Guide to the Loire regions

The Lost Vineyards 
of the Allier
D
épartement
 


La Chapelaude - Notice the vines in the foreground

Overview
Today, Saint-Pourçain is the only recognized appellation in the Allier ; this wasn’t always the case. Prior to phylloxera, the département had a number of other areas that represented significant pockets of vines. These included the valley of the Cher north of Montluçon, the banks of the river Allier close to Vichy, and alongside the river Sioule in the south-west of the département. Whilst some vineyards will have existed purely as a way for small holders to put a pitcher of wine on their own tables, the vast majority were commercial plantings.

The figures below are a summary of the plantings and production in the département of Allier for selected vintages between 1788 (the year before the French Revolution) and the mid 20th Century. In extracting the information, I’ve tried to identify years which express certain trends and demonstrate wild fluctuation in yields during this period. Explanations for the variations have been lost in time, although we know that the 1910 harvest was blighted by mildew.

Readers should keep in mind that these figures include the plantings of Saint-Pourçain which peaked in the mid 1800s at around 8,000 hectares.

Plantings and Production - 1788 - 1959

1788        10,843ha      
1816   12,000ha       260,000hl
1827   15,243 ha      288,866hl
1849   16,944ha      
1850   15,532ha       468,061hl
1865   15,263ha       271,915hl
1870   15,364ha       189,041hl
1871   15,370ha       99,941hl
1875   14,141ha       511,750hl
1880   14,489ha       41,756hl
1890   14,061ha       189,919hl
1897   14,550ha       27,251hl
1900   13,840ha       434,428hl
1905   14,928ha       715,011hl
1907   10,707ha       466,072hl
1909   8,706ha         175,823hl
1910                      15,407hl
1919   7,625ha         389,893hl
1929   7,035ha         133,685hl
1939   8,042ha         296,341hl
1949   6,394ha         142,890hl
1959   5,203ha         154,681hl
 

Source: Pierre Galet (1962)

The table illustrates that the height of plantings in the Allier was in 1849 when there were around 20,000 registered récoltants in the département. Between 1852 and 1860 the split between red and white wines was approximately 80% red (and presumably rosé) and 20% white. The principle red grape was Le Gouget which accounted for more than half the entire plantings. Other red varieties included Gamay (‘Beaujolais’ and Saint-Romain) and Gamay Teinturiers. The white varieties were composed of 8% Verdurant (Chenin Blanc) with Chasselas, Meslier, Melon, Sauvignon, Aligoté and Saint-Pierre Doré making up the balance.

Returning to the table above, the effect of the phylloxera epidemic can be seen taking hold in the first decade of the last century when plantings diminish from nearly 14,000 hectares to below 9,000ha by 1910. As soon as it was discovered that grafting onto American rootstock was the only real solution to combat the problem, planting to replace the lost vines commenced, although never to the same extent as in the late 1800s. It was during this period that vignerons began to adopt non-traditional varieties such as Limberger, Portugais Bleu, Malbec, Groslot and Cabernet Franc along with several hybrids including Alicante-Bouschet, Noah, Baco and various Seibel varieties. Part-time vignerons who planted mainly for home consumption generally elected to use hybrids. By the end of the 1950s, the number of white grape varieties had dwindled to just 10% of total plantings.

THE VINEYARDS OF MONTLUÇON AND THE CHER VALLEY
Montluçon today is a dull industrial town on the banks of the Cher towards the northern end of the Allier département, but it was also once the centre of a thriving wine community with vineyards stretching along the right bank of the river from Lavault-Ste-Anne, just below Montluçon, up as far as the village of Urçay to the north. It was said that in the mid 1800s all the slopes along the length of this section of the Cher that were between 220 and 250 metres in altitude were populated with vines. On the opposite bank, vineyards were more concentrated on the three communes of Domérat, Huriel and La Chapelaude. In the hamlet of La Croze, close to Huriel, there are a number of well preserved maisons des vignerons that remain as evidence of the region’s vinous past. Prior to phylloxera, the commune of Huriel accounted for 1,200 hectares of vines alone. 

The first mention of vines planted in Huriel (the oldest documented evidence of grapes in the area) comes from a charter that was prepared by the priory of Chapelle-Aude (now La Chapelaude) in 1073. Nearly two centuries later, correspondence between the priest at La Chapelaude and local squire, Roger de Brosse, finds them discussing the ban de vendange for the vintage of 1265. The vineyards of Clos de Ricros in Huriel along with vines in Domérat were tended by the Ursulines of Montluçon in the late 16th Century. Plantings within Domerat and Huriel reached their apogee in 1914 with a total of 1,300 and 1,200 hectares planted respectively, this despite the effect of the phylloxera epidemic just two decades before.

Before phylloxera was first identified in Huriel in 1886, the vineyards of the area were planted primarily to Le Gouget, a curious local red grape variety (see permitted grape variety link from the main page), Verdurant (the local name for Chenin Blanc) and Romorantin. In his 1982 book ‘Ils Étaient Vignerons à Huriel’, Bernard Duplaix explains that during the period of replanting post phylloxera, the growers elected to replant Le Gouget and Verdurant, but also started to introduce Gamay, but also hybrids such as Gaillard, Othello and Noah, plus a rare non-hybrid variety called Damas.

The chart below is taken from a survey conducted in the Allier in 1936 and shows the percentage plantings of vineyards around Montluçon at that time.

Plantings - Montluçon circa 1936

Cépages Rouges

%

Cépages Blancs

%

Le Gouget

52

Verdurant

6

Gamay Saint-Romain

10

Romorantin

3

Gamay Teinturier

8

Divers (others)

3.5

Gamay Lyonnais

7

 

 

Gamay ‘Beaujolais’

6

 

 

Gros Gamay d’Auvergne

2

 

 

Producteurs directs

2

 

 

Divers (others)

0.5

 

 

Total

87.5%

 

12.5%

From the 1940s through to the 1960s it would appear that the vineyards had been all but abandoned altogether, although Pierre Galet, in his tome Cépages et Vignobles de France (1962) cites 250 hectares planted between Désertines and Maillet on the right bank of the Cher, with a further enclave of 60 hectares of vines further north between the villages of Lételon and Meaulnes (made famous in Alain Fourniers 1912 novel, Le Grand Meaulnes); both communes falling just within the Allier’s north-western boundary. In the same year, Poulain and Jacquelin (in Vignes et Vins de France – 1962) note the following seven communes as producing wine:

Communes of Montluçon

Domérat
Huriel
La Chapelaude
Désertines
Givarlais
Reugny
Estivareilles

So, it would appear that Domérat, Huriel and La Chapelaude all seem to have maintained at least some viticultural presence by this point. Désertines, on the right bank of the Cher has since been swallowed up as a suburb of Montluçon. The remaining three, Givarlais, Reugny and Estivareilles, all exist as villages and are situated between ten to fifteen kilometres north of the town.

Today there appears to be one remaining vigneron still in existence. Based in the hamlet of Les Barchauds, just to the north of Huriel, is Gilles Desgranges. He has spent most of his working life raising Charolais beef cattle on the family farm, but in 1999 he decided to replant the two hectares of land last worked by his grandfather.  He makes around 8,000 bottles a year from Gamay, Pinot Noir and Le Gouget which are sold under the Vin de Pays du Val de Loire appellation.

Gilles Desgranges
Domaine du Champ de la Ronde
Les Barchauds
Huriel
T: + 33 4 70 06 44 62

The village of Domérat maintains a museum dedicated to wine which is open from May to September and at weekends or by appointment.

Musée de la Vigne
Parc de la Pérelle
Domérat
T: + 33 4 70 64 20 01
Maire.domerat@wanadoo.fr
www.maire-domerat.fr
www.mairie-huriel.fr

THE VINEYARDS OF VICHY
Driving along the Allier’s east bank from Vichy’s northern suburb of Cusset towards the village of Billy, there remain a few sporadic parcels of vines on the intermittent west-facing slopes.

Pierre Galet (Cépages et Vignobles de France - 1962) and Poulain et Jacqueline (Vignes et Vins de France – 1962) cite the villages of Creuzier-le-Neuf and Creuzier-le-Vieux with Galet specific in stating that these two communes were historically best known for their white wines. Grape varieties mentioned include Tressallier, Saint-Pierre Doré, Sauvignon Blanc, Meslier, Romorantin and Aligoté. In addition, Galet notes some 250 hectares of vignoble familial around the village of Saint-Germain-des-Fossés .

THE VINEYARDS OF NORTHERN ALLIER AND SOUTHERN NIÈVRE
Further downstream, at the point north of Moulins where the Allier (both river and département) shares its banks with the département of Nièvre, vineyards were once established to take advantage of the river as a means of transport. The vines once stretched from Villeneuve-sur-Allier up to the commune of Le Veurdre in the extreme north-east part of the Allier département.

Around the village of Livry (in the Nièvre) vineyards were developed during the 18th Century and reached their apogee in 1860 when 300 hectares were tended by the same number of vignerons. In 1992, under the guidance of the local municipality, an association was formed for the re-establishment of vines in the hamlet of Riousse on the right bank of the Allier (and therefore technically in Burgundy). This new 16 hectare domaine, Clos de Riousse, takes its name after the first vigneron in the region to have planted vines here in 1275. The hand harvested grapes produce red wines from Gamay, Pinot Noir and a white from Chardonnay.

Musée de la Vigne à Riousse
T: + 33 3 86 90 80 46

THE VINEYARDS OF THE UPPER SIOULE
The village of Ébreuil sits on the north bank of the Sioule gorges, half way between  Saint-Pourçain and Riom (the northern-most vineyard of the Côtes d’Auvergne). Vines were last planted on these chalky slopes at the start of the 20th Century, but war and phylloxera took their toll and the last vigneron finally abandoned his vines in the 1960s. Today the land is dedicated to orchards and for raising sheep and goats. In 1962, Pierre Galet (Cépages et Vignobles de France) recognizes the existence of 350 hectares around the town of Gannat at the northen edge of the Limagne plain.

THE VINEYARDS OF THE MOUNTAINS OF THE ALLIER
Finally, Pierre Galet (1962) mentions 200 hectares of vines in the valley of the Besbre between Lapalisse and Dompierre and a further 200 hectares in the foothills of the Monts de Madéleine in the south-east of the département although these are all cited as being wines for the family table.

                                                                                    

  
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