Guide to the Loire regions

Chinon

The Loire’s most recognized red wine appellation.

Is the spirit of Rabelais still alive in Chinon? Yes, of course. Here there’s a real sense of hospitality and conviviality, as in many wine areas – but not all.’

                                                          - John Ardagh, Writers’ France – 1989  



Contents: 

This page:

  • Facts and figures
  • Ten of the Best
  • Overview
  • History

Links: 

Facts and figures – The appellation at a glance

Appellation Contrôlée: 31st July 1937
Vineyards in Production: 2,350ha (2009)
Number of Viticulteurs: 237 
Number of Co-operatives: 1
Number of Négociants: 16

Communes: 18
Wine Styles: Red, Rosé (13%) and White (2%)
Permitted Varieties:
Cabernet Franc (minimum 90% red/rosé)
Cabernet Sauvignon (maximum 10% red/rosé)
Chenin Blanc (white)
Vine Density: Minimum 4,500 vines per hectare
Yield: 55hl/ha


Ten of the Best:  
In his book, Wines of the Loire, published in 1995, the author Roger Voss noted that there were 329 registered growers in Chinon. My research established around 100 fewer, but still too many to feasibly visit them all. The biggest challenge was identifying those that were worthy of an audience but with some careful planning, I selected around forty. This report is the result of two separate visits to the appellation in February and April 2011.

For those who already have a grasp for the wines of Chinon there will be few surprises in the names of those who head the list of best producers, but whilst some of their wines might be impressive, they are not necessarily all to my personal taste. Further on in this report readers will hear my views on the use of excessive oak, over-extraction and what effects these have on delivering wines with purpose and sense of place. It should also be noted that whilst certain domaines can claim to have some of the best wines, it might not be the case with the whole of their range; I single out Couly-Dutheil and Domaine Charles Joguet to illustrate this point.

     Ten of the best producers in Chinon:

  • Philippe Alliet                  
  • Bernard Baudry                                    
  • Château de Coulaine                              
  • Couly-Dutheil (for specific cuvées only)
  • Domaine Charles Joguet (for specific cuvées only)
  • Domaine de Noiré                            
  • Philippe Pichard, Domaine de la Chapelle    
  • Wilfred Rousse                                     
  • Domaine de la Semellerie                       
  • Bruno Sourdais, Logis de la Bouchardière 

Honourable mentions:

  • Vincent Bellivier                                   
  • Pierre & Bertrand Couly                          
  • Domaine Dozon                                    
  • Fabrice Gasnier                                   
  • Nicolas Grosbois                                    
  • Alain & Jérôme Lenoir, Caves Les Roches  
  • Domaine de la Noblaie                           
  • Domaine Des Pallus                              
  • Domaine de la Roche-Honneur              
  • Domaine Jean-Maurice Raffault              
  • Pierre Sourdais                                 



Overview
Chinon lies at the heart of the Loire wine region proper, surrounded by a dense forest and the fertile Véron plain, its vineyards are wedged into the triangular peninsular that separates the Loire from the river Vienne. It is a scenic spot and an ideal starting point for excursions to discover the many architectural and vinous attractions that this region has to offer. Busy and often congested (which perhaps has something to do with Chinon being the only prefecture town in France without a single traffic light), the streets come to life every Thursday when the market arrives. In total, there are an estimated 100,000 tourists a year; swelling the towns permanent population of 8,600 some ten-fold.

The town is best viewed from the south, at the point where the 13-arch bridge spans the Vienne. Here, one is rewarded with a splendid view of the river and fortress, with the original medieval town - a network of narrow streets and well preserved half-timbered houses - wedged in between. Where the tree-lined boulevard runs parallel to the Vienne, there were once medieval ramparts and battlemented walls, with a towered gatehouse positioned next to the bridge. Originally erected in the 12th Century to protect the town, they were all dismantled during the 1820s in order to open up the access to the river. 

Along the quayside sits a bronze statue of Chinon’s most famous son, François Rabelais, cast in 1882, by the sculptor Emile Hébert. Another bronze, this time Jules Roulleau’s colossal equestrian statue of Joan of Arc in mid-charge, sits in the eponymosly named square (the site of the aforementioned Thursday market). It was erected here in August 1893.

Chinon has been of strategic importance since Gallo-Roman times; the limestone ridge above town being a natural place to site a castle. In reality, Chinon is a fort with two châteaux; a bastion of defense for close on ten centuries, it is in stark contrast to the pretty Renaissance edifices found elsewhere in the region. The combined benefit of being both fortified and a trading river port (with guaranteed access to the major watercourses of Western Europe) means that Chinon has enjoyed a privileged existence throughout history.

The Vienne, with its shifting sandbanks and shoals, resembles the Loire itself and was indeed once known as the ‘little Loire’. Fed by the melting snow of the Plateau des Millevaches in the western hills of the Massif Central, the river runs for 372 kilometres before in reaches its end at Candes-Saint-Martin. Its fast running waters attract great numbers of river fish such as pike and zander, along with the migratory grey mullet which arrives here in summer. Local fishermen swear that when the mullet arrive at the confluence of the Loire and Vienne they fork right, whilst shad continue straight on.

In winter and early spring the low lying Véron is prone to flooding, making the poplar and willow plantations a veritable no man’s land. Vineyards along the banks of the Vienne only appear for the last 40 kilometres, making Chinon the only wine appellation to exist along its entire course. But the paysage is true Touraine. Along with its vineyards, this is countryside made up of orchards and rich pasture, perhaps best experienced on a misty autumnal morning.  

CHINON – WINES OF GREAT RENOWN

‘Chinon, trois fois Chinon :
Petite ville, grand renom,
Assise sur pierre ancienne,
Au haut le bois, au pied la Vienne’

              – François Rabelais (1494-1553) from Pantagruel - 1532

Grand renom indeed, but how many wine lovers can honestly claim to know and understand the Loire valleys most widely recognized red wine appellation? Superficially, it’s straightforward enough; a single classification based on Cabernet Franc, vinified both as red and rosé, and bolstered by a token amount (about 5%) of Chenin Blanc planted in many instances for cynical commerciality rather than any inherent cohesion with the region's soils. Unfortunately, for this commentator at least, Chinon is both a confusing and confused appellation, in desperate need of a shake-up.

Touraine hosts three of the four most important red wine appellations of the Loire. Combined, the vineyards of Bourgueil and its more saintly neighbour, Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil (which both face Chinon from the Loire’s north bank), are just about comparable in size but certainly less well known internationally. This probably has more to do with the fact that Chinon is a tourist hub with a long-standing connection to the English-speaking world, however it should be noted that even as recently as the 1970s, some three-quarters of the wines of the appellation were commercialized by the négociants. Domaines were small; a vigneron with 10 hectares was considered significant (5.5 hectares was the average in the early 1990s, although at 3.5ha the average holdings in Bourgueil was even smaller) and there was no co-operative system established within Chinon, indicating that there was an active négociant market to mop-up all the production. This also partly explains the long-standing laissez-faire attitude of the Chinonnais growers.

Spread across 18 communes and encompassing over 50 different soil types, it’s fair to state that archetypal Chinon rouge doesn’t really exist. Identifying what ‘true’ Chinon might be is further confused by the fact the 240 registered wine producers each have their own interpretation of what Chinon should be. The mode for oak-ageing only serves to hide, dominate and blur any real sense of origin further. Sadly, this added intervention is true even within the cellars of some of the appellation's most lauded and competent of producers. Many of these statement wines are over-extracted as winemakers attempt to harmonize the integration of the wood. For this purist -with his ‘highly refined’ palate - such handling is inappropriate; both for Cabernet Franc and for the appellation as a whole.  


Le Clos de L'Echo

THE CASE FOR A CRU SYSTEM
The light, sandy-gravel soils which run along both banks of the Vienne and accumulate on the Véron peninsular produce wines that are only ever destined to be consumed – cellar cool - within a year or two of the vintage. The vines on the limestone slopes and plateaux, however, are capable of much greater weight, concentration and durability. The simple solution might be to propose a tiered quality system; a tested formula of a village, premier cru and grand cru designation that is easy to understand and justify, but this is complicated by the fact that so many growers actually elect to blend between the three basic terroirs to arrive at some (often un)happy medium. Should the three-tier approach not be considered relevant, then at least history has presented us with a succession of highly regarded individual sites, or lieux-dits, which could equally be recognized using a similar model to that in Alsace (only learning from the numerous mistakes made there – details of which are beyond the remit of this guide to the wines of the Loire!). There are growers who are supportive of such an initiative; Matthieu Baudry being just one, but there are also sufficient detractors who are content to maintain the status-quo.

Moreover, it is practically impossible to distinguish the difference between the wines of Chinon, Bourgueil or Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil, especially when the complex soil types migrate beyond the appellation boundaries. It may well be a fallacy, but any identifiable qualities between the wines might better correspond to the personality of the communes in question; the aristocratic Chinon producing the more noble wines, whilst Bourgueil is more bourgeois; rustic and, dare one say, working class. It was once stated that because the Chinonnais, in general, hold slightly more vineyard land than their friendly rivals across the Loire, they could farm with greater efficiency and profitability; something which is ultimately reflected not only in the investment in their cellars, but also in the age and quality of the vehicles they elected to drive.

Overall, I would have to state that winemaking in Chinon is not as consistent as in neighbouring Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil or Saumur-Champigny where, even in the cellars of the most illustrious growers, the brettanomyces police would enjoy a field day. It can’t be denied that brett is a major issue within Chinon (as indeed it is in the other Cabernet Franc-based appellations). Some growers who identify the character are likely to refer it as animal, but it would appear that too many have no comprehension of the problem, failing to recognize it; even in their own wines.

Thanks to all its grand renom, life for the Chinonnais is relatively comfortable with little need for any introspection by its growers to fully address the issues that currently beset their appellation. In fact the situation now is little different to what it might have been 30 or 40 years ago; with a relatively easy market and low aspirations, both from the consumer and the vigneron, there is little evidence that this situation is likely to change any time soon. This statement might well be considered a less than complimentary mass generalization, but there is no ignoring the fact that the wines of Chinon should really be of a better standard overall.  

History

EARLY HISTORY – GALLO-ROMAN
Chinon’s historical legacy is built on a reputation of war, death and imprisonment. From the earliest period in time, the Loire has always been a line of demarcation. By the first century the Romans had divided Gaul into two regions; Aquitania, to the south; the first to be colonized, whilst everything to the north was Celtica (later to be known as Lugdunensis). Chinon formed part of this frontier, with the local Celts erecting an oppidum which became known to them as either Caino or Kann (a possible reference to the limestone rock). Ultimately the Celts were driven out and the Romans established their own castrum on what is now the same site as the fortress of Chinon; the foundations of which are believed to be of original Roman origin.

Christianity came late to the region and although there were traditions of a Saint-Gatien preaching in Touraine in the 3rd Century, there is no positive evidence that any ecclesiastical order was present before the 4th Century. It is believed that it was Saint-Brice, the successor to Saint-Martin (316-397), Bishop of Tours, who built the first chapel in Chinon around 426-427, although he was possibly preceded by the legend of Saint-Martin at least, since the saint is inextricably linked to viniculture, with claims that he introduced the vine to Touraine and that his donkey taught the locals the art of pruning.  

Saint-Mexme (pronounced ‘Meme’), a disciple of Saint-Martin and a legendary apostle of Chinon, added a second chapel and also a monastery at the foot of the rocky promontory. His legacy is kept alive both by the naming of one of the three churches in the town after him, but also by the 11th cope that hangs in the town’s art and History museum. According to Gregory of Tours, the church of Saint-Mexme was originally founded as a monastery but was dedicated to Mexme after he became a local hero soon after arriving in the town in the mid-5th Century. The legend states that in 463 the whole community had taken refuge in the fortress to escape from the renegade Roman general, Aegidius and his Frankish army. During the ensuing siege the warriors had managed to intercept the sole well and having no water, Mexme prayed for rain. Not only was he rewarded with not just sufficient water to drink, but enough to flush the enemy from their camp. He became a saint within his own lifetime.

As the imperial Roman era came to a close the Loire once again formed the border between Aquitania, now controlled by the barbarian Visigoths, and the Gallo-Roman realm of Syagrius. In 476, the hilltop fort fell into the hands of the Visigoths, who encouraged greater settlements closer to the river. Ten years later, Syagrius was wiped out by Clovis I (482-511), the first of the Merovingian kings, at Soissons (close to the city of Reims). In the spring of 507, Clovis, consolidated his empire at the battle of Vouillé (close to the town of Poitiers), defeating Alaric II, King of the Visigoths, and Chinon fell with it. Under the rule of Clovis I, Chinon became the principal fortress within his kingdom, setting an example which was to be followed by other leaders for several centuries after. By the end of the 6th Century, Chinon was a place of significant importance with three separate independent foundations and a substantial Merovingian mint which produced its own currency.

KILLING AN ARAB…
In 732, the future of Christianity within Europe was under threat from Muslim control. After crossing the Straits of Gibraltar twenty years earlier, the Moors had guided an entire army up the Loire. Under the guidance of Charles Martel, they were eventually defeated in a clearing in the Chinon forest at Landes du Ruchard, (other commentators state it was on a plateau close to Saint-Maure - and the battle is confusingly referred to as the Battle of Poitiers). The aggressors were driven back to Iberia, although any captured Muslims were interned on the Véron peninsular. For centuries after, it was said that the inhabitants of the Véron had much darker skins, whilst the surname Mureau is said to have derived from the Bedouins and is as common in the Chinonnais as the name Mabileau is to the residents of Bourgueil. The evidence of Moorish occupation can be found throughout the Véron, where numerous armaments and, in the hamlet of Hallebardière, a Moorish cemetery has also been discovered. The Muslims are also credited with the introduction of goats to the region, which helps to explain why there are so many local variants of goats’ milk cheese.

THE COUNTS OF BLOIS AND ANJOU
Shortly before the end of the first millennium, Chinon formed part of a divided patchwork of fiefdoms. The decay of the Carolingians saw the town and fortress pass into the hands of the Counts of Blois, vassals of the King of France. In fact, much of the history of 10th and 11th Chinon revolves around the rival courts of Blois and Anjou. 

The basic outline of the Fortress of Chinon we know today was constructed in 954 by Thibaud le Tricheur (aka Thibault the Deceiver or Thiobald I – d.978), Duke of Blois and Lord of Chinon, who first fortified the quadrilateral bluff with a 400 metre perimeter wall and erected the first tower. Both the town and the fortress were ceded to Geoffroi Martel, Count of Anjou, following the defeat of Thibault III in 1044. Once more the victors strengthened the defenses and rebuilt the castle. Between 1087 and 1105, Fulk IV (the Quarreler), the nephew of Geoffroi Martel, levied a special tax to raise funds to fortify the château further. Having usurped his brother, Geoffroi III, Fulk reigned for 40 years, holding his sibling prisoner in the fortress for almost 30 years. It was left to Pope Urban II who stopped off in Chinon whilst traveling to Tours to preach on behalf of the First Crusade, to secure his release.  When Fulk died, in 1109, the crown passed to his grandson, Geoffroi V of Anjou (b.1113 – d.1151), who famously adopted the name Plantagenet after the piece of yellow broom (genêt) he wore in his hat.

THE PLANTAGENETS IN CHINON
The chronological order of the history of the Plantagenet’s and their connection to Chinon passes through a total of three generations. In 1128, Geoffroi V married Empress Matilda of England (aka Maude b.1102 - d.1167) in Le Mans. Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I of England. As a child she had been betrothed to and later married Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor (thus acquiring the title of ‘Empress’). The couple had no children and eventually she was widowed. Her marriage to Geoffroi was more productive, having three sons; the eldest of whom eventually became King Henry II of England in 1154.

Henry also married well, in 1152, to Eleanor (b.1124 – d.1204), shortly after her divorce from Louis VII and brought Aquitaine with her as a dowry. Eleanor produced eight children over a 13 year period, including two future Kings of England: Richard I (the Lionheart) and King John (Lackland). By the time Henry succeeded to the English throne, he had already inherited Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Touraine from his parents and, along with his wife’s dowry, he now controlled an empire that extended from the Pyrenees in the south to the Cheviot Hills in the north. Henry saw Chinon as the perfect haven from which to run his vast feudal empire; equidistant between Aquitaine and the English Channel, and strategically sited at the centre of his local French possessions; the crossroads of Anjou, Poitou, Maine and Touraine. Henry elected to base his court and family here, hunting regularly in the local forest. Between 1154 and 1204, Chinon prospered, with Henry transforming the town into a powerful citadel, pouring money into it to protect it further, constructing an enceite wall to protect the lower part of the town (the walls of which were demolished in the 1820s to open up the access to the banks of the Vienne) and erecting the first permanent bridge across the river (some parts of which still exist). He also continued to further fortify the fortress, including the addition of the Fort-Saint-Georges (named after the Patron Saint of England) on the eastern flank. By the end of the 12th Century Chinon had the largest fortress in Europe.

The next saga concerns the tribulations of a family at war with each other. In 1173, Henry had Eleanor imprisoned for her role in supporting Henry junior’s (‘the Young King’) revolt against him. Eleanor was only to be released after his death. Henry II continued to reside, for the most part during this period in Chinon. He died on the 11th July 1189, at the age of just 56, some say a broken man, after hearing from the French ambassador that his favourite son, John, had defected with his older brother, Richard to the cause of his nemesis, Philippe Auguste - with whom Henry was also forced to accept and sign a humiliating treaty as part of his defeat. Curiously, both Henry and his estranged wife are buried, side by side, at the nearby Abbaye de Fontvraud.

Two years later, in 1191, Richard I and Philippe Auguste were in unison fighting in the Crusades. On the return, however, Richard is captured and imprisoned on the banks of the Danube by the Leopold V, Duke of Austria. Whilst in prison, his brother, John, assumed power until, in 1194, Richard was released by his captors following the payment of a huge ransom. Richard survived for a further five years, until being fatally wounded by an arrow at the siege of Châlus, a remote castle in the Limousin. Legend has it that he was transported back to Chinon, eventually dying, either in the fortress, or in the Hôtel des États-Généraux in the town on the 6th April 1199. His body is also buried in the same chapel as Henry and his mother (although Eleanor was to survive her son by five years). With no heir, John was awarded the crown of England and continued to reside at Chinon. For the following two years he also strengthens the fortress against potential attack.

In August 1200, John kidnapped and married Isabelle of Angoulême, cousin of the King of France, snatching her away from her suitor, Hugh de Lusgnan. Looking for a reason to wage war on John and the English crown, Philippe Auguste sees this as a perfect opportunity. Chinon was finally lost to the French in June 1205 after a 12 month siege of the fortress. As Henry II had envisaged, it was to be finally taken from the eastern side of the Château de Mileu where, after numerous previous assaults using huge timber-framed towers, the walls of the fortress were sapped and the keep, built by Henry, was destroyed. Philippe was quick to make repairs and to strengthen the fortress with more walls and towers against a reprisal attack. His victory at Chinon enabled Philippe to restore Touraine to French control.

The final humiliation for the English happened almost a decade later at the Battle of Roche-aux-Moines in Savennières. More neglectful of his French possessions that his father, the defeated John was forced to return to the fortress to sign the Treaty of Chinon on the 18th September 1214, signaling the end of English rule. With no land left to defend, the suitably named Lackland returned to England where he died, at Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire, two years later.

THE KNIGHTS TEMPLARS
The most famous residents of the Fortress of Chinon during the 14th Century were sadly not the owners, but its captives; incarcerated in the impregnable Tour de Coudray, a chapter of the Templar Knights were held here whilst they awaited news of their fate.
Led by Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Templars, 140 members of the Order were imprisoned in 1307 by Philippe VI, otherwise known as Phillip the Fair. Concerned about the power and influence the Templars enjoyed (the Order was capable of creating its own states and countries, paid no taxes and obeyed only their own laws), Philippe obtained a Bull from Pope Clement V giving him permission to bring the Templars to trial, having every single member arrested on the same day.

Ordered by the Pope to leave their campaign in Cyprus, with other Templar dignitaries and their collective treasures, Molay was ordered to head for Paris. They were seized on the 13th October and transported to the security of the Coudray tower. They were imprisoned here for three years; the internal walls are engraved with graffiti, etched by these soldier-monks as they awaited news of their fate. On the 12th May 1310, 54 of the Order were burned at the stake on one of the islets of the Seine in Paris. Jacques Molay was spared until the 19th March 1314, when he was also transported to Paris to receive his judgment which, ultimately, was the same fate as the rest. Whatever fortunes that might have been extracted from the Templars were short-lived, since public opinion forced Philippe to donate any gains to other monastic orders, and he died the same year as Molay went to the pyre.

THE PERSECUTION OF THE JEWS
In 1321, a conspiracy against the Jewish community took hold in France.  Known as the ‘leper scare’, unfounded claims had lepers poisoning the wells of certain towns. The accusations concluded that these acts had been orchestrated by the Jewish minority who were in complicity with the Moors. In Chinon, following the orders of Philippe V (the son of Philipppe the Fair), 160 men, women and children were taken from the Rue de la Juiverie (the towns Jewish quarter), to the Île de Tours, the island in the middle of the Vienne, and burned alive.

CHARLES VII
In the early 15th Century, Paris was under the control of Henry VI of England and in 1427, the fortress of Chinon became the residence of the exiled Charles VII who made it his permanent seat of court. It was here that he famously received Joan of Arc on the 8th March 1429, who came to the dauphin to urge him to declare himself king and to raise an army to help liberate the city of Orléans which, supported by the Burgundians, was under siege by the English. Given that it was here in Chinon that the fortunes of the French changed, the town should respectfully be remembered as the birthplace of French independence following the Hundred Years’ War.

It was also in Chinon that Charles installed his mistress, Agnès Sorel, in the Hôtel de Roberdeau, which is believed to have existed outside the town’s walls in Rue Voltaire. Only remnants of the walls now remain, but it is said that Charles accessed Roberdeau via a secret passage that led directly from the fortress; something that was generally derided until, in 1806, ground alongside the church of Saint-Maurice caved in during the digging of a grave, revealing a subterranean passageway. Charles dissolved his court in Chinon in 1449, although he ruled France for a further 12 years.


Jules Roulleau's equestrian statue of Joan of Arc

JEANNE D’ARC
‘I myself was present in the town and the castle of Chinon and I saw her appear before the royal majesty with great humility and simplicity, that poor little shepherd maid’ – Raoul de Gaucourt, Governor of Orléans

Joan of Arc spent a limited amount of time in Chinon, but it was nonetheless of great significance in the history of the town. The 19 year old martyr left her home village of Vaucouleurs (close to Bar-le-Duc in Eastern France) on or around the 13th February 1429 for Chinon. The journey is said to have taken eleven days, although some commentators state that she arrived, accompanied by six men-at-arms, on the 6th March. Tradition holds that she lodged at an inn on the Grand Carroi (although at her trial, Joan claims to have stayed with ‘a good woman close to the castle’), praying in the church of Saint-Maurice for the two or three days before being received by the dauphin. The steep, cobbled path from the town to the fortress that Joan would have taken still exists today. Following her audience, she was housed in the upper chamber of the Tour de Coudray within the fortress for three nights before being sent to Poitiers for a three week ‘examination’ by a tribunal of midwives and doctors (it was common belief that a virgin could not be a witch, since this required having sex with the devil). The examination concluded, Joan was pronounced as a ‘messenger from God’ and duly returned to Chinon where she was provided with attendants and equipped with armour, sword and her banner, leaving Chinon sometime between the 20th and 26th of April. The liberation of Orléans commenced on the 29th of the same month.

CHINON BETWEEN 1461 AND THE REVOLUTION
The fortress of Chinon remained a residence of successive Valois kings; both Louis XI (who declared the wines of Chinon to be
optimum vinum) and Charles VIII occasionally lodged here, although chose to hold court in the slightly more hospitable settings of Amboise or Blois. After the death of Charles VIII in 1498, the crown passed to a distant cousin, Louis of Orléans. In his will, Charles had made it a condition that his heir should marry his widowed queen, Anne of Brittany who, despite being 15 years his junior, Louis quite fancied. Already married (at the age of 14) to the massively disfigured Jeanne de France, Louis consulted Pope Alexander VI and requested a divorce. The Pope’s decision was carried to Chinon by Caesar Borgia (the Pontiff’s illegitimate son). The Papal Bull was read and the marriage annulled. The marriage to Anne went ahead uniting, for the first time in history, Brittany with the rest of France.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Rabelais by Eugène Delacroix - 1833

FRANÇOIS RABELAIS 1483-1553
François Rabelais is to the wines of Chinon what Robert Burns is to Scotch whisky. He was a celebrated, if rebellious, humanist who wrote satirically about the various occupations he had pursued within his life: lawyer, physician, chemist, priest and author… His books, Pantagruel and Gargantua, are littered with references to idle monks, pompous lawyers and the doctors of the Sorbonne. Yet despite his own prolific writing there is surprisingly little written about the man himself; even the year of his birth is open to debate - sometime between 1483 and 1494 - although scholars of Rabelais tend to agree on the earlier date. Surprisingly, given Chinon’s strategic importance during the time of the writer’s existence, there is little mention of the town itself in his works, although numerous passages offer a useful insight into the wines of the region during this period.

Rabelais was born and raised at La Devinière, a smallholding about five kilometres from Chinon and exists today as a museum dedicated to his life and works. He was destined for a life in the church and was educated by the monks of the nearby abbey of Seuilly. After studying law, he first became a Franciscan priest before defecting to a Benedictine order.

La Devinière is a modest property, perched mid-way up a gentle slope; the cottage itself is nothing more than a single room on the ground floor with a single bedroom above, accessed by an external stone staircase; its rungs well-worn through centuries of heavy traffic. At the rear is a network of caves dug out of the tufa; some showing evidence of a previous troglodytic experience, whilst two others contain old wine presses carved out of the rock.

His father, Antoine, was a wealthy and respected lawyer in Chinon, managing the administration and rent collection for the vast ecclesiastical estate of Fontvraud; his signature noted on many of the abbeys financial records. Others have Antoine down as a vintner and wine merchant who, at one point, is said to have owned the Clos de l’Echo which he is subsequently said to have let out on the métaire (crop-sharing) system. Another vineyard holding was supposed to be at Gravot, near Bourgueil, which saw Rabelais recalling his childhood memories when he referred to the ‘Bûcheron de Gravot’ (the Gravot woodman). In the 16th Century occupations were not as well defined as they might be today, and it is possible that Antoine dabbled in more than one trade or profession. One suggestion is that he was the Lord of a property called Chavigny-en-Vallée, although there is no evidence that the family was of noble stock. His office was located at the Palais de Baillage in Rue Haute-Saint-Maurice (now the Hotel Gargantua) and he lived in the Rue de la Lamproie. The house (now number 15) no longer exists, but a local legend that has Rabelais junior fishing for his beloved lampreys from the window of the flooded street below is completely feasible. In addition to the vineyards and the main residence in Chinon, Antoine is also believed to have owned several more houses in the same row and also was responsible for the construction of La Devinière which served as a weekend retreat and hunting lodge; within sight of the fortress of Chinon, it would have been no more than a two hour ride.

It is said that François made a short return to his pays de vache during the harvest period in 1532. By this time Pantagruel was already complete (the book was published the same year), with Gargantua being written around 1533 and published two years later. It is believed that Rabelais never returned to Chinon after his books were published.

THE BOURBONS
The shift in power saw the Valois kings abandoning the fortress, with the last in line, Henri III trying to have it demolished fearing it would become a Huguenot stronghold. During the Wars of Religion, the town and fortress was occupied several times by the Protestants. Henri IV, the first of the Bourbon kings, turned the fortress into a state prison and his successor, Louis XIII, sold it to Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who attempted what Henri III had failed to do; dismantling the fortress, including the Great Hall where the dauphin had originally received Joan of Arc (the only remaining evidence is the mantel-piece of an old stone fireplace). Richelieu used the stone to construct his eponymously named town, 40 kilometres further south. For the rest of the Bourbon reign it was left abandoned (although it remained under the ownership of Richelieu’s descendants; the eldest son of each generation being awarded the title of Comte de Chinon) until the Revolution finally swept away the family who were considered part of the old feudal system.

The fortress received further attention during the Reign of Terror when it was temporarily occupied, in 1793, by the royalist Vendéans. On Quai Pasteur, close to the river, there is a monument to the 271 prisoners massacred by Republican soldiers during the conflict.

19th AND 20th CENTURY CHINON
Almost in complete ruin, the fortress was donated to the town of Chinon in 1808. In 1840, it was classified as a Monument Historique, but it was only in 1855 when the Inspector General of Historic Buildings, Prosper Mérimée (a romantic novelist considered the father of preservation in France), alerted Emperor Napoleon III to its plight that a partial restoration began. The town council appointed Joly-Leterme, a Saumur-based architect, to start a restoration programme which would halt any further decay.

It is only recently, after a seven year restoration project costing €17 million, that work to secure the fortress of Chinon was finally completed. Beginning in 2003 with an archeological dig on the original site of the fort of Saint-Georges, the ramparts were reconstructed between 2005 and 2007. Following on from this, there was a complete restoration programme of the royal apartments, which was completed in 2009. The fortress was once again re-opened to the public in July 2010.  

WINE HISTORY


Jatte-Passoire - Chinon Museum

The discovery of a jatte-passoire (a pottery wine filter), believed to date from the first century, is evidence enough to prove that wine has been made in Chinon since Gallo-Roman times. It was unearthed during excavations of the Hotel du France in the centre of the town. One millennium later, during the reign of the Plantagenets, the wines of Chinon enjoyed a privileged position on the royal table; not only at Chinon but in England too. Evidence exists, however, of wine being exported from the region at least a century earlier than this - by way of an 11th Century text, La vie et les miracles de Saint-Mexmes - which refers to a local vigneron shipping his Breton wines downstream to Nantes. During the same period, the founding of religious orders at nearby Bourgueil and Fontvraud also contributed to the establishment of the vine around Chinon. The famous Le Chêne Vert vineyard is believed to have been planted in the 11th Century by the Benedictine monks from Bourgueil, whilst a certain Robert founded the Abbaye de Turpenay, at the northern edge of the forest of Chinon in 1108.

Beyond the various references made by Rabelais, there is little written about the wines of Chinon during The Middle Ages through to the last days of the First Republic at the end of the 18th Century (although we know that in the 15th Century a pinte de bon vin Véron contained 93 centilitres). There is evidence that the wines of the region were in high demand by Dutch négociants around this time and, later, we know that a total of 171,480 hectolitres was produced from the 1827 harvest; suggesting that the first half of the 19th Century was a prolific period for the Chinnonais.

The downfall of many Loire appellations during the second half of the century relates to two common themes; the arrival of the railway (in Chinon this came late, in 1870) which allowed rival regions in the south easy access to markets in the north and, of course, the introduction of phylloxera. First discovered in Noizay (within the Vouvray appellation) in July 1882, the louse was identified in Chinon later the same year. Some growers struggled on; there is a recorded request to the local administration by Charles Mureau, the tenant vigneron of the Clos de l’Hospice, in 1889 to grub up the affected parcel.

20th CENTURY
Chinon received Appellation Contrôlée status on the 31st July 1937, with subsequent revisions in 1974, 1980, 1983, 1996 and 1997.
Between 1950 and 1970 the appellation almost doubled - and has doubled again since. At the same time, cellars were renovated in line with a commensurate increase in reputation and demand. Today the appellation stands at around 2,350 hectares, producing the equivalent of 15 million bottles in an average vintage; 85% of which is vinified as red. As of July 2009, there was the equivalent of 14 months stock in the cellars of Chinon; something that should be interpreted as a healthy rate of sale. The influence of individual producers and domaines have increased so that only 40% of the production now passes through the hands of the négoce (of which Castel are the most significant), but there is still no co-operative system to speak of within the appellation.

More recent changes to the appellation rules saw the abandonment of the antiquated ban de vendange laws, in September 2008.

 

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