Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2011-09-28
Cilaos is suspended at an altitude of 1,200 metres between the Piton des Neiges and the Piton de la Fournaise mountain peaks. Fringed by forests, the Cirque de Cilaos is a required halt on Reunion Island. To get there, you’ll need to drive up a twisting road or walk the trail that spans the island.
Theoretically, at least, you won’t be able to taste the wine of Cilaos - it’s illegal! The real Cilaos, that is. On the other hand, the official Chai de Cilaos, the local wine cooperative, is happy to offer tastings of its vintages, lawfully produced since 1998. It has red (Malbec, Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes), rosé (Malbec, Syrah and Pinot Noir), dry white (Chenin and Verdelho) and mellow white (Chenin and Gros Manseng). This last is the only one which, despite its prohibitive price, is of any real interest - but not as a souvenir, since Cilaos wine does not travel well; it is best uncorked and enjoyed locally.
Émile ruined everything
Cilaos wine – the real stuff – no longer exists because (purportedly) those who drink it may go mad! Isabella and Noah grapes, planted in Cilaos a century ago, were prohibited by a decree dating from 24 January 1935. The ban, which is still in effect 76 years later, was championed by Émile Cassez (1871-1948), senator from France’s Haute-Marne département and Minister of Agriculture.
Officially, the goal was to better regulate French wine: the unusually high methanol content of the Isabella grape (a Vitis labrusca cultivar called fragola - strawberry grape - in Italy) and of its cousin, the Noah grape, was suspected to occasionally cause insanity upon consumption.
The Isabella cultivar comes from North America; it is one of the ‘foxy’ grapes, so called because of their characteristic, musky scent. It seems to have been found wild in a South Carolina garden and offered as a gift to a certain Mrs. Isabella Gibbs. When imports to Europe began in 1862 to combat powdery mildew, no one knew that it was host to an aphid-like pest called phylloxera. Originally, the life span of the insect was shorter than the time it took to sail across the ocean, but the introduction of steam ships made the journey shorter and the phylloxera aphid eventually arrived in Marseille... alive.
Unofficially, ripping out these vigorous, resistant and productive vines was the only solution the government could come up with to save the French wine industry from ruin. The number of wine producers was increasing too rapidly and overproduction was becoming a real problem in France and Algeria. What to do with the hectolitres of wine that remained in the vintners’ vats post-season?
Ah, the sweet taste of forbidden fruit!
Real Cilaos wine is made from Isabella or Couderc 13 grapes growing on arbours covering local terraces.The fabrication is traditional: 100 litres of grape juice and 30 kilos of sugar steep together for 18 days. An estimated 100,000 bottles of this forbidden 15° - 16°wine are thought to be quaffed yearly, with 150 to 200 growers producing 200-500 litres each. In comparison, the official Chai is supplied by 18 wine growers over 14 hectares, producing a mere 25,000 bottles a year. Parcels of land are very small in Cilaos: only the football pitch is larger than one hectare!
The honeyed red is considered to be an excellent aperitif. It is often served with sautéed wasp larvae, tastier and more healthful than crisps or peanuts. You find a wasps’ nest, smoke the wasps out, pull the nest down and take it home to pick out the larvae one by one, then fry them in a bit of butter...
Better than a bijou, a Dijoux
‘Cilaos’ comes from the Malagasy wordtsilaosa, meaning ‘a place where one is safe’: in order to escape their masters, runaway slaves sought refuge in the heights, as far as possible from the coasts. They ran ahead of the slave-hunters towards the peaks Le Piton des Neiges (3,070 metres), the Dimitile (1,837 metres) and the Grand Bénare (2,898 metres). Their former passageways are now prime hiking trails: the keenest of ramblers can satisfy all of their yearnings around Cilaos, with 1,000 kilometres of waymarked paths criss-crossing Reunion Island.
The town is far from everything. To reach it, you leave the RN1 (Route Nationale) at St-Louis and drive along the RN5 as it twists up the mountain. We encourage you to listen to the radio before you set off, as the road is often blocked by rock slides. You’ll need a full hour to cover 35 kilometres of up-and-down hairpin turns: the perfect time to listen to the latest CD by the famed Reunion Island group Ziskakan.
The best way to become acquainted with the real Vin de Cilaos is to follow Pierre-Noé Dijoux, owner of the very enjoyable three-star Tsilaosa Hotel, into his wine cellar. Dijoux knows everything about the wines of Cilaos. In the 1990s, the INRA (Institutnational de la recherche agronomique) tested some fifty grape varieties on some of its land here, with the idea of reviving the wine industry. Wine grapes are commonly thought to have been planted on Reunion in 1665 ‘by the first colonists’, though there is no written proof of this. The Dijoux family have always made wine, although Pierre-Noé had a comparatively late start.
In fact, the first French inhabitant of Cilaos was a Dijoux, a cooper from Paris’s Montmartre quarter who originally came from the region of Savoie. He sailed over in 1728 to grow coffee and made some ‘garage wine’ for holidays and weddings. His seven sons eventually settled here and there on the island; since then, you can’t go anywhere on Reunion without bumping into a Dijoux - or an Hoareau for that matter, a family from northern France whose presence here dates from the 17C.
A peak experience in Cilaos
Between lunch and dinner (Cilaos’s other treasure is its famed golden lentil) you’ll need to take a stroll. Walk up the main street lined with shops and terraces; it is especially lively on market day. You might stop in at the spa for a health break and take advantage of the excellent waters of Cilaos, renowned for calming rheumatisms and helping the digestive system do its job. You can visit the embroiderers and buy a tablecloth and serviettes; the tradition began some time ago when soldiers’ wives taught the fine art of embroidery to local prisoners.
You will also enjoy the cool air of the mountains, especially in the evening; a welcome contrast to the heat of the lower regions. But sooner or later you’ll need to go back down to the ocean, the beaches and the hustle-bustle of the cities. And perhaps by then it will be time say your adieux to the island...
Hôtel trois-étoiles Tsilaosa & salon de thé
Hotel Tsilaosa*** and its tea room
Tel: 02 62 37 39 39
Restaurant Chez Noé (just opposite the Tsilasosa)
40, rue du Père-Boiteau
Tel: 02 62 31 79 93 (for boucané and sausage with lentils)
Hotel** & restaurant Le Vieux Cep
Tel: 02 62 31 71 89
Chai de Cilaos
Tel: 02 62 31 79 69