Guide to the Loire regions

Côte Roannaise

The Eleventh Cru of the Beaujolais?   

Ambierle and the plain of Roanne

Mais le joyeau, le veteran qui nous fait porter tête haute
           Mon ami, c’est le Bouthéran, c’est le perle de notre côte.

- Journal de Roanne 1891

- An ode to Bouthéran, the most celebrated slope in the Roannaise.


This page:

  • Facts and figures
  • Ten of the Best
  • Overview
  • History
  • In the vineyard
    Situation, orientation, climate and soil
  • Communes
    Permitted grape varieties
    Planting density and pruning
  • In the cellar
    Wine styles
  • Recent Vintages


Facts and figures – The appellation at a glance

Appellation Contrôlée Status: 14 February 1994
Vineyards in Production: 220 hectares (2005)
Declared Production: 10,000 hectolitres (2005)
Number of Growers: 57
Number of Co-operatives: None

Communes: 14
Wine Styles: red (90%) and rosé (10%)
Permitted Variety: Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc
Vine Density: 4,500 vines per hectare
Maximum Yield - rendement de base: 55hl/ha

Ten of the Best:
It would be fair to say that my visit to the Roannaise coincided with the growers showing their 2007s, a notoriously difficult vintage in the Roannaise and described by some as the worst in the past twenty years, which is somewhat surprising when one considers the quality of the wines in the nearby Rhône.

Selecting the ‘top five’ producers within the Côte Roannaise is a relatively straight forward exercise, but it becomes more debatable as one works down the list of growers in order to extract the best ten. To distinguish them, I’ve borrowed the classification used within Beaujolais, so you will find my top five producers, referred to here as crus, followed by a second tier of villages making it ‘twelve of the best’ instead. Each section is listed in alphabetical order.

Given that the appellation produces wines that are mainly consumed within a year or two of production, there are no ‘Ten Wines to Buy Now’ submitted. Instead, I refer you to the growers below as a reference for finding the best examples.  


  • Alain Baillon
  • Jean-Claude Chaucesse, Domaine de la Paroisse
  • Vincent Giraudon
  • Georges Paire, Domaine des Pothiers
  • Domaine Robert Sérol


  • Michel Desormière et Fils
  • Domaine du Fontenay
  • Emmanuel Guyot
  • Lionel Montroussier
  • Maurice Piat & Fils
  • Jacques Plasse
  • Jean-François Pras

The vineyards of the Côte Roannaise are not quite the Loire’s southern-most, but when one ascends from the rivers source, they are the first to be distinctly visible. Le Roannais is at the northern most part of the département called Loire (which in itself is understandably confusing). The river divides the département in two lateral halves, with the town of Roanne straddling both sides. The town enjoys a reputation as a gastronomic centre, primarily due its relationship with the family Troisgros.

The wine region resembles middle Italy (or Chianti-shire, as we English like to call it) with its villages of pan-tile roof houses built from the local pink-red granite, which sit amid a range of low, gently rolling hills. Added to this is the luminosity that even in winter indicates that one is not in northern France; the pink light at dusk just adding to the intense colour of the rock.

The Côte Roannaise is not a large vineyard; its surface barely covers 220 hectares, with the vines situated on the foothills of the Monts de la Madeleine to the west of Roanne. Today, the villages that make up the wine region are as likely to be home to Roanne’s commuters as to those who tend the land. Many growers themselves have a second income by raising sheep or Charolais cattle, making use of the fertile soils of the plain below. It’s a region dominated by local families with a long winegrowing tradition, but there is also a sprinkling of new blood, from other parts of France, and the occasional presence of a foreigner. For a region that has suffered bouts of decline, there is a sense that the next generation of growers are beginning to re-establish the family vineyards. Often referred to as a satellite of Beaujolais, comparisons to the Côte Roannaise are not hard to find. The vineyards run parallel, just 100 kilometres to the east, and of course the grape variety, Gamay, is consistent to both regions. Twenty years ago Roannaise growers would have been happy with the association, but as the market for generic Beaujolais dies, it’s a reference that they would rather play down, positioning themselves instead as the southern gateway of the Loire.

At 22,000 hectares, Beaujolais is 100 times bigger; compare the Roannaise’s 1.3 million bottle production to the 30 million sold by Georges Duboeuf alone. The referral to the Côte Roannaise as the 11th cru of Beaujolais might be somewhat provocative, but if it were (not that it ever can or will be) it would still be the most insignificant, as even Chénas, the smallest cru at 285 hectares, is bigger. 

But fifteen years after qualifying as an Appellation Contrôlée, is the Côte Roannaise now going through a crisis of identity? With a declining domestic market, and a name that is unrecognised outside of France, do the growers need to look at alternative sources of income? As it stands, the Côte Roannaise is not expanding and with its mono-cépage restrictions the appellation is something of a one trick pony. There are however, the first signs of growers breaking out of the appellation straight-jacket, either in the planting of white grapes such as Viognier and Chardonnay for the local Vin de Pays d’Urfé, or by creating a whole new market for their existing grapes by converting Gamay it into a (albeit delicious) low alcohol, sweet sparkling rosé – which necessarily sells as a Vin de Table.

No one can claim to know when viniculture commenced on the Roannaise hills, but common theory dates it back to the 8th or 9th Century. What is certain is that when the Benedictine monks arrived in Ambierle in 938 to establish an abbey, they will at the same time have planted the slopes with vines. Early documented evidence dates back to the late 11th Century when Guy I de Forez, the local seigneur, declared ‘aux habitants de Villerest le droit de vendre leur vin en toute saison’. Forez met his end during the First Crusade in 1097. The planting of vines started in earnest during the 13th Century at the time of the Hundred Years’ War. It was during this period that the Loire became properly navigable, made possible by the building of a series of canals which run broadly parallel with the Loire from Roanne northwards to Briare. From here it was possible for barges (called péniches, or saint-ramberts) to connect with the Seine and access the waterways of continental Europe. Alternatively, wine and other goods could be transported by mariners on the Loire as far as Orléans, where it could be off-loaded and transported to Paris by road.

Until the end of the 17th Century, however, south of Roanne the Loire was only navigable downstream, so the barges, which were made of pine from forests around the town of Saint-Rambert, were either sold off or dismantled once they reached their destination as they could not complete the round trip. Later, waterways were created allowing mariners to transport goods between Lyon (allowing access from the Rhône) and Roanne. These new routes ensured that produce from the Midi, and the Orient, also had ready access to the north. At one point wine was the second most important commodity to be transported on the Loire after coal, extracted from the mines of Saint-Étienne further downstream. This clearly benefitted local producers, and between 1620 and 1670 the Roannaise vineyard area effectively doubled. In 1789, the year of the French Revolution, it is estimated that around 50,000 pièces (the traditional 228 litre Burgundy barrel) a year were shipped from the ports of Roanne and nearby Pouilly-sur-Charlieu north to Paris, including 1,000 pièces from the commune of Lentigny alone.

The inauguration of the Roanne to Digoin canal in 1838 consolidated the Loire and its waterways as the most important method of transport since the time of the Romans. This 57km long waterway, punctuated by ten locks, was heavily utilised until the end of the Second World War, after which it was at risk of abandonment due to neglect and lack of commercial use, and it closed finally in 1992. Regeneration, however, has come about through tourism in the region, and pleasure boats are able to once again make use of the canal. Roanne’s wine industry prospered until the middle of the 19th Century and it is estimated that there were around 20,000 hectares of vines, comparable to what is planted in present day Beaujolais. Prior to this period, the vineyards were not collectively known as the Roannaise, but by their individual communes; la Côte de Renaison, la Côte d’Ambierle, and so on. The first mention of la Côte Roannaise is attributed to Abbot Auguste Lamblot when, in 1843, he published his verbosely titled work Voyage au Forez de la Magdaleine par la Côte Roannaise avec observation sur les végétaux.   

Like everywhere else in Europe, the vine was put under threat with the arrival of the various maladies of the late 19th Century. It’s not certain when phylloxera arrived on the côte, but the first documented sighting in Beaujolais was in the commune of Villé-Morgon during the summer of 1874. One can assume, therefore, that it arrived in the Roannaise around the same time. There are records, however, of the first grafted vines appearing at Domaine de la Paroisse as early as 1878, which is very soon after the first acknowledged experiments with grafting onto American rootstock were conducted in Montpellier in 1872.

The past 100 years has seen a slow recovery of the vineyards, commencing with the establishment of L’Association Vinicole Roannaise, created in 1911, to promote and defend the wines of the region. It’s fair to say that post-war reconstruction of the vineyards was delayed by the region producing equal amounts of good - and not so good - wine, although Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (V.D.Q.S.) status was granted in 1955.

During his time as President of L’Association Vinicole Roannaise, Paul Lapendery was the grower who, in 1972, submitted the first proposal documents to the INAO for the region’s elevation to AC status. He was also responsible for the appointment, in 1978, of Pierre Constant, a technician from the Chambre d’Agriculture de la Loire who was invited in to aid with the upgrading of the vineyards. Constant has since been described as the ‘spiritual father’ and instrumental in encouraging the majority of growers in the region to sign up to the Terra Vitis vineyard programme - see In 2002 a separate association, La Linotte, was created by Terra Vitis in conjunction with the Roannaise growers.

The Côte Roannaise received recognition as an Appelletion Contrôlée on Valentine’s Day 1994. To celebrate, the growers commissioned a calendar featuring 12 vigneron personalities from within the region, with the then president of the L’Association Vinicole Roannaise, the trilby-wearing Robert Sérol, on the cover. This brilliantly executed and clever piece of marketing is now a collector’s piece within the region. It was followed up a decade later with the publication of a book dedicated to the wines and vignerons of the region, entitled Sur les chemins de la Côte Roannaise, and it admirably helps to illustrate that this is essentially a cohesive and supportive group of producers.

In a region like this, one is surprised by the absence of any co-operative. However, on the northern edge of Renaison one finds an edifice, built in such a distinctive style that it cannot be anything other than a French wine co-operative dating from the pre-war era. It ceased to exist in the early 1980s having gone out of business. The sad looking building is still in use, as a base for a local drinks wholesaler.

In the vineyard

Situation, orientation, climate and soil
The Roannaise vineyards run for around 25 kilometres along a north-south axis on the east facing foothills of the Monts de la Madeleine, a range of hills that marks the eastern extreme of the Massif Central, as well as separating the river Allier from the Loire; the 1,165 metre high Pierre du Jour standing at their summit. To the south lies the Monts du Forez, of which the Monts de la Madeleine is a natural extension.

It is this range of hills that helps deflect the weather that arrives from the Atlantic in the west away from the slopes of the Roannaise; the underlying principle here being no different to how the Vosges mountains protect the vineyards of Alsace. Rain and hail can still be problematic, especially at the less protected points at the north and the south of the appellation where the weather can more easily creep over the lower peaks of the Monts de la Madeleine. The luminosity during the growing season suggests this is méridional France and is unlike any other wine region along the Loire. The summers here are distinctly Mediterranean-like, whilst winter is more continental with snow sitting amongst the dormant vines a common sight.

The soils here are composed primarily of free draining red, pink and occasionally white granite, with particles that can range from the size of a grain of sand through to large fragments of rock flecked with veins of quartz. These acidic soils are similar to those found in Beaujolais which also have a natural affinity to Gamay. Whilst granite might readily absorb heat and begin to warm the roots of the vine in spring, the downside is that in years of drought, vines can quickly show the effects of water stress which is compounded by planting on slopes. The vineyards lie on a narrow band of slopes at an altitude of between 370 and 550 metres, their aspect helping to reduce the risk of frost in spring, whilst sitting above any rot-inducing humidity that can remain on the Roannais plain during the growing season. It is because of the higher altitude (at 400 metres, Chiroubles is the highest of the Beaujolais crus) that the harvest in the Roannaise starts about one week later than in Beaujolais, commencing around, on average, the 15th – 20th September, although picking dates in the past decade have seen extremes ranging from mid-August (2003 and 2005) to mid October (2008).  

There are 14 permitted communes in the Cote Roannaise appellation, although four of these appear dormant with no commercially active vignerons. It is possible to discover isolated parcels of vines around the villages of La Pacaudière, Le Crozet, Chagny and Bully, which lie at the northern and southern points of the côte, but none of the primary growers stake any claim to them. Young Vincent Giraudon in Renasion, however, is set to establish a small parcel in Chagny at some point soon.  

Permitted Communes - North to South

La Pacaudière
Le Crozet

La Pacaudière marks the official start of the wine region and is situated on the Route Nationale 7, the original road connecting Paris to Lyon and the south. It became an important staging post during the 17th Century. Le Crozet is more renowned as a ‘must see’ on the tourist route rather than its position on the wine trail. It is not until one has driven some nine kilometres south of La Pacuadière, after turning onto the D8, and passing through another phantom wine commune, this time Chagny, that vines make their first appearance. At this point one is already entering the commune of Ambierle.

The village of Ambierle is set up on top of a small hill. Its church with its multi-coloured roof is clearly visible from the road below, the vineyards in front belong to Yann Palais who replanted the slope in 2000. Ambierle’s most distinguished lieu-dit is a south-facing, continuous slope called Bonichons and is located on the southern edge of the commune. Benedictine monks established their abbey here in 938 whilst simultaneously planting vines. It is said that the local wine was greatly esteemed by those eminent dignitaries who stayed at the monastery on their way to and from Cluny. The abbey was ‘downgraded’ to a priory by the then Abbot of Cluny, Saint Hugues, in 1101.

The next village heading south is Saint-Haon-le-Vieux. The name le-Vieux is apt given that this was the site of a prehistoric settlement and has been inhabited since the Gallo-Romain period. Here, like at Ambierle, the Clunisienne church dates back to the 10th Century. The vineyards here are planted on its flank, protected to the west by a pine forest, looking down over fields of Charolais cattle on the plain.

The best approach to Saint-Haon-le-Châtel is via the road that follows the contour of the hillside that heads south from Saint-Haon-le-Vieux. The vineyards here are a little higher, at around 420 metres, and offer a lovely view towards this fortified village and to the Roannaise plain beyond. This medieval hamlet of just 600 souls was once the capital of the comtes de Forez. It’s hard to imagine that this was the most important commercial centre in the region until the middle of the 17th Century.

Renaison in comparison is a dull little town of 2,800 people, but it acts as the focal point for the region, pretty much in the same way as Colmar is the heart of the Alsace. The vineyards here are hidden away well up behind the town, along with the cellars of some of the most important producers, with both Robert Sérol and Domaine de la Paroisse being situated here.

From a small road through the vines, one can drive onto the next commune, Saint-André-d’Apchon, passing the Côte Roannaise’s most celebrated vineyard on the way. Recognised since the Middle Ages, Le Bouthéran takes its name from an old Ambierle family who settled in Saint-André in the 18th Century; their name has been adopted for this lieu-dit ever since.

Le Bouthéran is a steep (40%), continuous planted, south facing slope that runs perpendicular to the east facing vineyards that look down on the plain. The soils here are made up of clay and small granite stones resting on granite subsoil. The heat is easily captured during the day and re-radiated onto the vines during the evening. All but abandoned after phylloxera, its ten hectares were fully replanted during the 1950s. Today Le Bouthéran is under the ownership of four different growers: Thierry Bonneton, Lionel Montroussier, Jacques Plasse and the brothers Vial, with each electing to recognise the lieu-dit by way of a separate bottling. Between them, they have also established their own confrérie to help promote the site. Having tasted the current releases from all four growers, I’m not sure that any have yet realised the potential that this parcel is claimed to possess.                      

The village itself, with its population of 1,800 people, nestles in a valley at the foot of Le Bouthéran. Its pretty church with its decorated roof and elongated spire dates back to the 12th Century.

It is said that in the 1950s Saint-Alban-les-Eaux was the most densely planted commune on the côte. Today one is hard pressed to find any evidence of vines, although judging by the number of abandoned maisons des vignes, most of the vineyards must have been established down on the plain. One is more likely to find a bottle of gently pétillant water, courtesy of Eaux Minérals de Saint-Alban, on a Roannaise table than a bottle of the commune’s wine.

Villemontais is situated on the east facing flank of the Monts de la Madeleine and enjoys commanding views overlooking the plain towards Roanne, the river and the mountains of the Beaujolais some 70 kilometres off in the distance. There are currently 45 hectares of vines planted within the commune, but old photographs taken at the turn of the 19th Century show the village surrounded by a sea of vines.  

Sitting on the plain, between Villemontais and the city of Roanne, is Lentigny. There are only 15 hectares of vines within the commune now, managed mainly by the growers of Villemontais, although the land is probably better suited to other forms of agriculture. Like at Saint-Alban, the derelict maisons des vignes is evidence that the plain was once populated with 300 hectares of vines.

As one drives through the village of Villerest towards the slopes, one sees an occasional vineyard and the signs for one or two small growers. There are 391 hectares in the commune dedicated to agriculture, and one suspects that this land was also once covered in vines.

Just to the south of Villerest lies the village of Saint-Jean Saint-Maurice, the vineyards, however, exist five kilometres away, high up on the slopes overlooking the plain and the Lac de Loire. At their highest point, in the hamlet of Le Puy, there is an abandoned clos, once tended by the priests who worshiped at the little chapel that overlooks the vines. Thankfully, this walled vineyard is in the process of being restored by Georges and Romaine Paire of Domaine des Pothiers. There is a sense of peace and tranquility here with the silence punctuated only by the sound of the occasional cow-bell. Back down on the plain, heading south, the village of Bully marks the southern-most point of the appellation. 

Other communes
In the book Vignes et vins de France by Poulain and Jacquelin published in 1962, the following communes were also cited as wine growing villages in the Côtes Roannaises. This should be seen as confirmation that vines were still planted here during this period, even if they no longer exist. All these communes are now listed in the décret for Vin de Pays d’Urfé, with at least one vineyard still in production, since Georges Paire has, since 2005, rented half a hectare of old vine Gamay in Saint-Nizier-sous-Charlieu.

Other Communes


Within the same publication, two individual sites are mentioned within the town of Roanne itself, although they appear to have long since disappeared.


Les Corbines

                                                                                                                                  Permitted grape varieties

Gamay is the only variety permitted for the appellation. Most of the older plantings are attributed to a local variant known as Gamay Saint-Romain (occasionally referred to as Gamay de Saint-Galmier). It takes its name from the village of Saint-Romain-la-Motte, located on the Roanne plain and said to be the source of the nursery that supplied the growers with their original stock when the vines were re-established in the early 1900s. At least one grower considers capable of only ‘low quality’ wines, devoid of sugar but exhibiting high acidity. Otherwise, new plantings are invariably of clones developed for planting in Beaujolais and grafted onto 3309 rootstock.

Within the region there are, like most places where Gamay is found, some rogue Teinturier vines. Here, they are made up of Bouze and the pink fleshed Chaudenay. Now outlawed within the appellation, these small parcels can still be utilized within the blend of Vin de Pays d’Urfé, to a maximum of 30%.

Pinot Noir
Some producers believe that Pinot Noir was as prolific as Gamay on the Roannaise slopes prior to the arrival of phylloxera, but lost its position when the vineyards were replanted due to the ability of Gamay to deliver higher yields. The late vigneron, Paul Lapandéry planted Pinot Noir in the early 1960s, well before the appellation was granted. He was a tireless campaigner for the elevation of the Roannaise to AC status and was distraught when it was forbidden. His Pinot Noir vines still exist, along with those of one or two other growers, although the variety is only permitted for use as Vin de Pays d’Urfé.

Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Aligoté, Pinot Gris
There are a number of growers within the appellation who see the need to add a white wine to their otherwise monocépage vineyards. Some are already starting to see their first plantings of Viognier come into production, whilst others are busy planting. The first Chardonnay vines were established in the region as long as 30 years ago by Robert Chaucesse at Domaine de la Paroisse. A few other growers have followed, but this remains of nominal interest. All white wines produced here are obliged to take the Vin de Pays d’Urfé appellation.

Vine density and pruning

Declared Plantings

2005 – 220ha
2004 – 205ha
2003 – 203ha
2002 – 192ha
2001 – 192ha
1998 – 166ha

The appellation calls for a minimum of 4,500 vines per hectare for all plantings since 1994, although it is possible to see vineyards planted at much greater density, with Robert Sérol’s vineyards following the Burgundian model of 9,000 to 10,000 vines per hectare.

Vineyards that were established pre Second World War were planted en gobelet, primarily as this was prior to any great mechanisation of the vines. Anything planted in the past fifty years will have invariably been trellised and pruned to Cordon Guyot simple.

In the Cellar

Recently declared production

2005- 10,000hl
2004- 11,369hl (including 1,343hl rosé)
2003- 5,863hl
2002- 7,826hl
1998- 8,885hl
1986- 4,905hl

Wine styles
It is quite common throughout the Roannaise to encounter two different styles of red wine and often referred to by the growers themselves as either fruité or corsé (robust). The style might be dictated by the method of vinification or ageing, or in some instances, it might be the same wine just bottled over different seasons, a mise printemps in readiness for the summer, followed by another bottling prior to the harvest which allows the wine to gain a little more density and structure.

Although the growers here seem to downplay any comparison to the Beaujolais, it is fair to say that any new trends in winemaking invariably have a knock-on effect in the Roannaise. Whilst it is possible to find a number of producers who work with spontaneous fermentations, more often that not they are reliant on cultured yeasts. The 71B strain, with its banana-like aromas and flavour profile, used widely for the production of Beaujolais Nouveau, but has been falling out of favour as fast the demand for this style of wine has faded. Instead, it has been replaced by another strain, romantically known as L2056. It is commonly used in the fermentation of early drinking styles of Côtes du Rhône and now accounts for around 50% of all red wine fermentations in the Côte Roannaise. Some growers ferment with 1515 which is widely seen elsewhere in conjunction with Pinot Noir, but used here mainly for production of the more corsé styled wines in the appellation.

Maceration carbonique or Maceration semi-carbonic - another technique widely attributed to the production of Beaujolais - is common here. This generally involves a week long fermentation and maceration in a closed tank whilst temperatures are allowed to rise to around 30˚centigrade.

Ancient and modern: basket press and thermovinification

First seen in Beaujolais in the early 1990s, this method was soon common place in the Roannaise. The process involves heating either whole berries (although the method allows for heating must as an alternative) to a temperature of between 50 and 80 degrees centigrade for around one minute. This ensures the skins of the grapes are hot, whilst the pulp remains cold. The result is that the skin cells of the grape are either damaged or killed which helps release the anthocyanins (colour compounds) during maceration and fermentation. The result, in theory, is to produce wines that are rich in colour, with low levels of astringency (the method extracts only the anthocyanins and not the tannin compounds) and increased primary fruit flavours. This method is also useful in years when there is rot, such as 2002, which is when the Vial brothers began using this technique.

Rosés, which account for around 10% of the total production, can be made either by saignée or pressurage direct and are generally consumed within a year of the vintage. The appellation rules state they must be dry, although some growers choose to make two separate versions, leaving residual sugar and declassifying to Vin de Pays d’Urfé in the other.

In an attempt to find new markets for the production, four growers have started to make a sparkling rosé. The method of production is essentially the same, although the resulting analysis ranges from 6.5% alcohol to 9.5%, whilst residual sugar levels are between 25g/l and 60g/l.

Around 75% of the production is committed to bottle with the balance sold en vrac. The French market accounts for over 90% of total sales with Robert Sérol being the only grower with any real presence in international markets.

Recent Vintages  

The growing season was similar to 2007. By early September nothing was ripe, but two to three weeks of warm weather and a north wind to help dry out the vines ensured that sugar levels rose whilst acid levels remained. Those growers who were prepared to wait and take the risk to pick in early October made the right decision. The wines are generally lower in alcohol at around 12%. 

This was probably the worst vintage in the past two decades due to a miserable, cold summer with plenty of rain. Hail also caused problems early on in the southern part of the côte, with one grower only attempting to make rosé and plenty of grape juice this season.

A normal, classic vintage.

As dry as 2003, but without the heat, although picking also commenced in August. The southern part of the côte suffered most with ripening blocked due to water stress, resulting in green tannins and low sugar levels. Ambierle fared better. This must be one of the few regions in France that cannot claim to have enjoyed a great vintage.

Like 2001. A good classic vintage in terms of quality and crop.

Like everywhere, 2003 was a year of heat and drought, although the end came with a deluge on the 24th of August, just as the growers were preparing to start the harvest. At Domaine du Fontenay, Simon Hawkins recorded a yield of just 11.8hl/ha, although this is an extreme example; most harvested at around 50% of a normal year.

A year beset with rain and rot. High yields.

Similar to 2004.



A year remembered due to an incidence of frost that resulted in a 90% loss in that year’s crop for some growers. 


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