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The Chinon vineyards, between legend and reality

The Chinon vineyards, between legend and reality

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2010-04-06

Despite its history and the place Rabelais gave it in French literature, Chinon remains a little-known city. Its very tasty wines, which age well and are very reasonably priced, also deserve to be rediscovered!

“Small town, great renown”
 
Chinon, the favourite residence of kings Henri II Plantagenet and Charles VII, stands on the right bank of the Vienne, on the border of Touraine and Anjou in a crossroads position that earned it strategic importance during the Hundred Years’ War.
 
The town’s long history manifests itself through its architectural wealth, notably in the vestiges of the feudal castle which dominates the banks of the Vienne. Old houses, with their spiral staircases, wells and mullioned windows, are huddled together along the alleyways that wind around the Place du Grand Carroi, the Romanesque church of Saint-Maurice and the Gothic church of Saint-Étienne.
 
Beyond the tourist clichés, an atmosphere of genuine conviviality prevails in Chinon, with its andouille sausage smoked over a wood fire and delicious “tarte vigneronne”. Wine is king here, sometimes tender and light (from the gravelly terraces of the banks of the Vienne) sometimes firm and severe (from the clayey-limestone slopes surrounding Chinon). This is because the Val de Loire was one of the cradles of French viticulture and the fief of one of the finest French grape varieties, the very old Cabernet Franc*.
 
Despite the diversity of its terroirs and the amazing quality of its wines, full of freshness and character, Chinon remains a widely underestimated appellation. So we headed there to pick out some estates that are particularly representative of the appellation.
 
Pascal Lambert, the new rising star
Today, Pascal Lambert is proudly reaping the rewards of 20 years’ work. His well-developed, ample and generous wines have established him as one of the three most influential winegrowers in Chinon, along with his elders, Bernard Baudry and Philippe Alliet. Based in Cravant-les-Coteaux since 1987, Lambert owns 14 hectares of vines spread across the appellation’s various terroirs, all of them very well exposed and ventilated. His biodynamics-inspired philosophy consists of cultivating each parcel differently in order to produce a specific, identifiable cuvée. Soil analysis, choice of compost, ploughing here, grassing down there… Lambert talks about his vines as if they were his daughters! In fact, his flagship cuvée, Cuvée Marie, brings together the estate’s oldest vines (between 50 and 70 years old) and is named after his daughter. The wine that really made him famous is his Cuvée Danaé, a wine of rare fullness that, planted in limestone soil and harvested when ripe, expresses all the grace of Cabernet Franc. Intense, dark red colour, notes of liquorice and plum, and very fresh on the palate, his 2009 vintage, tasted from the cask without any dose of sulphur, is amazingly fresh and balanced.
 
Bernard Baudry
Bernard Baudry is a man who truly loves his profession and for whom making a great wine has always been a way of giving life meaning. “In 1997,” he told us, “the harvest was bad and, even worse, I really made a mess of my wine. I had a breakdown over it!” Cultivating his vines without weed killers, chemical fertilizers or pesticides, Baudry produces wines that are always honest and pure and express the diversity of the terroirs of Chinon well. The La Croix Boissée cuvée from the clayey-limestone slopes of Cravant is a concentrated, complex Chinon that is great for keeping. For a more everyday option, his white 100% Chenin is also remarkably lively and balanced.
 
Nicolas Grosbois
Remember this name because this young man is going to be famous! Nicolas Grosbois is part of the new generation setting out to conquer the old and trying to give Chinon a new boost. Before taking over the magnificent Renaissance château at the evocatively named “Le Pressoir” (“wine press”), between forest and river, Grosbois embarked on a world tour of vineyards. For 10 years, he learned how to make wine in Chile, Australia, New Zealand and Oregon… An enriching, formative experience that gave him an understanding of the diversity of world wines: “Each wine resembles the place it comes from and the man who made it!” Returning to France in 2005, Grosbois was convinced that the estate planted on the slopes of the Vienne valley could produce great wines and proceeded to work the soil, stop the chemical treatments, respect the parcels of land and aim for very low yields… Grosbois’ wines are deep, supple and round with silky tannins and a very fresh, liquorice finish. His top cuvée, Clos du Noyer, comes from a sandy terroir rich in silica and marine sediments.
 
Étienne de Bonnaventure
Étienne de Bonnaventure is a modest winegrower (“We’re only making wine!” he likes to say) of Canadian descent, who cultivates his hillside vines organically. His barrel-matured Chinons have a Burgundian style with very fine tannins and ripe fruit veering slightly towards the cherry and raspberry aromas of Pinot Noir. Sporting a beautiful purplish colour, they stand out mainly for their lightness and limestone minerality. The Les Picasses cuvée is wonderfully fresh and deep and offers outstanding value for money to boot.
 
* Those who might turn their noses up, convinced that Cabernet Franc can’t compete with Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, should remember that it’s the historic grape variety of Saint-Émilion. Château Ausone, the most prestigious of the premiers grands crus of Bordeaux, contains no less than 55% Cabernet Franc, with neighbouring Château Cheval-Blanc containing 60%! Cabernet Franc stands out for its tasty little grapes but must be harvested when ripe to avoid the unfortunate aroma of capsicum with which it is too often associated. 
 
 
Useful information
 
Pascal Lambert, Domaine “Les Chesnaies”
37500 Cravant-les-Coteaux
Tel: +33 (0)2 47 93 13 79
From €7.40 (Cuvée Les Terrasses 2008) to €17.50 (Cuvée Marie 2006).
 
Bernard Baudry
9, coteau de Sonnay
37500 Cravant-Les-Coteaux
Tel: +33 (0)2 47 93 15 79
From €6 to €15.80.
 
Nicolas Grosbois
Le Pressoir
37220 Panzoult
Tel: +33 (0)2 47 58 66 87
From €6 to €13.
 
Étienne de Bonnaventure, Château de Coulaine
2, rue de Coulaine
37420 Beaumont en Véron
Tel: +33 (0)2 47 98 44 51
From €9 to €16.50.
 
Where to eat
L’Auberge du Val de Vienne in Sazily offers a good wine list with 400 Val de Loire wines at very affordable prices. Petit Gris snail ravioli, flat parsley jus, puree with garlic; foie gras escalope with potimarron puree; superb jugged hare. Menus at €29, €35 and €46.
 
Le Fournil du Château bakery in Chinon makes exceptional leavened breads using organic flour which should be savoured like cakes.
Le Fournil du Château
16, rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau
37500 Chinon
Tel: +33 (0)2 47 93 17 65
 
The Pâtisserie Ayrole, also in Chinon, opposite the statue of Rabelais, is a local institution known for its “tarte vigneronne”, a caramelised apple tart topped with wine jam.
Pâtisserie Ayrole
5, rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville
37500 Chinon
Tel: +33 (0)2 47 93 07 15
 
16 km from Chinon, the village of L’Île-Bouchard boasts one of the most famous addresses in the region since 1920, the Charcuterie Arnoult pork butcher’s. People come here for their rillettes (potted meat), andouillettes (chitterlings sausage) and rillons (sautéed pork morsels) cooked over a wood fire.
26, rue Gambetta
37 220 L’Île-Bouchard
Tel: +33 (0)2 47 58 50 66

Despite its history and the place Rabelais gave it in French literature, Chinon remains a little-known city. Its very tasty wines, which age well and are very reasonably priced, also deserve to be rediscovered!

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