Paul Gregutt wrote an article a while back about the grape Auxerrois. He did a good job explaining where the grape comes from and what it characteristics are about but I wanted to add some more background around this grape and why I think it might be a good bet to grow this in the Puget Sound AVA.
Auxerrois (pronounced ohk-sair-wah) probably originated in Burgundy near the town of Auxerre in the Chablis district of Burgundy. It is widely grown in the Alsace and Luxembourg with small plantings in the Loire Valley, Switzerland and Germany. It is prized by the ability to ripen with naturally low acid content which is very helpful in far northern climates. For a grape that is is under cultivation in the order of thousands of hectares, there is surprisingly little information on it.
Originally it was thought that Auxerrois was descended from Chardonnay because of it’s similarity in the vineyard and flavor. In Jancis Robinson’s Guide to Wine Grapes (1996 Oxford University Press) she says that “Galet, the French ampelographic authority, refutes 19th century suggestions that the variety has some connection with either Chardonnay, Sylvaner or Melon…” Unfortunately, Galet was wrong. It was found that it has the same two parents as Chardonnay (Pinot Noir and Gouais blanc) as found by genetic testing by some researchers at UC Davis back in 1999. They also found that Auxerrois has several well known siblings. Some of those include, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir (Beaujolais), Melon (Muscadet) and Aligote. In the Alsace, the grape name Pinot Blanc is interchangeable with Auxerrois. If you’ve had a wine labeled Pinot Blanc from the Alsace, it is mostly likely 100% Auxerrois. Probably because Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are genetically identical which would mean that Pinot Blanc could be one of the parents of Auxerrois.
I’ve had it in my experimental row for about 9 years now and it has ripened every year. Auxerrois appears to be less vigorous than Chardonnay, has smaller clusters. Ripens earlier with less acid, but not necessarily more sugar, which could be a condition of the climate. I once had an Auxerrois from Oregon (mentioned in the above article) that was over 14% alcohol, so I know it will go higher in a warmer climate.
The things that really impress me about the grape here in the Puget Sound region, is the ability to drop acid, reach full maturity (brown seeds, brown stems), compact size, naturally low crops and great flavors. The other interesting thing about this grape is that it is the sibling of Chardonnay. So, it has many of the same characteristics of Chardonnay, but ripens a little earlier with less acid. The flavors are not considered as fine as a really good Chardonnay, but are really close and can make an excellent wine on it’s own. If you want a French Burgundy styled white grape here in the Puget Sound, this just might be the grape to plant. I plan on expanding my plantings enough so that I might be able to make a single varietal bottling. Most likely, it will be blended with the Chardonnay to give a little lift. I really like the way it grows in the vineyard. Chardonnay is a very vigorous vine and needs way more space that I gave it, even on rootstock. I have own rooted Auxerrois and it’s a nice compact vine. Last year (2013) it gave me a really nice crop when the Chardonnay just didn’t make it.
Currently there are not any commercial sized plantings of Auxerrois in the Puget Sound, just a couple of experiments here and there. The largest plantings in the USA are in Oregon and Michigan. There are some descriptions stating it can have a cabbage like flavor, but I’ve never experienced that in any of the wines I’ve tasted.