Getting to Know Grolleau

You have  probably already met Grolleau, but you just don’t know it yet.

The Grolleau grape variety—more precisely known as Grolleau Noir, to differentiate it from its siblings/color mutations Grolleau Blanc and Grolleau Gris—is the third most widely planted red grape variety in France’s Loire Valley (after Cabernet Franc and Gamay). It has most likely made its way into your glass via a snappy rosé or creamy sparkling wine (either white or rosé) produced somewhere around Anjou, Saumur, or Touraine.

Grolleau—believed to one of the many descendants of Gouais Blanc—was first recognized as “Grolleau de Cinq-Mars” (in reference to the Central Loire Valley town of Cinq-Mars-le-Pile) in the early 1800s. It is also known to have been cultivated in the Charente Department of Southwest France around this same time, but it is assumed to be native to the Loire. The name may derive from the Old French grolle—meaning black crow—referencing the dark skin of the grapes.

Grolleau is appreciated for its reliable high yield, but this rampant fertility can pose a challenge. If left unchecked, the plant can produce huge crops of uninspiring grapes somewhat lacking in flavor and tannin—despite the lovely dark-skinned appearance of the grapes. Due to this tendency—coupled with the variety’s susceptibility to certain vine diseases—plantings of Grolleau have been declining over the last fifty years. In the 1950s, there were over 28,000 acres/11,000 ha of Grolleau planted in the Loire Valley; as of the last decade, there are just over 5,800 acres/2,350 ha (although the decline seems to have stabilized).

Nevertheless, Grolleau is widely used in the sparkling wines of the Loire Valley and persists as one of the leading grapes of region’s rosé. It is often the majority grape in the much beloved and slightly sweet wines of the Rosé d’Anjou AOC. Alas…this could be because Rosé d’Anjou is one of the few AOC wines of the region—and even the country—that allows for its use.

Grolleau-based wines tend to be high in acid, moderate in alcohol, and may show aromas/flavors of red fruit (strawberry, raspberry, cherry),  watermelon, citrus (lemon, tangerine), rose petals, and (some say) red candy.

Despite its dark reddish-black hue, the grape’s thin skins mean that Grolleau is rarely used to produce red wines. If you find one, it is likely to be labeled under an IGP—such as the Vin de Pays du Val de Loire— or a Vin de France designation. It might also be produced via carbonic maceration. (Fun fact: Grolleau is only allowed to be used in the red wines of ONE single AOC—the Anjou AOC—and even here it is limited to no more than 10% of the total blend.)

In the world of wine, one can always find the exception to the rule—and despite its penchant for bubbles and rosé, there are some serious red wines produced with Grolleau. Domaine Clau de Nel—located in Anjou—cultivates two hectares (about five acres) of 60-to-90-year-old Grolleau vines trained in gnarly, gobelet style and farmed biodynamically (Demeter Certification and all). The grapes are hand harvested, sorted in the field, and fermented with native yeasts. The resulting wine is placed in used French oak barrels and aged for at least 12 months in “ancient troglodyte cellars cut into the limestone hillside on the property.” The wine is then bottled—unfined and unfiltered. Jancis Robinson described this wine as having a “mid garnet color, a certain wildness on the nose” and as “possibly the most serious Grolleau I have ever tasted.”

Loire Valley AOCs that allow for Grolleau include the following:

  • Anjou AOC (allowed in sparkling wines; red wines may include a max. 10% Grolleau)
  • Coteaux du Loir AOC (allowed in rosé only, limited to a max of 30%)
  • Crémant de Loire AOC (no limits, but this is a bubbly-only appellation)
  • Rosé d’Anjou AOC (Grolleau is typically the majority grape, but Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Gamay, and Pineau d’Aunis/Chenin Noir are allowed as well)
  • Touraine AOC (allowed in sparkling wines and rosé only)
  • Saumur AOC (allowed in sparkling wines and rosé only)

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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