This story is about a grape variety, a distant cousin of the Sauvignon named Fié Gris, which survived disappearance thanks to a serie of improbable circumstances, luck, and thanks to the steady will on a single vigneron of the Loire, Jacky Preys.
The Loire had long ago many more grape varieties grown side by side than today. There was no vignerons growing only grapes then, but farmers growing different crops including grapes, and doing farm animals together. The empirical wisdom helped the farmers determine which grape to grow where, and what use to make of the juice. This was before two earthquakes brought havoc in this diversity landscape dotted by real farms : The Phyloxera and the Appellation rules.
The phyloxera destroyed the vineyards at the end of the 19th century and after the disaster, farmers had to replant hastily in an era when wine consumption in fast-growing France was increasing rapidly. Having to build a vineyard from scratch, they disregarded the empirically chosen variety of the past and resorted to plant higher-yield, newly-selected grape varieties to let the wine-tap flow again. the second disaster for the minor varieties was the newly-created Appellation system and rules which came later and edicted which variety could be blended in this and that Loire Appellation. The minor varieties like Menu Pineau, Fié Gris and others were not aknowledged for their particular qualities and weren't given a place in this Appellation system, which was designed, it has to be said, by the major players of the industry. in Touraine for example, Sauvignon and Chardonnay had the lead role among white varieties, and the rest were simply ignored. From then on, many vignerons just uprooted their own minor varieties to grow the recognized, marketable ones (with the Appellation-sanctionned label) while others, by tradition, inertia, or because they would just blend the juice from the minor varieties with the Sauvignon and the Chardonnay, kept a few blocks here and there. But with the successive generations of growers and occasional replantings, they eventually faded away.
Mr Yoshio Ito [interview in French] is heading oeno-connexion, which specializes in French artisan and natural wines.
But this is not the end of the story, we were forgetting the slow mind of the French Appellations administration, the INAO : Jacky Preys says that they encountered the highest difficulties to have the variety included in the AOC-allowed list. It took a few more years and it was granted the status of "Cépage recommandé et améliorateur". There's a limit to this INAO generosity though : Fié Gris can be replanted by vignerons but in a proportion of no more than 10% of the existing surface of white varieties on the estate (what a nightmare for the INAO, I guess, if ancient indigenous varieties weren't minority varieties anymore...). And another unbelieveable thing is that you're not allowed to bottle it as a single-variety wine (I'm always puzzled by the self-shooting capacity of the French). The term Fié Gris by the way (the ancient name of the variety) was not fully recognized, and the prefered name for the authorities was Sauvignon Gris. Jacky Preys himself had problems with "les Fraudes" as the DGCCRF is dubbed (a French administration control body acting as some sort of wine & food police) because he had printed "Cuvée de Fié Gris" on the label. He answered to the DGCCRF agents that "as Fié Gris is not recognised as a variety, how can you reproach me to choose the name for this cuvée ???". Here is the man who brought back to life an ancient variety of the Loire, a gold mine to paraphrase the first INAO retired expert who discovered it, and he gets harrassed by the administration for making wine from it and alluding to its name... The fonctionnaires ended up by dropping the case but he felt the heat. He showed them a document dating from 1820 that he found saying that it was the best variety of the Loire then and that Bordeaux winemakers bought Fié-Gris wine in bulk to blend it with their reds and increase the richness of their Bordeaux...