(Le Pradet, France) Winemakers around the world have favored well-known grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon for decades. This way of doing things is changing. They are now interested in forgotten grape varieties, as in Provence, where Tibouren is increasingly used in rosé. However, this variety was far from being unknown.

Three kilometers from the sea, on the Côte d’Azur in the suburbs of Toulon, the Clos Cibonne appears as an oasis. Surrounded by palm trees and posh residences, the 22-hectare vineyard survives urban sprawl. And he cultivates another survivor: tibouren.

“It used to be called the plant of Antibes,” says Olivier Deforges. It is an old Provençal grape variety which had almost disappeared after the First World War and the phylloxera crisis. Mr. Deforges represents the fifth generation of Clos Cibonne. It is thanks to his grandfather, André Roux, that tibouren still survives in Provence. The winemaker discovered it in his field in the 1930s. He immediately adopted it and multiplied it by pulling up, among other things, Mourvèdre vines.

Tibouren now represents 80% of the vines of Clos Cibonne, which makes the estate the largest producer in France. However, this red grape variety has not always had a good reputation. First, its thin skin makes it susceptible to disease. Then, the growth of its berries is rarely homogeneous. Its clusters are thus composed of small and large grains of all colors. Some mature, some don’t. However, its shortcomings are now considered an asset.

A few kilometers from Clos Cibonne, boats leave the port of Toulon for the island of Porquerolles. They drop visitors off at this heavenly site where only pedestrians and cyclists are welcome. Among them, Louis du Baret takes the shuttle every day to take care of the vineyards of the island estate. This historic vineyard was purchased in 2019 by Chanel. Of the 26 hectares of vines, two are planted with Tibouren. He could soon have more.

“Its thin skin favors the pale color of rosé,” says du Baret. It brings a lot of freshness to the wine and it has a wide aromatic palette. With temperatures rising, Provence is desperately looking for a way to add acidity to its rosés. The tibouren proves to be a solution. As Elizabeth Gabay explains in her book Rosés du Sud de la France, the heterogeneity of the berries brings freshness: “When all the grapes are harvested together, the less ripe bunches bring the acidity that it so badly needs” , writes the Master of Wine, a specialist in rosé. Mrs. Gabay adds that although the grapes are green when harvested, the aromas are developed. This is why tibouren is known to bring delicate, spicy flavors and even structure to wine.

Tibouren is still not very widespread in the south of France. It represents 1.4% of the vines of Côtes de Provence. A figure that should increase, according to the Interprofessional Council of Provence wines. However, a few kilometers further, on the Italian Riviera, the tibouren is far from unknown. He is the star of Dolceacqua wines.

Vines and olive trees cling to the steep hillsides of the Nervia valley, in Liguria. Protected by the Alps and open to the Mediterranean Sea, this wine region borders France. The inhabitants are fluent in French and share a common history. Despite the proximity of the two regions, a world separates wine production. In Dolceacqua, the flagship town of the small wine region, tibouren is known as rossese. And it is not used for rosé, but for the production of red wine.

“We call him the prince of wines, says Filippo Rondelli, at the Terre Bianche estate. It transmits the terroir like no other grape variety. On the best plots, the ancients have always cultivated the rossese. »

The Testalonga estate is the last winery installed in the bucolic medieval village of Dolceacqua. In this place, everything is done by hand and the grapes are pressed with the feet. Producer Erica Perrino does not make rosé either. “We put so much energy into growing this grape, I wouldn’t want to throw away the skins after a few hours of maceration for a rosé,” she says. The winemaker compares Rossese to Pinot Noir. Like the prestigious Burgundy grape variety, Rossese is capricious. Its wines are characterized by a light red color and supple tannins.

The variety has another advantage that is unanimous among winegrowers in both France and Italy: its aging potential. Both at Clos Cibonne, in Provence, and at Terre Bianche, in Liguria, the old vintages tasted retain good acidity and demonstrate the complexity of great wines.

This peculiarity has not escaped the Californian winemaker Randall Graham. He discovered rossese 25 years ago during a tasting organized by the guide Gambero Rosso. If the producer had found it “too light” at the time, he changed his tune. “I didn’t understand it,” he admits. Today, I have it in my personal vineyard and I vinify it at Gallo. »

Rossese or Tibouren, this grape variety is ready to come out of the shadows.

The blending of several varieties of grapes is mandatory in the Côtes de Provence appellation. This is why 10% Grenache is added to this traditional cuvée where Tibouren takes pride of place. Atypical, this rosé is aged 12 months in oak barrels. This aging brings depth to the wine and highlights the spicy notes of the grape variety. The flavors of orange zest and red fruits mingle with the lingering saline finish. See you again in 10 years or enjoy now with lamb chops. Good to know: Clos Cibonne also makes a red wine made from Tibouren which is not available at the SAQ. The Cibonne Tentations cuvée (SAQ code 14800931) also contains it.

With a total of 90 hectares of vines, it is normal that the wines of the Rossese di Dolceacqua appellation are confidential. Last year’s harsh weather conditions reduced the quantity of bottles to 156,500. That’s not much! Winemaker Erica Perrino cultivates less than two hectares. Its bottles produced according to the principles of natural wines are so in demand that it exports them to the four corners of the world, including to Quebec. Vinified in barrels used for several vintages, its red has a little more color and concentration than expected. The subtly grainy texture evokes shale soil while the flavors are reminiscent of cherry pits.