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Looking for a Light, Flavorful Red? Reach for Trousseau

Wine lovers are waking up to the appeal of this charming French grape

Wink Lorch By January 20, 2022
Trousseau grape vines
Trousseau a la Dame in Jura. Photo courtesy of Domaine Fumey-Chatelain.

When one half of the world thinks you are noble and the other half believes you illegitimate, life can be a challenge. Yet the virtue of the Trousseau grape — also called Bastardo — of giving light reds with hidden depths of flavor, is increasingly recognized. From Jura in eastern France to Portugal and over to the Americas, it has form as a world traveller too.

Marin Fumey, the young winemaker for Domaine Fumey-Chatelain in the village of Montigny-lès-Arsures, Jura’s self-proclaimed capital of Trousseau near Arbois, has himself traveled and worked widely outside France, and he is not surprised.

“Trousseau is an amazing variety,” he says. “I understand that winegrowers from all around the world now want to plant some. I don’t think that it is a bad thing for Jura; it’s interesting for us to experience our varieties planted on another terroir and in another climate. The wines will be delicious but will have their own expression.”

Trousseau’s ancestry

It seems a little unfair that the Portuguese name for Trousseau is Bastardo, but a few hundred years ago they weren’t to know that it came from noble heritage, as DNA testing indicates, a likely child of Jura’s Savagnin grape.

Portugal, particularly Douro, has the world’s largest Trousseau plantings by far today with over 2,470 acres, but most disappear into Port blends. There is, however, the odd excellent non-fortified varietal Bastardo, notably Conceito from Rita Ferreira Marques.

It remains unclear how and when Trousseau crossed France from Jura in the east to Charente in the west and traveled over the Pyrenees into Portugal and Spain, where it acquired yet more synonyms, including Merenzao in Ribeira Sacra. Most probably monks brought it among a parcel of noble French varieties via the Camino de Santiago pilgrim’s route.

Cuttings of both Portuguese Bastardo and a Spanish version arrived in California before the 1880s but almost disappeared. Fortunately, small plots of Bastardo were planted by Abacela Winery in Southern Oregon in the 1990s and by the Luchsinger family in Lake County, California in the early 2000s for use in Port-style blends.

But it was Trousseau’s Jura homeland that provided inspiration for change.

The wine for winemakers

From the late 2000s, Jura had become the go-to drink for California winemakers on their evenings off; when journalist Elaine Chukan Brown arrived in California in 2012 from Arizona, she recalls being served Jura wine and chicken every time she spent an evening with winemakers.

Keen Jura fans Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts of Arnot-Roberts winery in Healdsburg realized the link between Bastardo and Trousseau, sourced grapes from the Luchsinger Vineyard in Clear Lake, and made the state’s first Jura-style Trousseau in 2009. 

Jura Trousseau can be quite understated, opening up slowly: light in color and in weight but with good examples showing vibrant cherry or blueberry fruits, and sometimes an earthiness, wrapped up in underlying silky tannins.

Early samples of the Arnot-Roberts Trousseau wines were closer to Jura than anyone familiar with the region could have imagined, and they both excited and impressed tasters. Winemaker colleagues of the Arnot-Roberts pair rushed to take cuttings and plant Trousseau.

Arnot-Roberts’ first commercial Trousseau release, the 2011, proved that contrary to its reputation for rich and tannic, alcoholic wines, California could lighten up its reds and attract a new kind of wine drinker. A decade on and there are small plantings scattered across California winelands, although the total remains in the tens not hundreds of acres. Trousseau helped open up diversity for California and the mini-Trousseau tsunami quickly rolled into Oregon too. 

Jason Lett, of Eyrie Vineyards, son of one of Oregon’s Pinot Noir trailblazers, David Lett, had visited Jura and in his turn became Oregon’s Trousseau trailblazer, planting it in the Dundee Hills of Willamette Valley in 2012. He has paved the way for several other Oregon wineries. 

Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in his Trousseau vineyard

Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in his Trousseau vineyard. Photo courtesy of Eyrie Vineyards.

“Oregon continues to be a breeding ground for winemaking ideas and innovative vineyard practices,” he explains, adding that many of Oregon’s best small winemakers are looking beyond Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris. “Total plantings are probably still well under 20 hectares, so it continues to be a relative oddity.”

He says that as more people become interested in Jura, wine consumers are looking for it. “My customers like the quaffability and low alcohol — it often comes in at 10.5%! It means you can have a decent pour and still stay sharp. They also like how versatile it is with food. It easily bridges courses, and it loves savory flavors, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral.”

The change goes two ways

Back in its Jura homeland, Trousseau is changing too. Plantings have increased, yet still there are under 500 acres. The grape has always been fussy about where it’s planted, needing south-facing slopes with warmer gravel and sandstone soils on top of the classic marl subsoil. Marin Fumey remarks that experienced locals agree Trousseau wines are a world away from former times.

“Climate change helped a lot to get riper Trousseau bunches, so the wines are more obviously fruity and round. It can handle a lot of warmth and sun. I also think that we are now planting better selections of Trousseau.”

Poor vine selections combined with over-cropping to give under-ripe and green berries in the past. One particular selection that several Jura growers have revived is named Trousseau à la Dame, which gives lower yields and higher concentration due to its tendency to “hens and chicks,” known also as millerandage. According to Marin Fumey, it gives delicious wines, but for sufficient volumes, growers need both this and the classic selection.

Winemaking has evolved too in Jura. Trousseau was always given a long maceration and with the cool climate, de-stemming was the norm to avoid the risk of stems adding a green character. Increasingly, in warm years with healthy grapes, winemakers are using part whole cluster fruit to add more complexity and spiciness.

Traditionally in Jura, Trousseau was bottled within a year of harvest after maturation in tank or neutral large oak barrels, which help the wine to soften. Many producers in California and Oregon follow this approach, but both there and in Jura there are a multitude of experiments in length of aging, oak barrel types and sizes, clay amphorae, and more, this grape can handle it all.

Winemakers enjoy the challenges Trousseau presents, varying much according to vintage conditions. It is versatile too, which attracts consumers, especially in terms of drinking windows — in Jura, its aging potential is much valued. 

“When it’s young, it’s a fruit basket, with lots of spice, and when it gets older, you get some mint, liquorice, and leather aromas.” says Fumey. “Trousseau is a whole emotion. It’s delicious to drink when it’s young and spectacular to drink it when it gets older. Back in the days, we used to say that Trousseau was the wine you would keep for your daughter’s wedding.”

So now we know where the noble name Trousseau might have evolved. Far from a Bastardo.

3 Trousseau to try:

The Eyrie Vineyards Dundee Hills Trousseau 2018

After the dry summer of 2018 the grapes ripened perfectly, and Jason Lett decided to age the wine longer than normal in old oak. This has given the wine a silky mid-palate and better length. Low sulfur levels give really bright fruit and this combines with what Jason describes as a mossy, forest character. While light, it’s mouth-filling too.

Fumey-Chatelain Le Bastard Arbois Trousseau 2018

Contrary to its name, Le Bastard is a fine expression of pure Trousseau à la Dame vines. After de-stemming and almost three weeks maceration, the wine was aged in the tank for 10 months. The heady, almost ethereal aromas give way to crunchy fruit tannins and it packs a real punch. Delicious now or forget about it for a few years to discover more evolved, earthy flavors.

Domaine Pignier Côtes du Jura Trousseau 2020

In the southern part of Jura, this Trousseau vineyard is co-planted in the old way with a few vines of Poulsard and the rare Enfariné variety, which add extra freshness, delicacy, and red currant notes. Domaine Pignier is one of the oldest biodynamic wineries in Jura and are meticulous winemakers. Aged in old demi-muids, 600-liter barrels, and bottled within the year adding minimal sulfur, intense red fruits, freshness, and velvety tannins make the wine irresistible young, but worthy of patience too.