Great stories can have prosaic beginnings. Just as some of today’s beloved dishes, like cheese fondue or bouillabaisse, started out as poor man’s dishes meant to use leftovers or less desirable ingredients, rhubarb wine was first made for economic reasons.
By the end of the 19th Century, the expansion of French vineyards, greater yields, and the growth of railway transportation changed the economics of wine and turned it into an everyday product. Before that happened, however, the farming communities of the Vosges region in Eastern France were essentially living off subsistence agriculture and didn’t have the means to buy wines from the nearby regions of Alsace, Jura, or Burgundy. Poor but resourceful, they used a robust plant that had been brought back from Asia by Marco Polo for its medicinal qualities: rhubarb. Well-adapted to the soils and climate of the Vosges, it became a good way for them to make a wine-like tipple.
From Zero to 60,000
At the other end of great stories, there can also be a bit of chance–and such is the case with the current state of rhubarb wine. In 1985, three members of a Vosges farming family, Michel, Damien, and Yannick Moine, who were earning their living raising cows and growing apples, endives, and potatoes, were offered 800 rhubarb plants by a gardener in Liège. They decided to take them on, figuring that they could provide local restaurants and pastry chefs with fresh rhubarb. Rhubarb can be very vigorous, however, and soon enough, they were left with surpluses from a bumper crop. At the time, rhubarb wine was barely a memory and almost an old wives’ tale, but the Moines decided to give it a try. The first batch covered only a few hundred bottles’ worth, sold at the farm or at farmers markets.
It could have been a one-shot deal, but the wines were a hit and word of mouth spread the news. Critics and sommeliers gave it a taste, and success wound up breeding success. Today, Maison Moine sells about 60,000 bottles per year, mostly in France, through wine merchants, fine food stores, high-end restaurants, and luxury hotels, with small export shipments making their way to Belgium, Russia, China, Japan, and Thailand.
It’s quite a contrast with the very first batches, sold without even a label and hand-corked with a mallet and hard plastic stoppers. Today, the Moine rhubarb wines come in an elegant packaging and are bottled using a state-of-the art, vacuum-equipped bottling line. The next batch of still rhubarb wines (the Moines also make sparkling versions) will be closed under Nomacorc Select Bio 300.
Wine, or Almost
As far as French Law is concerned, rhubarb wine doesn’t qualify as an actual wine, since it isn’t made with grapes, but the popular name remains valid, because it is made—and tasted, and paired—largely like a regular wine. “When sommeliers taste one of our cuvées,” says Yannick Moine, “they often think it’s a dessert wine like a Monbazillac.”
Rhubarb wine production also requires a know-how similar to that of a vigneron. After harvesting in the spring, Yannick Moine takes the stems, cuts them, and removes the fibers. After mechanically pressing them, he gets clear rhubarb juice that goes through fermentation and it is then patiently aged. Bottling only takes place after three years, and the wines are put on the market after two more years. Sparkling versions should be consumed in the following three years, while the still whites improve with age and can be cellared for twenty years or more.
As far as enjoying them with food, there is a whole range of pairings that go with each individual cuvée. “The light, fruity and dry Blanc des Vosges is very good with smoked meats or fish,” says Patrick Moine. The Crillon des Vosges, our sweet wine, makes a great apéro wine, and it is a great match for foie gras or even a chocolate dessert. As for our sparklings, which we make in brut and demi-sec versions, they’re great with finger food and canapés.”
Today, your favorite wine merchants will ask you if you’re looking for white, rosé or red. Tomorrow, maybe they’ll ask “rhubarb or grape?”