Perhaps the grape question we hear most frequently at wine events and in our tasting room is “Counoise? What’s Counoise?” Even the Wall Street Journal joked a few years ago about Counoise’s obscurity in an article about blends. Yet the grape is a component of many Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, and comprises about 10% of the Beaucastel rouge. Its moderate alcohol and tannins, combined with good fruit, acidity, and aromatics, balance the characteristic intense spice, strong tannins, and high alcohol of Syrah.
The precise origin of Counoise (pronounced “Coon-wahz”) is unknown, although it seems to have developed in the south of France, where most of the world's acreage remains today. According to the great Provençal poet Frederic Mistral, it was introduced into Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Spain by a papal officer, who offered it to Pope Urban V when the papacy was based in Avignon in the mid-14th century. Counoise was planted in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and was given a prominent place in the wines of the celebrated Château la Nerthe estate of Commandant Ducos in the late 19th century. Ducos was a student of the characteristics of various grape varietals, and played a key role in the development of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region. When the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée laws regulating (among other things) the permitted grape varietals were passed in the 1930s, the varietals planted by Ducos (including Counoise) comprised 11 of the 13 allowed Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties. The varietal saw a similar rebirth at Château de Beaucastel when Jacques Perrin increased the planting of Counoise as a complement for Syrah.
At Beaucastel, the Perrins have been increasing their plantings of Counoise over the last two decades, at the same time as they have been reducing their acreage of Syrah. They believe that Counoise's later ripening produces wines with intense spice, bright acidity and modest alcohol -- a welcome complement to the heady lushness of Grenache and the structure of Mourvedre.
As of 2016, there were just under 1,000 acres of Counoise in the south of France, most of which was used for rosés. California's 60 acres, all from Tablas Creek stock, is the only significant acreage outside France.
Counoise at Tablas Creek
We brought Counoise cuttings from Château de Beaucastel in 1990 and they spent three years in USDA inspection. Once the vines cleared quarantine, we began the process of multiplying and grafting, and we currently have 5 acres planted. The grape is particularly suited to the geography of Tablas Creek, as it produces most reliably in stony hillside soils and intense sun. It is easy to graft, is moderately vigorous, with large berries and relatively thin skins, and ripens fairly late in the cycle, after Grenache and before Mourvedre. At Tablas Creek, we typically harvest Counoise in the middle of October. This late harvest date is one factor that has discouraged greater adoption of the grape; many producers in the south of France prefer Cinsaut and Carignan, both of which ripen earlier in the ripening cycle.
In the cellar, Counoise is prone to oxidation, and we are careful to ferment it in closed fermenters, and to age it only in foudre. This oxidative character makes a useful complement to Mourvedre and -- particularly -- Syrah, which are prone to reduction. It also has the highest acidity of our Rhone reds, and adding it in small amounts to a blend is akin to squeezing lemon onto a dish of food: you may not taste the Counoise, but the heightened acidity will bring out the flavors of the other components of the wine.
Counoise at the T.T.B
We always list the individual varieties, and the percentage they account for in each wine, on the front label of our bottles. Before we could do that with Counoise, we had to get the grape registered at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms -- the federal agency which, until the reorganization mandated by the Homeland Security Act, oversaw label approval for wine. Since no one else in the States had used Counoise on their label, it fell to us to demonstrate it was a legitimate grape. The process, which included submitting a full dossier of materials (in French and English), took two years.
Flavors and Aromas
Counoise is a translucent purple-red, and has a vibrant, spicy character, with flavors of anise, strawberries, and blueberries. In our Esprit de Tablas, Counoise comprises 5-10% of the blend, and helps open up the more closed varieties of Mourvèdre and Syrah. Its soft tannins and forward fruit rounds out the blend and provides an element of finesse to the final product, particularly when the wine is young. At slightly higher percentages (10-25%) in our Côtes de Tablas, Counoise's fruitiness, acidity and spice combine with the fruit and spice of Grenache and the structure of Syrah to make a wine that can be enjoyed young. We also include 10-15% Counoise in our Dianthus rosé, where it contributes its signature bright acids and intense raspberry flavors.
In years of noteworthy intensity, Counoise also makes a delicious single-varietal wine with the character of a Cru Beaujolais: earth, spice, intense floral fruit, light body, vibrant acidity and soft tannins, ideal for drinking in the first 2-4 years. We’ve bottled it as a single varietal occasionally since 2002.
This article originally appeared in one of our newsletters. Each newsletter, we spotlight the history and characteristics of one of our Rhone varietals. You can sign up for our mailing list.
You can go back to the summaries of the different Rhône grape varietals.