Framboise, the traditional grape of Nice?

Traditional Nicoises with vine

Traditional Nicoises with vine

In 2010 a Niçois manifesto was written encouraging people in the area around Nice to replant a grape variety known as framboise, claiming it was part of Niçois tradition, and a symbol of local identity.

“Si vous avez dans vos relations quelques vieilles familles niçoises qui ont participé à cet acte de résistance et que vous disposez d’un bout de terrain; n’hésitez pas plantez vous aussi une treille de raisin framboise; c’est un acte de résistance qui conforte notre identité nissarde et qui en plus vous apportera beaucoup de plaisir gustatif. Sans parler du plaisir d’emmerder les autorités de la puissance occupante.”

The website Gralon describes the variety as being azuréen typique (typical of the Côte d’Azur), while a wine thread on a forum website includes a thread where people are searching about the variety framboise – with memories of childhood delight in eating the juicy fruit and asking for, or offering, cuttings.

This variety has never, as far as I can establish been included in the wines of Bellet, so I was intrigued to discover more about this variety which is so highly regarded in the region.

Bellet has always been the largest and best known wine producing region around Nice, but, before the arrival of phylloxera, many more hills and valleys in the County of Nice produced wine. These ranged in style from strong red wines, light red, white, sparkling and sweet wines near the coast, to lighter and more acidic wines from villages higher up and further inland.

Framboise ripening at 1000m in St Martin Vésubie

Framboise ripening at 1000m in St Martin Vésubie

The wines of the Haut Pays and the higher valleys, including those of the Roya, Vésubie, Tinée and the upper Var, before phylloxera, were generally regarded as poor in quality. Foderé, in 1821, noted that the grapes rarely ripened sufficiently; the white wines were more thin and acidic than the wines of Alsace, and were made drinkable only by blending with red wine from Provence, although the grapes were delicious as table grapes – very sweet with good acidity. Much of the wine was distilled.

Along the coast the grapes were harvested in September, further inland, at higher altitude, not all ripened by late October, and the harvest was often not until early November, similar to those in north and north-west France. The sunnier, exposed slopes of Rimplas in Valdeblore were able to produce a more generous wine.[1]

Rimplas in 1906 with south facing terraces

Rimplas in 1906 with south facing terraces

Phylloxera arrived in Provence in 1863, one of the first regions to be infected in France. But it was not until the 1890s that grape growers in the Alpes Maritimes were offered American rootstocks (largely immune to the ravages of the phylloxera louse) for replanting their vines. Isabella, an old American variety, probably descended from the of a wild native vine Vitis labrusca and another, unknown variety, was one of several different rootstocks, but was found to be less successful than other American varieties in protecting the European vines from phylloxera .

Over the years 1894 to 1897, grape growers throughout the Alpes Maritimes applied for various American rootstocks and different Vitis vinifera varieties to be grafted on to the rootstocks. They were not always given the quantities or varieties they wanted, resulting in a very different viticultural profile of the region. Villages which received fewer vines than requested slowly made less wine, and many chose not to replant but instead turned to the lucrative business of growing flowers under glass for the society winter season along the Cote d’Azur and for exporting to northern Europe during the winter. The hills around Nice started to shimmer with greenhouses.

Greenhouses for flowers opposite Domaine Toasc

Greenhouses for flowers opposite Domaine Toasc

Despite its poor performance as a rootstock to protect against phylloxera, Isabella, or framboise as it was to become known locally, became popular for its dark red grapes. Its sweet, raspberry-strawberry fruit flavour, albeit tinged with a distinctive ‘foxy’, musky, almost animal-like character, made it a popular grape for eating fresh, for wine, eau-de-vie and jams, and is reflected in some of its local names in Italy, Corsica and south eastern France: Fragola, Framboisier or Framboise. Framboise’s ability to flourish in both the hot summers of southern France and the cold winters of the sub-alpine villages behind Nice, added to its attraction. Its high sugar and alcohol levels when mature made for a heady wine which never needed chaptalisation.

Its success was short lived. On 24th January 1935, a law was introduced by the senator Emile Cassez, of the Haute Marne and Minister of Agriculture, to ban the planting American vines (framboise, clinton herbemont, jacquet, noah and othello). The reason given for banning these were that they produce a higher level of methanol, due to greater amounts of skin pectins, which could apparently lead to madness. There was also concern that if allowed, including these in classic French wines would alter the traditional taste.

Framboise vine used on a trellis for shade

Framboise vine used on a trellis for shade

By the 1950s, any remaining American vines were compulsorily grubbed up, with compensation, although three vines were allowed per household, for domestic use. Many took cuttings and hid them, only to replant vines illegally after the inspectors left. These vines, unlike European vines, did not need grafting onto rootstocks and could easily be propagated with cuttings – so that nurserymen (pépinieres) were not needed to do the grafting.

The 2010 Niçois manifesto claimed that it had been banned under a false pretext with no medical or scientific paper proving that drinking framboise wine led to madness. The writer went on to claim that the main reason for banning framboise was that Cassez had personal and substantial interests in the wine trade in Algeria and that his business, supplying strong alcoholic red wine for bolstering up weaker French wines, was being undermined by the use of wine made from framboise for blending.

Framboise as table grapes

Framboise as table grapes

In 2003 the law against planting these vines was lifted. Today, many houses in the arrière pays behind the appellation of Bellet, have framboise vines in their gardens, often grown over a pergola for shade, sometimes in a short row in a garden for eating. Many people make a sweet jelly with the fruit, although I find the foxy flavour dominates the fresh raspberry acidity, and prefer, English style, to add vinegar to mask the foxiness and to serve it as a savoury relish.

[1] Fodéré ‘Voyage aux Alpes Maritimes’ (1821); Thevenon, Luc monograph ‘Vignobles de la Montagne Niçoise’; Durante, Louis ‘Chorographie de Comté de Nice’ (Turin 1847)

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