouillamoz, with his winemaker friend Josef-Marie Chanton, organized a “World Summit of Gouais” at a ski resort in the Valais region. In an effort to increase awareness of the variety, they hoped to gather all the known producers of the variety in the world. While half a dozen prominent journalists attended the summit, only five producers were present. Chambers couldn’t make it due to the distance, and only one non-Swiss winery accepted the invitation, the German producer Weingut Georg Breuer. While miniscule in scale, the gathering did reinforce Breuer’s convictions to continue growing Gouais, as well as Chanton’s.  

The co-founder of VinEsch with Vouillamoz, Chanton, who is based in Valais, is one of Switzerland’s main Gouais producers. Production size is still tiny (there were just 1,030 bottles produced in the last vintage), but Chanton’s Gouais boasts “nice aromatics and very high acidity,” Vouillamoz says. 

The Ancestral Search Continues  

Close up of Gouais Blanc Grapes
Close up of Gouais Blanc Grapes – Photography vy Edouard Vouillamoz

Over two decades after the genetic importance of Gouais was discovered, scientists are still uncovering significant details about the grape’s history.  

In 2018, geonomics researcher Anthony Borneman and a team of seven other scientists at the Australian Wine and Research Institute (AWRI) embarked on a search for Gouais’s own parentage. Again, the peasant variety proved full of surprises. 

Pinot Noir, it seems, is both parent and partner to Gouais Blanc. “We sequenced the genome of Chardonnay and compared this to the Pinot and Gouais,” Borneman says. “Rather than the usual pattern you would expect for a parent-offspring trio, the data suggested that some inbreeding had occurred in the Chardonnay family tree.” 

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As more discoveries are made about the ancient variety, some grape geneticists herald Gouais as one of the vinifera varieties well-suited to weather the effects of climate change and even to aid in breeding new, hardier varieties. 

“Gouais Blanc has been through many different climates since the Middle Ages; it most likely existed even before,” says Vouillamoz. “This makes it a candidate variety to be the best genetically equipped to cope with climate change. It is also important to maintain it for future breeding. Since Pinot and Gouais Blanc once gave birth to Chardonnay, deliberate crossings of Pinot with Gouais Blanc would allow breeding of siblings, and maybe one of them will be even better than Chardonnay.” 

The Casanova of Cultivars, it seems, isn’t going anywhere. 

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