The Marvin the Martian of Forgotten Grapes

Negrette, the Marvin the Martian of Forgotten GrapesThis little grape you’ve probably never heard of exists in few places today, but where it does dwell, it rules those territories with an iron fist. Sort of like a certain power-mad Roman-helmeted Martian who was always itching to take over the Earth.

In many ways, Negrette is not so much a Forgotten Grape as it is an alien one. Descended from a grape called Mavro that grows indigenously on the island of Cyprus and said to be brought to France from Cyprus by knights returning home from the Crusades, Negrette is incredibly difficult to find on the vine, let alone in a wine store. At this point, Forgotten Grapes is aware of only two places on the entire planet growing Negrette and pressing into wine.

The first and most important region is located in southwestern France and is called the Cote du Frontonnais. As Mars is to Marvin, so the Cote du Frontonnais is to Negrette – its birthplace, its home, the region that both defines the grape and is defined by it. The Cote du Frontonnais, or Fronton appellation, is located southeast of Bordeaux, north of the Languedoc-Rousillon, and just twenty miles or so north of the city of Toulouse. The vineyards are scattered around the towns of Fronton (duh!) and Villaudric along the left bank of the Tarn river, making it one of the smaller appellations in all of France (it only gained its AOC status in 1975). Despite the size, though, Negrette still dominates – only red and rosé wines are produced in the region, and every one of those wines must include at least 50% Negrette, although most wineries produce 100% Negrette wines.

The other region producing Negrette (that we know about) is even smaller – a single vineyard in San Benito County, California (located in the hills south of San Jose and east of Monterey). This vineyard, called either Caleri or Calleri depending on whose wine you’re buying, outsources its grapes to two wineries from central California that produce 100% Negrette wines (more on them below) and is the only place we were able to find in all of the U.S. growing Negrette (though it should be noted that Negrette also goes by the name Pinot St. George, and rumor has it that a few other California wineries produce wines from that grape – or at least they used to. We haven’t found evidence of one yet).

Regardless of its scarcity, Negrettes make for big, large, hearty, rugged wines. They are most well-known for their large, heady perfumed nose that smell of equal parts blackberry bramble bushes and Middle Eastern bazaar. And yet Negrettes are wines that come off initially as big and burly but are then surprisingly soft-spoken in your mouth. They don’t taste nearly as rugged as they smell. Depending on the year and the producer (French Negrettes from the Frontonnais tend to vary wildly in flavors due to the liberal blending laws for the region), you very well might catch a Negrette with quite a bit of sweetness to it, as residual sugar can linger in the wines if the summer is not hot or dry enough.

Still, Negrette is a wine that should have your attention, at the very least because drinking one puts you in rare company indeed. Honestly, next time you are out withyour wine drinking friends, casually bring up either Negrette and the Cote duFrontonnais and see who either knows about it or has actually tasted a wine from the region. If you are looking for a good way to silence your wine snob friends – albeit temporarily – the Negrette is your ticket to ride. Giddyup!

How Do You Pronounce Negrette?


Negrette Looks Like:

Big, thick, inky and black (even though it’s really purple). Those are the best way to describe the color of a Negrette. It just looks like a big wine in the glass because of how deep and dark it is, and once you get your first whiff, you’re going to realize that the color completely fits the scent (you also might be looking for a horse hair or two in your glass, but that’s neither here nor there. That’s below, where we discuss what the wine smells like). Either way, take special care when pouring a Negrette, as you really do not want to spill any of this wine on your clothes, particularly if you’re wearing white. Trust us on this one...

Negrette Smells Like:

We came up with lots of vivid descriptions to describe the scent of the Negrettes we tried, particularly the French one. None of the terms were endearing, by the way. In no short order, we thought we smelled Middle Eastern bazaar, the backseat of a New York City cab, the back room of the produce department of a small grocery where the onions had been allowed to rot, ground up roots, and blackberry brambles. Though the word “funktastic” was bandied about more than in a Toe Jam and Earl video game, we ultimately decided that the best description would be “gamey” with some dark berry fruit scents thrown in. It’s a wine that will clear your sinuses, although, depending on the year, you might get a little bit of sweetness on the nose too. Just another oddity for this freak show of a wine. But we guarantee you the nose will be big and it’s going to be funky. Like bigger, meatier, and more stable-esque than a Syrah. If that’s your thing (and it is ours;it’s like cheese: the stankier the better) then have at it. But don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Negrette Tastes Like:   

Okay, now here’s where things get really weird. So yes, you will get a lot of dark, dry fruit, berries, and earth  in this wine – we’re talking bitter black currants, cranberries, under-ripe blackberry, pomegranate, that sort of thing – but you’ll be amazed at how soft Negrettes are. Especially with that kind of a nose. There are really very little tannins in the wine at all, and we even ended up picking up some subtle sweetness in each wine as it opened up – more jammier fruit flavors and even hints of brown sugar and vanilla. But still, very, very soft, amazingly so. We’re still not quite sure what to make of it, and frankly, you’ll have a dilly of a time figuring out foods to pair with it.

Key Regions:

●        The Fronton region of southwest France

●        The Calleri Vineyard in the Central Coast of California’s San Benito appellation


Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:

All right, so follow along if you can: according to the rules of the Cote du Frontonnais AOC, all red and rose wines from the appellation are required to be made from at least 50% to 70% Negrette. The remaining 30% to 50% of the wine must be Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc (maximum 25% combined) and/or Cot (a.k.a. Malbec, maximum 25%) and/or Fer Servadou (maximum 25%) and/or Syrah (maximum 25%) and/or Cinsault, Gamay, Mauzac (a white grape) and Merille (maximum 15% together). At least three grape varieties must be used. And yet 100% Negrette wines are also allowed to be produced under the Cote du Frontonnais AOC label. And you wonder why Negrette isn’t a more popular grape. My head hurts just writing that out. Sorry, no more fun facts for tonight, kids. Mommy’s got a headache.

Perfect Pairing:

A wine with as big a nose as Negrette has instantly brings to mind either wild game or wild mushrooms, but definitely something gamey and earthy and pungent. So, if you can find yourself some wild game ravioli – like braised boar or elk or venison – and then drench that in a Portobello mushroom cream sauce. Or, if you’ve got the wild mushrooms but not the game, do a roasted pork loin with wild mushrooms. That should work with this wine.

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