A link between the Jacquez grapevine and the Camino de Santiago

2018-06-20 10:20

It has been said that the memories in a wine life are made up, in large part, of "aha!" moments - those times when you experience something in wine wholly unexpected, sometimes transcendent, whether it's a grape variety, winemaker, region or history. 

In this case, I was so excited about following the "journey" or "path" that was responsible for the spread of the Madeira Jacquez (Jaqué, in Portuguese) cultivar that found its way to Portugal, France and Spain in the late 18th century. 

Now, the Madeira Jacquez is the original hybrid cultivar that resulted from an accidental cross between a wild American Vitis aestivalis grapevine with an European Vitis vinifera species, somewhere in southeastern Colonial America in the middle of the 18th century. Presumably, cuttings of this disease-resistant American hybrid cultivar (which has many European-like vine characteristics) were originally brought back to Madeira (and then on to the European mainland) by returning French Huguenots after the Declaration of the "Rights of Man and Citizen" was proclaimed in 1789. This law officially ended religious persecution in France. 

The Jacquez grapevine falls into a category referred to as a direct producer hybrid (DPH). The wines made from the Jacquez grape have a dark red colour and aromas of tobacco and cherries and do not have the typical "foxy" flavour like most of the old American hybrids.

My "aha!" moment

My "aha!" moment came when I realised that there could be a "link" between the Madeira Jacquez and the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. What was needed was for me to prove it, scientifically.

This took a lot of research time, searching the Internet for DNA clues of the Jacquez cultivar and its many related seedlings (6 confirmed seedlings, so far).

Let's look at an example of a European grape (Vitis vinifera) that has "used" the Camino for its dissemination. There is a "juicy" red wine made from the Mencia grape (a.k.a. Jaen du Dão in Portugal) that is grown in a region in northwestern Spain called Bierzo (in Castile-Leon). We now know that Jaen du Dão was a grape, originally from Spain, which was brought back to the Dão region of Portugal (between Porto and Coimbra) by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

Another grape variety called Fer (or Fer Servadou), which can be found on the Compostela route, is another quite striking example of a grapevine "transported" in a similar manner.

Marcillac is a quaint French town situated in a remote region in southwest France and is on the route to Santiago de Compostela. It became a prime spot for grape growing in the middle ages. Sadly, however, Phylloxera destroyed most of the vineyards in the 1800s, and it never really recovered. While Jacquez was most likely planted there as a Phylloxera-resistant hybrid grape, the French government had a hand in outlawing all DPHs from 1934 onwards (a law which prohibited cultivating DPHs and selling its wine).

Enter... the Madeira Jacquez

Well, surprise, surprise - I located a very rare seedling of the Madeira Jacquez (officially registered as Bi20) growing in the Bierzo area of Spain!

Approximately 1700 km away in the northern part of Italy (Piedmont region), one can also find the original Madeira Jacquez growing there under another name, namely, "Barbera paesana" (peasant's Barbera). The question is, how did it get there? 

It is interesting that that region, relatively speaking, is quite close to the French Cévennes National Park area (and the south of the Ardèche) where the majority of the Madeira Jacquez seedlings can still be found. Jacquez is actively being cultivated there as vin "cuvée d’antan" due to a special Heritage licence.

Historically, the Cévennes region was one of the main "strongholds" of the French Protestant communities, previously habouring the Camisards (French Huguenot rebels). In fact, one of the DPHs called the Clinton variety, even though it was introduced only in the 1880s (during the Phylloxera scourge), was simply called "the Camisards’ plant".


Did the French Huguenots, returning home from the southeastern American colonies (after their bitter disappointment at growing European grapes there), bring back with them some Madeira Jacquez vine cuttings or seeds? And did some of those cuttings/seeds travel with pilgrims up and down the Camino for hundreds of kilometers?

Now those are good questions...and I think the answer to each question is "yes".

There are four medieval pilgrim routes (a.k.a. The French Way) which originate in France and connect with the Camino de Santiago, finally terminating in north west Spain. The microsatellite DNA analysis of the Madeira Jacquez and its seedlings has helped us establish a distribution pattern for this relatively scarce grapevine species. Since it has been found in the Bierzo area of north west Spain (near Santiago de Compostela), and across the Pyrenées in the Cévennes region in south east France, and even into Italy (Piedmont), it is highly likely that some pilgrims carried some Jacquez seeds or cuttings with them on their pilgrimages and dropped them along the way in a ritual that began in medieval times. 

Traditionally, it involved adding stones to the cairns of rocks along the wayside, believing that they would be granted a wish by doing so. 

Dr Jerry Rodrigues (PhD, Biochemistry, UCT)20 June 2018


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