Guide to the Loire regions

Val du Loir

The Vineyards of Jasnières, Coteaux du Loir and the Vendômois  

Permitted Grape Varieties

Pineau d’Aunis

Synonymes: Chenin Noir, Gros Véronais, Plant d’Aunis, Plant d’Anjou, Mont Chenin, Pineau Rouge, Côt á Queuque Rouge, Côt á Bourgeons Blanc, Mançais Noir, Plant de Mayet.

Chenin Noir is the name given by Count Louis Odart in the 1860s. Gros Véronais originates from the Pays du Véron, the triangle of land that is found at the confluence of the Loire and Vienne, and just a few kilometres away from Dampierre, the grape’s ancestral home in the Loire .  

Origin and History
The variety is a Loire original, although as with most varieties, no one really knows its provenance. It was first documented in the Loire at the Prieuré d’Aunis, an ancient dependence of the Abbaye de Fontevraud, in Dampierre (one of the communes found within the Saumur Champigny appellation). The latest theory, propounded by Michel Freyssinet, author of a book on Pineau d’Aunis, is that the vines originally came from the Vendée and arrived in the Loire by boat, much in the same way that Cabernet Franc did, transported by salt merchants as they sailed up the Atlantic coast and along the Loire . It was believed to have been planted in Chahaignes in the Loir in the 9th Century. (If this is the case, then it predates the arrival of Bréton, the local name for Cabernet Franc, by some two hundred years. The first record of Bréton in the Loire is 1152, although it was probably not widely planted in the Loire until the 17th Century). Pineau d’Aunis was once the most revered variety in the Loire and a favourite of King Henry III who exported vin clairet to the English court in the 13th Century, making it, presumably, the original ‘claret’. Charles VII of France offered the grape to the Duc de Bourgogne in 1425, presumably as a peace offering, some four years before the Dauphin was crowned, in the presence of Jeanne d’Arc, at Reims Cathedral.

Plantings and distribution

Plantings and distribution of Pineau d’Aunis in the Loir Valley     
  • Coteaux du Vendômois (140 hectares in 2005 – source INAO)

  • Coteaux du Loir (71 hectares in 2005 – source INAO)

According to most vignerons in the Loir valley, Pineau d’Aunis is the best adapted variety for the region. Found in small pockets throughout Touraine, it is, however, the principle red grape variety for the appellation Coteaux du Loir, where it must form at least 50% of any red or rosé blend (although this is set to rise to 65% with proposed changes to the AoC laws in 2009), and for that of the Coteaux du Vendômois, where there is a 40% minimum requirement for red wines, and it is the only permitted cépage for the production of gris.

There is currently a revival in the fortunes of the grape, yet as recently as thirty years ago there was a danger the variety might well become extinct. In 1973, plantings in the Coteaux du Loir had dwindled to just 16 hectares, although by 2005 it had recovered to represent 22% of total vineyard plantings in the appellation. In the Vendômois, its presence in 1995 was also looking worryingly low at just 100 hectares, accounting for half of all plantings in the region at that time. A further 85 hectares have been established since that date and it now represents around 40% of total plantings. The trend in the Vendômois from the 1970s onwards was to plant more Gamay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc as the region sought greater recognition and attempted to gain Appellation Contrôlée status. Thankfully, this trend has since been reversed.

The arrival of the Paris to Bordeaux TGV line in the early 1980s could have potentially dissected the vineyards around Vendôme and put further pressure on Pineau d’Aunis as a viable variety within the region. In reality, not too many vineyards were lost during the re-zoning process, but the threat galvanised the growers to establish a conservatoire, a genetic bank of cuttings from old vineyard material, with the objective of creating a wider choice of vine stock for future generations to select from.

During the years of crisis it scarcely made sense for retiring vignerons to grub up their unwanted vines as much of the wine produced from these grapes would have been destined for their own table. There was certainly no commercial reason to replace the vines with an alternative crop. As a result, many old Pineau d’Aunis (along with Chenin) vineyards were simply left abandoned. Even today, in a time of revitalized interest in the vineyards of the Loir, it is possible to see evidence of parcels that have been left untouched for decades.

The neglect and abandonment of the past generations has, however, ensured there is a healthy resource of small parcels of old vineyards, and these vines are now getting a second chance. There is a new generation of growers who are recovering these ancient ceps and starting to bring them back into production; it is not difficult to find vignerons who claim to have Pineau d’Aunis vines which date back to the late 19th Century. A few can even claim to have some pieds that predate the arrival of phylloxera itself.

Historically, Pineau d’Aunis would always have been planted on the less distinguished sites, either on the plateaux or on the fertile plains, thus preserving the best slopes for the cultivation of Chenin, which is where this variety needed to be to ripen fully. Whilst it may struggle to ripen in most years on the poorer land, Pineau d’Aunis can at least be vinified into rosé, even when the grapes were not fully mature. With this laisser-faire attitude towards the variety, it is easy to understand why it fell from favour: second class sites ensure second class wines, which is the reason why growers who have now embraced the variety are ensuring that it is planted on the most suitable terroirs, although perhaps only for the benefit of the next generations of vignerons.

Beyond the Loir valley, Pineau d’Aunis is to be found in Anjou where it is one of the permitted grape varieties in the production of Rosé de la Loire and Rosé d’Anjou as well as for sparkling wines of all colours. It is, understandably, written into the permitted list of varieties for the Saumur-Champigny appellation (although I have yet to come across an example that incorporates it), as well as for the wines of Valençay.

The Characteristics of the Vine

Soil
Pineau d’Aunis is a very terroir sensitive vine and the soil plays a vital role in its ability to express its origin. The more clay, the cooler the site, and invariably the water retention capacity of the soil will also be higher, resulting in retarded ripening. On the slopes, where greater concentrations of limestone can be expected, accelerated ripening can have a profoundly positive effect on the aromatics and finesse.

Growing Season
According to grower Jean-Marc Renvoise, ‘Pineau d’Aunis is neither capricious nor linear’. The variety has a tendency to bud irregularly, appearing four to five days before Chenin, although it is not considered a precocious Variety. It buds well in advance of Cabernet Franc, yet is much later than Gamay, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so the frost risk is relatively low. Flowering is more regular and around the same time as Chenin. Its flowers do not abort easily and it offers a good set and potential crop. The younger vines tend to grow vigorously and can quickly become exhausted in the early spring and summer, so it is necessary to contain the growth early on in the growing cycle. It is a naturally robust and fertile variety and was highly prized in past times for its productivity. With high yields however, comes dilution in colour, extract and alcohol, so severe pruning is required to control the size and number of bunches. It is also necessary to maintain an open canopy lest the leaves become susceptible to grey rot and mildew. Whilst the yield for both the Coteaux du Vendômois and Coteaux du Loir appellations might be set at 55hl/ha for red wines, 45hl/ha is advisable for Pineau d’Aunis to retain any sense of character and quality. Careful choice of rootstock and sowing competitive vegetation in the rows are ways of controlling the natural vigour. Pineau d’Aunis is generally harvested before Chenin, but the ripening cycle can follow very closely. Obviously, it harvested earlier for the production of gris, usually by around two weeks. For red wines, it depends very much on the style of wine to be made.

Berries, Bunches, Stems, Shoots and Leaves

In the vineyard Pineau d’Aunis is easily recognisable, even in winter, by the colour of its wood, and in the growing season by its stalks and the veins on its leaves, all of which are a deep blue/purple. In this sense it is similar to Gamay with its strong, woody red stalks, but in the autumn it is distinguished by the leaves which begin to turn a violent shade of red. Its fine, long tendrils and the shape of the leaves are very close to that of Chenin. Many vignerons, including someone as well respected as Joël Gigou, when questioned on the relationship between ‘Chenin Noir’ and Chenin Blanc answer very clearly: that the two are ‘very closely related cousins’. The thick, medium sized, crimson coloured berries contain plenty of juicy flesh, taste slightly acidic and are covered with a black, downy, cotton wool-like bloom. The bunches are compact and cone shaped, which help to justify its pinot/pineau ‘pine cone’ name. Whilst the above description might sound comprehensive, there is some variation due to massale selected vines. Even the quality rated vineyard material can offer large berried bunches as well as small concentrated grapes, and there is even talk of ‘teinturier’ mutations of Pineau d’Aunis which I am assured are not hybrids, but a natural mutation of the vine.  

Clones vs Sélection Massale
For propagation the authorities have put into wider circulation two different clones numbered, rather romantically, 235 and 289. The latter is the more productive and is presumably targeted at those growers who wish to exploit the trend for making gris. However, any quality vigneron believes that the only true way to propagate Pineau d’Aunis is by employing massale selection, an age old method of taking cuttings from a broad selection of different vines in order to create a natural wealth of plant diversity.   

Rootstock 

Riparia Gloire de Montpellier is considered the quality choice for both Pineau d’Aunis and Chenin in the region. Whilst the ground needs to be well prepared in advance to accept the new plantings, ‘gloire’, as it is commonly known, has a naturally de-vigourating effect on the plant as well as offering excellent quality fruit; it also appears to be less sensitive to wood diseases such as esca. The alternative lies in the widely used SO4. Devised in the 1960s, its introduction throughout France (and possibly the world) coincided with an age when quantity ruled over quality. It was sold to a generation of vignerons as a commercial saviour, but in reality its tendency (with Chenin, at least) was to promote excessive vigour in the vine, which leads, in turn, to other problems such as rot and mildew in the canopy. In the words of some growers, it also denatures the character of the variety in question. Many see that manipulating nature has created other more serious problems, such as those which relate to cryptogamic diseases such as esca and eutypiosis which have allegedly arrived as a result of adopting the likes of SO4. For some growers, the choice of rootstock is purely pragmatic and based on the terroir. Poor soils need a more prolific rootstock, whereas richer, more fertile clay based sites need to be de-vigourated. Finally, Pineau d’Aunis is sensitive to chlorosis, and SO4 becomes an obvious choice to help combat the disease in sites that might be naturally rich in calcium.

One final alternative exists when replanting, although this is primarily for the propagation of missing vines within an otherwise healthy vineyard. Marcottage is an age old method of taking a shoot from a neighbouring vine at the end of the growing season and running it below the earth in the vacant space. With time, the shoot develops its own roots and can eventually be detached from the mother plant. Whilst this is how the majority of vines were propagated in France prior to phylloxera, is doesn’t render the plant immune to the attack from the aphid, and so can only really be seen as a short term solution used on an individual basis.

Wine styles
In many ways Pineau d’Aunis is perhaps just as versatile as Chenin in the style of wines it can produce. Clearly Chenin cannot be vinified red, but it is capable of every possible expression in the spectrum of white, from sparkling through to sweet. Although sparkling wines do not form part of the appellations of the Loir, Pineau d’Aunis is used widely here in Méthode Traditionnelle, commercialised as a simple Vin de Table. As a base wine, it can be the sole component, but it can also be found blended with both Chenin and Chardonnay.

Most of Pineau d’Aunis’s recent success is due to a growing market for Rosé wines in France . Whilst Rosé might only be between 15-20% of the production in the Coteaux du Loir, it is becoming much more significant in the Vendômois, where it is curiously referred to as gris, or to be even for parochial, gris poivré or oeil de gardon (literally ‘roach eye’). In the Coteaux du Vendômois appellation, the production of gris is strictly controlled; firstly it had to 100% Pineau d’Aunis and pale colour extracted by crushing directly through the press rather than by any extended maceration with the skins. The wines are then vinified dry and will have an alcohol of between 9.5% and 12%. The regulations in the Coteaux du Loir appellation is much less strict for the production of rosé, and it is possible to find examples produced by maceration, saignée and pressurage direct.

With regards to red wines, Pineau d’Aunis can be found, legally, as a mono-cépage in the Coteaux du Loir. In the Vendômois there is an obligation to blend with Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir or Gamay, and this is one of the rare examples within the whole of the Loire valley where blends (for either red of white wines) are encouraged by the appellation laws. Until the appellation came into place in 2000, it was possible to blend in Cabernet Sauvignon and Côt too, and some growers such as Jean Martellière see their outlawing as ‘regrettable’. Generally, Cabernet Franc is the better blending partner, although one would have thought that Pinot Noir would have been the most sympathetic given it shares some similarity to Pineau d’Aunis, however many growers however, believe that the two varieties do not make a satisfactory blend.

There is no question, moreover, that the finest expression of Pineau d’Aunis is as a single grape variety, although in some occasional instance it may be bolstered, for colour at least, by a little old vine Gamay (see below). Quality is dependent on yield, and it must be harvested at below 40 hl/ha to stand any chance of this; more likely yields for very old vines will be at best half of this. Like Pinot Noir, it is a fickle variety, difficult to tame in the vineyard as well as in the cellar. Managing the vinification is a challenge, trying to coax out the inherent flavours of the grape without over extracting. For the most part, this means a long, cool fermentation, often below 20˚c, to help avoid any hot, baked aromas and flavours creeping into the final wine.

Characteristics of the wine
Pineau d’Aunis: once tasted, never forgotten. Like Pinot Noir, it is light in appearance and has a tendency to show some premature orange, garnet edges early in its evolution. It is, unless the grower is working with very low yielding vines, a variety with low anthocyanins. Colour can be concentrated by conducting a saignée, but for the most part one needs to accept that it produces red wines of shallow depth. The level of intensity on the nose and palate however, can often defy the wines appearance. Aromas and flavours of strawberries, raspberries, kirsch or griottes (morello cherries) are prevalent, but the overwhelming character is that of pepper, both white and black. Some growers state that the evidence of white pepper is a sign of unripe fruit and that when fully ripe the spectrum of flavours becomes denser and with a strong impression of different spices. With greater ripeness of fruit however, comes the risk of more confit aromas and flavours with the wine loosing its sense of delicacy and filigree like texture. There is also a purity of fruit that one can occasionally find with Pinot Noir. Because of its northern location, invariably the acidity plays a role in the wine’s structure, but the fresh and juicy profile only helps to lift and enhance the overall experience. The amount of tannins present relates directly to the age of the vines and the way the wine was vinified, but they can be noticeable in their youth. It also depends on the style of wine the grower is trying to achieve: for the most part, the trend within the region of production is to drink the wines early, so often there is a commercial decision made to vinify the wine to suit the market. 

Ageability

Since the tradition and demand in the region is for red wines that are immediately approachable and the amount vinified into rosé is significant, there is little opportunity to find examples that have been allowed to age. Moreover the growers, even the likes of Joël Gigou, view the variety as a vin de l’année or a wine that is best drunk within three to five years. Finally, we have already seen that the majority of Pineau d’Aunis finds its way into blended red wines, and unfortunately it is only the most quality conscious growers who produce examples that are pure.

Gamay
Gamay Noir á Jus Blanc (or Gamay Beaujolais as it is known locally) is more recent choice throughout the region. In reality plantings are now declining, particularly in the Coteaux du Vendômois where it is no longer a permitted variety for rosé wines (it was allowed for up to 30% of the blend prior to appellation being granted in 2000) and its role in red wines has been limited to 20% of the assemblage; it will legally diminish to only 10% from 2016.

Whilst Gamay ‘Beaujolais’ might have been endorsed by the authorities, the fact remains that much of the Gamay in the region is old material, and often referred to collectively as Gamay Teinturier; hybrids that were developed post-phylloxera and used primarily to bolster the red appearance of pale red wines like Pineau d’Aunis. About 1,000 hectares of Gamay Teinturier were grubbed up in Burgundy during the 1970s. More specifically, there appears to be three different varieties planted through the Loir , Gamay Fréau (also called Gamay a Jus Rouge Teinturier), Gamay Chaudenay and Gamay Bouse, which was planted during the 1960s. Some growers believe that the latter two are not hybrids, but mutations of selection massale vines. Hybrids are not legally permitted for Appellation Contrôlée wines, but invariably some are included, either by design or by neglect.

Gamay (of all persuasions) represents around 7% of the vineyard area of the Coteaux du Loir and generally ripens at the same time as the Pineau d’Aunis. In fact, it is common to find an odd row alongside, or a few Gamay vines planted at the end of the row, although it is rarely interplanted. Historically, where Gamay was planted to help to add colour and substance, it was done in an age before mechanisation when it could be, if necessary, separated out. Unfortunately, mechanical harvesters are less discriminating.

Cabernet Franc
This variety represents around 4% of the vineyard plantings of the Coteaux du Loir and also plays an important part in the Coteaux du Vendômois, where its use in the red wines of the appellation is is allowed to a minimum 10% and a maximum of 40%. Plantings of the variety since the appellation came into effect in 2000 have now stabilized.

Côt
Côt, or Malbec, represents around 4% of the vineyard plantings of the Coteaux du Loir, although it is no longer permitted in the Vendômois for wines that carry the appellation.

Pinot Noir
Not permitted in the Coteaux du Loir, but authorised in the Coteaux du Vendômois. Planting Pinot Noir here has been encouraged by the INAO since the creation of the appellation in 2000. The legislation stipulates the same proportion as for Cabernet Franc can be used, with a minimum 10% and a maximum of 40%.

Cabernet Sauvignon
The grape was introduced in the Vendômois during the 1960s, although one questions the ability of the fruit to ripen this far north. It was not included in the AC laws of 2000 which some, such as Jean Martellière, think is ‘regrettable’ as they believe it to be a good blending companion for Pineau d’Aunis.

Chenin Blanc
Chenin is the primary grape variety in the Loir and accounts for two-thirds of all plantings in the Coteaux du Loir appellation and is the sole cépage permitted in Jasnières. It is quite common to find vineyards here that are between 80 and 100 years old. Although clones are widely used (the preferred one being 3309 with 220 and 880 also available), the better producers take the same approach to selecting material, and the rootstock for new Chenin plantings, as they do with their Pineau d’Aunis.

Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris
Allowed for Vin de Pays in the Vendômois where they often blended.

Malvoisie
Planted in the 1950s in the Vendômois, but has since disappeared.

Pinot Blanc
Permitted for Vin de Pays in the Vendômois, but very little planted.

Meslier Saint-François
Not permitted, but I did find one grower, Charles Jumet in the Vendômois, who has a small parcel and makes a single wine from it. He took cuttings from a vineyard that was due to be sacrificed for the arrival of the TGV line in the early 1980s. See his grower profile for more details. 

The list below is taken from Vignes et Vins de France – 1962 - Poulain/Jacquelin


LOIR-ET-CHER
Recommended Varieties:
‘average yielders’ – Aligoté, Arbois, Chardonnay, Gascon, Gris Meunier, Landot 244, Melon (Muscadet), Romorantin
‘large yielders’ – Meslier Saint-François
Permitted Varieties:
‘small yielder’ – Seibel 10173
‘average yielders’ – Gamay teinturiers, Seibel 4986/5455/8357/8745/11803/13666, Seyve Villard 5276
‘large yielders’ – Grolleau, Seyve Villard 18315

SARTHE

Recommended Varieties:
‘average yielders’ – Aligoté, Chardonnay, Landot 244, Melon (Muscadet), Romorantin
‘low yielders’ – Ravat 6, Sauvignon
Permitted Varieties:
‘small yielder’ – Seibel 10173, Léon Millot, Kulhmann 192-2
‘average yielders’ – Gamay teinturiers, Gris Meunier, Seibel 5455/8357/8745/13666,
‘large yielders’ – Grolleau

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