The Leon Millot grape

Grape varieties are a lot like musicians (stay with me). They have distinct characters which people like or dislike. Sometimes they're good in a band, sometimes they're solo artists. They can change their character simply by being put in a new environment. There are tens of thousands milling about, but very few that are widely known. Some suffer prejudice or are considered 'commercial' by the press. Some are world famous but considered a little boring by those in the know.

Leon Millot is a vinous equivalent of a little-known French composer from the early part of the 20th Century who rubbed shoulders with the great and the good but never quite made it. You see, Leon was fighting an uphill battle - it's a hybrid. It was bred to combine good winemaking characteristics with resistance to disease. It's like being a composer, yet also having a day-job as a roofer. It doesn't mean your writing is bad, but people make assumptions nonetheless. Leon's rise also coincided with a quite unfortunate period for winemaking in France in general, and, like the composer who does a bit of roofing, it never got the prestigious gigs.

My family planted some Leon Millot in a field in Kent about 10 years ago. I once looked at a survey and estimated that we have approximately 10% of all Leon Millot in the country. The country has 4500 acres of vineyard, and we have about 250 vines, so that should give you an idea of Leon's popularity here.

Leon has pink juice and red skins. It really should make a red wine. I read a lot of books. I bought some equipment. We had some good summers. The wine wasn't very nice. It always had this strangeness to it - this wildness, which was exactly what I had read could be a problem. There they were, these grapes, growing beautifully and organically, needing no spraying or feeding, and giving us hundreds of kilos of delicious juice that just wouldn't quite make the transformation it was supposed to. It was very frustrating.

Fast-forward 5 years and I'm sat here with a glass of rosé the colour of pomegranate juice, with a delicious strawberryish aroma, a little rhubarb, redcurrant and a touch of creamy richness to it. 2013 gave us a really light rosé, 2014 a much richer one and 2015 one bang in the middle. In the next room I have some bottles of sparkling rosé made from the very lightest pressings of the 2013 grapes, fermented a second time in bottle and aged for a further 2 years, just like champagne.

To my knowledge they are the only single-variety rosé and sparkling rosé in the world made from Leon. No books or websites gave me a clue that it could work, because nobody has ever planted Leon with the intention of making rosé. I like to think of it as a bit punk. Indeed, the yields of wine from Leon when made in this style are so low that it would be commercial suicide to even attempt to make money from it (yes I choose my pursuits well). I found that pressing whole bunches of Leon straight off the skins, fermenting very cool, running a malolactic fermentation slowly over winter and letting the wine sit on its lees until early spring really seemed to work. The wildness is in the skins - if you don't let them have a say in the process, the juice inside makes excellent wine.

There's no great lesson learnt here, no telling observation, no analysis - this is, for me, a slightly-too-serious serious hobby at the moment. It's tremendous fun. It also helps me maintain what a teacher once called my 'Mad Professor' image. If you want to try some, I can't sell it. I can sell albums though, if you know what I mean.


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