Guide to the Loire regions

Touraine Azay-le-Rideau
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Home to the most beautiful château in the Loire?

‘Ask me no more why I love Touraine ; I love it not as one loves one’s birthplace, nor as one loves an oasis in the desert ; I love it as an artist loves art… without Touraine, perhaps I could not longer live…’

          - Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) An extract from Le Lys dans la Vallée




Contents: 

This page:

  • Facts and figures
  • Ten of the Best
  • Overview
  • History
  • In the vineyard
    Situation and orientation

    Communes
    Climate
    Soil

    Permitted grape varieties
    Planting density and pruning
  • In the cellar
    Wine styles
  • Recent Vintages

Links:  

 

Facts and figures – The appellation at a glance

Appellation Contrôlée: 26th August 1953 (White); 1976 (Rosé)
Vineyards in Production: 54 hectares (2007)
Number of Growers: 20
Number of Co-operatives: Nil

Communes: Eight
Wine Styles:
Rosé (60%) and White (40%)
Red Wines are AC Touraine
Permitted Varieties:
White:
Chenin Blanc (Pineau de la Loire)
Rosé:
Grolleau (minimum 60%)
Gamay
Côt
Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon (with a combined maximum of 10%)
Declared Production: 1,894 hectolitres
Vine Density: 4,500 vines per hectare
Yield: 55hl/ha


Ten of the Best:  
Research in the appellation reveals that there are just twenty growers active, the majority of which are polyculturalists and there is a qualitative divide which separates those who dedicate their lives to the vine from those who see viticulture as a part of their agricultural portfolio. For this reason, I have listed the best and the rest with an acknowledgment to a new generation of producers who could become the ones to watch in the middle.

The Best:  

  • Nicolas Paget
  • Pascal Pibaleau

To Watch:

  • Château de l’Aulée
  • Château de la Cour
  • Château de la Roche
  • Marie-Thibault-Cabrit

Honourable Addresses:  

  • Marc Badiller, La Cave des Vallées
  • Thierry Bésard
  • Frédéric Hardy
  • Domaine du Haut-Baigneux
  • Francis Rolland

The Rest:

  • René Arrault
  • Guillaume Descroix
  • Béatrice & Claude Duveau
  • Philippe Gallais
  • Christophe Garnier 
  • Sébastien Houdin
  • Daniel Jahan
  • Christophe Verronneau
  • Franck Verronneau



Overview
Even without its island château, Azay-le-Rideau would have to be considered one of the most beautiful towns in the Loire. It’s a small but busy place (especially on market day - Wednesday and Saturday) with a succession of narrow streets. Yet despite all its renown, Azay enjoys a degree of isolation since the boundaries of the canton are determined by a series of natural frontiers. Sitting between the tranquil forests of Chinon and Villandry (one quarter of the commune is given over to woodland) and the Loire itself, it is ideally sited between Chinon and Tours for it to be a useful axis for visiting the numerous tourist attractions which are situated close-by. Azay thrives through the season on the money the tourists bring in, but otherwise it remains a community built on poly-culture: cereals, vergers (orchards), cattle, forestry and, of course (although to a much lesser extent than before), its vineyards.

The town itself occupies a three kilometre stretch of the right bank of the Indre, the premier watercourse in the département. In comparison to the other tributaries of the Loire it appears to be a slow-running, peaceful stream which meanders through this picturesque valley of wide pastures and is renowned for the number of ancient watermills that line its course; one is only ever really aware of its existence when it comes to traversing it. Willow is cultivated extensively along its banks, providing the raw material for the famous basket weavers of Villaine-les-Rochers. Yet despite its placid appearance, the river runs twice as fast as the Loire (as those watermills attest) and readily floods and spills out onto the water meadows alongside.



The rivers source is some 265 kilometres away near Préveranges in the département of Cher. Like most other of the northbound tributaries, its origins lie in the foothills of the Massif Central. It flows generally north-west, taking in the towns of La Châtre, Châteauroux and Loches on its course before it reaches Azay, but as the stream runs towards it’s logical confluence with the Loire at the river port of Bréhémont, it hesitates and takes a left turn, the two watercourses then running parallel for several kilometres until they finally merge further downstream - close to the nuclear power plant at Avoine.

Azay-le-Rideau is the sole wine region to be found along the course of the river. It’s a highly fractured appellation covering just 54 hectares split over eight communes and outnumbered seven-to-one by orchards. Vineyard land here has always had to compete with fruit, with farmers needing to predict ten years in advance what might be the most profitable crop to follow; swaying between playing vignerons and arborists or, in the case of many, both. One grower showed me a parcel of land that was planted to Chenin during the 1950s but had since been replaced by orchards. He was, however, just in the process of preparing the soils again: to replant Chenin…

It might be the attention to detail required in producing fruit for the table that explains why so many growers here have a strong commitment to organic farming; with Azay having one of the highest percentages (possibly the highest?) of certified vineyards in the whole of the Loire, albeit with a relatively small number of like-minded producers. Whilst the number of hectares planted remains somewhat static, there has been renewed interest in the appellation over the past fifteen years with the arrival of some new vignerons although as a general observation, these outsiders are rather mopping-up the vineyards of the older polyculturalists who are retiring without successors rather than planting new vines.

One obvious question that needs to be addressed is why does the appellation only exist for white and rosé wines? At the time when the AC was originally granted, in 1953, it was believed that the cool clay-based soils were generally unsuitable to ripen red varieties. Even when the growers lobbied for the inclusion of rosé into the appellation in the early 1970s there was no great motivation for them to try and simultaneously introduce red wine since demand was practically non-existent and no attempt has ever been made to rectify the situation. That is not to say that red varieties are not planted within the appellation; there are an estimated 150 hectares of vines within the boundary which are simply designated for other wine styles, including more Chenin and Grolleau for sparkling wines, as well as Gamay, Cabernet Franc and even Cabernet Sauvignon for red. For those growers who do produce red wine (and that is essentially everyone within the appellation), there has always been the opportunity to default to the generic Touraine appellation, which commercially probably enjoys greater appeal and market recognition. 


Facade - Church of Saint-Symphorien

History
Unlike in nearby Chinon, history has not recorded any significant events in which Azay-le-Rideau has even played a minor part; most interest instead is centred on the masterpiece of its Renaissance château.

EARLY HISTORY
The museum in Chinon displays various exhibits found in and around Azay-le-Rideau; flint tools and Bronze-Age weapons including that of a German ceremonial axe found in a tomb in the vineyard of Les Grandes Vignes at Lignières-de-Touraine and dated somewhere between 1,600 and 1,900 years old. In 1906, in the same village, a sarcophagus containing the skeleton of a child still clutching a coin (in anticipation of paying for crossing of the river Styx into the underworld) was found in the vineyard of Le Coudray. A further cache, discovered in 1884, under half a metre of soil in the lieu-dit of La Grande-Borne is now displayed in the museum at Le Grand-Pessigny close to Tours.

During the period when Azay was a Gallo-Roman settlement its position on the Indre made it of strategic importance and a rudimentary fortification was built on the banks of the river and certainly a bridge has existed here at least since medieval times.

THE MIDDLE AGES
The name of Azay is believed to be Latin and named after a certain Asius (or Atius). Prior to the 12th Century, various scribes noted it as Aziacum, Ausiense and Azaicus. The first mention of the town as Azay-le-Rideau (or Azay-le-Ridel) was in the early 13th Century when the name of its feudal lord, Hugues Ridel, was added to its name. Azay was not always a peaceful place during this period, with the Plantagenet kings ruling their empire from Chinon just 21 kilometres away. But as a companion to Philippe Auguste, Ridel was a natural enemy to the Plantagenets, defending his territory from his small château on the Indre. Records of several skirmishes between Ridel and the court of Henri II resulted in Philippe knighting Ridel in 1213. A decade later, however, and the chateau had passed into the possession of Philippe.

AZAY-LE-BRÛLÉ
During the period of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), Jean-sans-Peur (Jean the Fearless), Valois Duc de Bourgogne, seized Tours in 1417 and placed a garrison of 354 Burgundian troops at Azay to protect a passage across the river. A year later, Charles VII was en-route to Tours when he was attacked here and angered by an insult he had received from one of the soldiers. So, in an act of retaliation, the dauphin ordered the sacking and burning of the town and its château, capturing and either hanging or beheading all the Burgundians in the process. The result being that (apart from the Church of Saint-Symphorien) there is no longer any evidence of Azay’s original medieval settlement and for a century after the town was razed to the ground it was known by the name of
Azay-le-Brûlé.

Exactly one hundred years later, Gilles Berthelot, the treasurer to François I, began erecting a château on the same spot. It was never to be occupied, since he and his wife fled north to Belgium after a fraud scandal two years before the project was completed. Berthelot, who became the Mayor of Tours in 1519, was also responsible for building the terraces of townhouses along Rue Balzac.

Whatever final historical references to medieval Azay might have existed after the sacking of the town in 1418 were finally sacrificed after the Revolution, when the then landlord, the Marquis de Biencourt, extended the grounds of the chateau in order to create his English garden.   


Maison des vignes, Lignières-de-Touraine

AZAY’S WINE LEGACY
In addition to the other significant finds in the area, a Gallo-Roman winepress dating from the second century and comprised of four large stones (each weighing two tons) was discovered in the lieu-dit of Grand-Marion in Baigneux in 1946 and can today be viewed in the Musée des Vins de Touraine in Tours. Moving on by a thousand years, a 12th Century fresco depicting a zodiac calendar in the church at Lignières-de-Touraine dedicates the month of September to the grape harvest where a smiling vigneron, flanked by a pair of vines, can be seen trampling his crop.

The wine regions of France are renowned for the brotherhoods and in Azay-le-Rideau it is no different, with the confrérie of Les Compagnons de Saint-Vincent de Vallères boasting to be the oldest such chapter in Touraine. Originally established in January 1758 in the church of Saint-Médard, it was recreated in 1961 after a long period of dormancy. Around the same time the Abbé Maugeret, the parish priest for Villaines and a keen amateur vigneron, states in articles placed in the church records during 1766 that ‘This year, I planted vines in five quartiers of the worst soils, below the towns caves. I planted the red of Montlouis and the white of Vouvray…’ The following year he notes, with regret, that ‘The vines were affected by frost on the 17th, 18th and 19th of April and leaves us with very little wine’. Sadly, his records continue the same melancholy theme for the following three seasons. 

In the 18th Century, documents in Chinon register the fact that Grolleau arrived in the vineyards for the first time in 1810. From there its popularity with the wine-growers was quickly evident, seduced by the varieties potential to deliver enormous crops and ability to perform even on the worst soils and by the middle of the century the vineyards of Azay were said to be in equal size of those of Vouvray.

But by 1885 phylloxera had been identified in the region, with many hybrids, or faux cépages being planted in a desperate attempt to try and find a solution to the crisis. It was during this troubled period that many of the region’s growers began to diversify into other crops. The arrival of the railway in the 1850s had already seen the population of the town and the neighbouring communes diminish as part of the mass rural exodus. These factors, compounded by economic crisis, two World Wars and the change in customers’ taste all contributed to the overall decline vineyard area during the first half of the 20th Century; it was never to fully recover. Today, Azay-le-Rideau is close enough to be part of the Tours commuter belt, with a fair proportion of the 3,000 Ridellois population making the daily journey either by car or train. 


Riverennes

In the vineyard

Situation and orientation

‘Thence a valley opens down to the Loire, from Montvazon at the head; the hills seem to rebound under the country-houses on each of the slopes; it is a glorious emerald basin, and at the bottom the Indre winds in serpentine curves’.
                                                                      - Honoré de Balzac - from Le Lys dans la Vallée

The town of Azay-le-Rideau sits at an altitude of between 45 and 50 metres, whilst the vineyards rest on a series of plateaux above the valley, the highest of which (in the communes of Cheillé and Lignières-de-Touraine) level out at around 100 metres. In terms of orientation, the majority are located on the wedge-shaped piece of land which separates the river Indre from the Loire. Those vineyards that lie in the communes of Vallères, Lignières-de-Touraine and Riverennes tend to face north towards the Loire, whilst the vineyards of Azay-le-Rideau, Cheillé and La Sablonnière (a hamlet within Saché) overlook the Indre valley. 

Climate
Not until after twenty years do you see the sun in the glass’.
                            - The late vigneron Robert Denis - commenting his Azay-le-Rideau Blanc Demi-Sec

Overall the mild climate is beneficial to the late ripening Chenin, with Indian summers are a regular occurrence here. Earlier in the season frost can be an issue and on average a vintage is all but wiped out for one season in every two decades: 1916, 1929, 1940, 1963, 1991… The proximity to the forests of Chinon and Villandry does act as a minor defence against the risk of frost as well helping to deflect excessive rainfall, which at 600mm (versus 650mm average per year), is lighter here than in other Touraine appellations overall.

Soil
The vines sit on a bed of yellow chalk known locally as aubius which dates from the Turonien Supérieur. This Turonian is the classic tuffeau of Touraine, a porous, chalky limestone composed of tiny marine organisms called bryozoa which colonized the seas which once covered the region. Above this is a second chalk deposit, the Villedieu de Sénonien, which dates from later in the Cretaceous and is, in turn, covered with a band of silica. 

The top soils are essentially made up of a homogenous mix of sand, gravel and clay which was deposited here after the sea retreated during the Tertiary Period. This is mixed with sable eolien, sand deposited on the surface from the river banks below by the action of wind. It is possible to find patches of silex (known locally as perruches), galets rouge (red stones) and cornuelles, pieces of limestone flecked with iron which, when hit together, ring like a bell. The benefit of these sandier soils is that they tend to warm up quickly in the spring and therefore encourage the vines out of dormancy. This accelerated growth means that varieties such as Côt and even Cabernet Sauvignon can be considered viable, although there remains plenty of debate as to whether the latter should be planted at all; its detractors arguing that the soils still contain too much growth-retarding clay to be able to consistently ripen these grapes.

The more distinguished sites, notably the slopes, are given over to Chenin since this is the most demanding variety in terms of its positioning, whilst the poorer soils are invariably given over to the much more tolerant Grolleau. Between the mid 1800s and the 1950s, the best Chenin’s were said to come from Saché where the vineyards sat on more chalky soils. Sadly, these parcels have now all but disappeared.

It should also be noted that the heavier clay soils are not necessarily conducive to the development of noble rot, so very little sweet wine is produced within the appellation, plus the height and distance of the vineyards from the two main river courses means there is very little humidity created to encourage the botrytis spores to develop.

At the foot of the slopes - close to the floor of both the Loire and Indre valleys - are the remnants of many abandoned caves. Within, the vast galleries are evidence enough of how highly the local masons regarded the quality of the stone extracted from here. Responsible for many of the grand houses and ecclesiastical buildings throughout the region, the stone was transported both up and down the river on flat-bottomed barges from purpose-built ports set up all along the Loire.  

Communes
There are eight villages that can claim the right to call their wine Touraine Azay-le-Rideau, although the presence of two, Artannes and Thilouze, is questionable given that neither have any vineyards and there are no longer any vignerons established here. For the production of the wines it is permissible, according to the cahier des charges, to vinify the grapes in any one of nine communes outside of the appellation. Four of these fall within the Chinon AC although interestingly, in the course of my earlier research there, no grower exercises this option.  

Permitted communes  

Artannes-sur-Indre
Azay-le-Rideau
Cheillé
Lignières-de-Touraine
Riverennes
Saché
Thilouze
Vallères

Artannes-sur-Indre
At the eastern-most extremity of the appellation, Artannes-sur-Indre has the feel of a commuter town. By the end of the 1970s there were still ten hectares registered in the commune, but as of today there are no longer any vines and there are no growers based here.

Azay-le-Rideau
Not only does Azay lend its name to the appellation it is also the largest wine producing village, hosting around 60 hectares of vines. Only around one-third of these, however, are ever destined to carry its name.  

Cheillé
Situated on the left bank of the Indre, this commune is actually comprised of two diverse villages. Sitting on the opposite side of the river to Azay-le-Rideau is La Chapelle-Saint-Blaise. The stone quarried from here in the 13th Century is said to have been used in the cathedral at Tours. Further downstream is Cheillé itself. First documented in a charter of 1141, Chelleum or Chelleium is thought to derive its name from the Gallic word Caill meaning ‘forest’. Indeed, bordered by woods, it’s the fruit trees which remain the most visible form of agriculture, although it remains the second-most important commune with around 40 hectares of vines. Cheillé is a pretty unremarkable place, although worth a detour if only to stare at the enormous oak tree that emerges from the wall of its 13th Century church. On the hillside above, stands the village’s most important monument; the beautiful and recently restored Château de la Cour aux Berruyer (see their entry under Grower Profiles). A previous owner was once a guardian of the Chinon forest.

Lignières-de-Touraine
Known as Linarilloe during the Roman occupation and later noted as Lineriis in the charter of 1162, Lignières claims to be equidistant from the châteaux of Villandry, Ussé, Langeais and Azay-le-Rideau. There are around 30 hectares of vines planted along a low, north-facing slope above the village. The notable attraction here is the 12th Century fresco depicting the wine harvest in the village church.

Riverennes
Riverennes takes its name from a corruption of the word varennes after the flat, riverside terraces that board the rivers Loire and Indre. Its low-lying area, known as Les Îles, is lined with poplar plantations and is mostly flooded during the winter months. Historically, the production of hemp, forestry and fruit growing (as evidenced by the century old pear trees on the plateau) were as important as the viniculture. The twenty or so hectares of vines that exist here are to be found on the north-facing hillside above the town, bordering the forest which extends as far as Chinon. At Armentières, the hamlet occupied by the last remaining grower, an earth mound is believed to be a pre-historic tumulus.

Saché
Centred on the 12th Century village church dedicated to Saint-Martin de Vertou, Saché boasts a number of historic houses, including one of the oldest taverns in France. Vineyards have never been the principle form of agriculture here; willow propagated along the banks of the Indre has always been the main source of income for local farmers who even today supply the basket makers of nearby Villaines-les-Rochers. That’s not to state that Saché has never enjoyed a reputation as a village vigneron. There might only be seven hectares of vines remaining in the commune, but for a long period the Chenin grown here were considered to produce some of the finest examples in the Loire, with even the legendary Gaston Huet (writing in a local wine guide in the early 1970s) stating that in a good year the wines of Saché were comparable to those of Vouvray. Huet was not the only admirer, since Honoré de Balzac made several references to these vineyards in Le Lys dans la Vallée. It’s a delightful village and worthy of a visit in its own right with the banks along the river between here and Pont-de-Ruan punctuated with numerous watermills.

Thilouze
The presence of a dolmen at Les Messandières coupled with the fact that the village was located on the original road between Tours and Poitiers is evidence enough that Thilouze has enjoyed a long history of continual human habitation. As the southern-most commune in the Touraine Azay-le-Rideau appellation, it looks isolated and remote in comparison to the main concentration of vineyards. There were ten hectares of vines here at the end of the 1970s, but these have long since disappeared along with any trace of the men who might have made these wines. Today, Thilouze is nothing more than an historic footnote to the appellation.  

Vallères
Situated on the plateau that separates the Loire and Indre, Vallères derives its name from Terra de Avalleria and is believed to been the location of a Roman villa - which was subsequently destroyed during the invasion of the Moors in 732. Another Gallo-Roman discovery made here was a first century burial site at Les Boissières. Elsewhere in the commune a coin found at La Salle dates from the reign of Constantine in the fourth century, whilst several Merovingian (7th and 8th Century) sarcophagi have also been unearthed. In terms of vineyards, it remains a significant force within the appellation with around 25 hectares scattered across its plateau as well as hosting several producers.

Permitted grape varieties

Chenin Blanc
Known locally as Pineau de la Loire and a native of the Loire Valley since at least 845AD, the Chenin parcels tend to enjoy the best sites within the appellation; notably on slopes since its main rival for vineyard land, Grolleau, is less demanding in terms of where it grows. In 1998 the variety accounted for half of the total plantings in the appellation.  


Ancient Grolleau vines

Grolleau

‘We four were to gather the fruit off a few rows left for us; but we promised not to eat too many grapes. The Gros Co of the Touraine vineyards is so delicious eaten fresh, that the finest table grapes are scorned in comparison’.
                                               
- Honoré de Balzac - from Le Lys dans la Vallée

The first documented plantings of Grolleau or Groslot (the most common synonym) were in the Charente in the early 19th Century and officially documented in the Loire in the first decade of the 1800s when it is said to have arrived in Cinq-Mars-le-Pile, a village not far from Azay-le-Rideau, located on the Loire’s north bank. Even today certain growers in the Azay appellation refer to the grape as Grolleau de Cinq Mars.

More recent studies suggest that it is in some way related to Gouais Blanc (the maternal parent of several more noble varieties including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), although the origin of the name itself is subject to debate; the most widely held theory is that it is a corruption of the word corbeau, the generic term in French for a member of the crow family; their plumage, supposedly, being of the same dark appearance as the berries.  

The variety arrived in Chinon in 1810 and was widely distributed through Anjou by the 1850s, gaining wider acceptance within the central Loire over the following two decades as growers, attracted by its vast production qualities (it can comfortably yield up to 120hl/ha if allowed), began to replace their plantings of Pineau d’Aunis and Côt in favour of Grolleau. In addition to its enormous crop, Grolleau adapts well to all types of terroir and found a stronghold in the soils which were not considered suitable for ripening more classic varieties such as Chenin or Cabernet Franc. Within Azay-le-Rideau it was well suited to the poor sandy-clay soils of the plateaux, allowing growers to concentrate their plantings of Chenin on the more distinguished slopes.

Grolleau experienced its high point of popularity after the Second World War, with the widespread appeal of Rosé d’Anjou, of which the grape was the main component. By the end of the 1950s there were 11,400 hectares planted through the Loire, but by 2006 plantings had dwindled to just 2,400ha as the fashion for industrial semi-sweet rosés passed and consumers demanded drier styles - which much better suited varieties such as Gamay and Cabernet Franc. Despite this, Grolleau remains the third most widely planted red grape variety (after Gamay and Cabernet), although it is not a variety permitted for the production of red wines within any Loire appellation. It is, however, seen as a valuable component in the production of Crémant de Loire and various other Méthode Traditionelle sparkling wines, due to its high yields, low alcohol and often firm acidity.

In the vineyard, the vine tends to bud early which makes it prone to damage by spring frosts. Its natural vigour also means that its branches are susceptible to wind damage and so the vines need to be either planted in a sheltered position or have the canes cut short in order to contain any excessive growth. With such fragile wood, older vignerons are said to have pulled off excess wood rather than using secateurs when pruning. Grolleau is also sensitive to various cryptogrammic diseases, although for a vigourous variety it has not been adversely affected by esca in the same way as, say, Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Franc has suffered.

Grolleau produces medium sized cylindrical bunch clusters with very large berries. The skins are thin and contain very few anthocyanins, which accounts somewhat for the reason why, without clever manipulation, red wines are almost impossible to produce (although there are at least two growers in the Azay-le-Rideau appellation who are at least experimenting). The grapes tend to ripen at the same time (or just after) Gamay and it is normal for the two varieties to be grown alongside each other and they are often picked and co-fermented together.

Depending on the clone, of which there are five authorized: 226, 288, 364, 265 and 366 (the latter being the most qualitative one), the colour can vary after veraison from anything between grey and a bluish-black. In terms of rootstock, 101-14 is the most recommended; although this may not be the most qualitative selection, it does have an ability to keep the excessive vigour in check.

Grolleau is also known under the synonyms Bourdalès, Franc Noir, Gamay de Châtillon (in Savennières), Gamay-Groslot, Gloire des Tours, Grolleau de Cinq-Mars, Groslot de Cinq-Mars, Grolleau de Touraine, Grolleau de Tours, Grolleau Noir, Grolo Chernyi, Grolot Noir, Groslot de Valere, Groslot de Vallères, Moinard (Île d’Orélon), Neri, Noir de Saumur, Pineau de Saumur, Plant Boisnard, Plant Mini and Rosé d’Anjou.

There are also four recorded clones of Grolleau Gris: 1118, 1135 and 1136. Of the 806 hectares recorded in France in 2004, most are planted in the départements of Maine-et-Loire, Vendée and Loire-Atlantique. Apparently, some plantings still exist within the Coteaux du Layon.

Gamay
The main variant found here is the Gamay-Noir-à-Jus-Blanc, although one vigneron, Marc Badallier, claims to have plants known to him as La Parisienne which were selected by his father in the early 1950s. This mutant is said to be small-berried and capable of producing concentrated wines, although the example produced by Badiller is vinified into a simple acidic, semi-sweet rosé. When pushed, some growers admit to noticing the occasional teinturier vine still inter-planted within some of the more ancient parcels.  

Côt
This is the name adopted throughout the Loire for Malbec. Widely planted, it performs best on the warmer, sandier soils where maturity can be better guaranteed. Despite this, it is still generally the last cépage in the appellation to be harvested.

Cabernet Franc
When one considers that Cabernet Franc is the stalwart variety of all the appellations that surround to Azay-le-Rideau (most notably Chinon and Bourgueil) it initially appears strange that no producers have made more of the variety. Most of the plantings that exist here were experiments conducted by the previous generation. It receives very little attention otherwise.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Whilst Cabernet Sauvignon is permitted within the appellation it plays a minor role. At one point, the authorities were suggesting that the grape be used as a blending partner to Grolleau, but this received short shrift from the local growers and the decision was reversed. Officially, it can be used in conjunction with the other red varieties – to a maximum of 10% for the production of rosé, although no single grower I visited embraced the grape for this purpose and it is more likely to be found as a blending component in Touraine Rouge. There is an argument against using the variety in this part of Touraine at all, since some growers are not convinced on its ability to ripen fully. Others, such as Christophe Verronneau, Frédéric Hardy and Thierry Bésard all defend the grape stating that it is a suitable variety when planted in the warmer, sandier soils located in Cheillé and Lignières-de-Touraine.  


Abandoned vines, Lignières-de-Touraine

Vine density, trellising and pruning

Recently Declared Plantings

2 007 – 54ha
1993 – 44ha
1998 – 55ha
1981 – 100ha

The law states that there should be a minimum density of 4,500 vines per hectare (on the assumption that vines are planted at 2.10 metres between the rows and 0.90 metres within the row) although most vignerons elect to work at densities of around 6,600 vines per hectare. The most widely adopted trellising system in the region is Guyot Simple although Cordon de Royat is occasionally found. Another system known as éventail (fantail) can be found in older vineyards where bush vines have been modified and trained onto wire trellises.

Rootstocks
Riparia Gloire is the most preferred rootstock since it is grafts well with all the permitted varieties. The otherwise vigorous SO4 that was widely used in the 1960s and 1970s has long since fallen out of favour.  

In the Cellar

Recently declared production

2007 – 1,894hl (51% blanc)
2006 – 926ha blanc / 830hl rosé
2005 – 1,420hl blanc / 1,089hl rosé
2004 – 2,037hl rosé
2003 – 2,393hl blanc / 1,084hl rosé
2002 – 945hl blanc / 1,418hl rosé
2001 – 803hl blanc / 1,715hl rosé
1998 – 961hl blanc /1,527hl rosé
1986 – 1,327hl blanc / 1,116hl rosé
1960 – 1,295hl
1959 – 1,261hl
1958 – 992hl
1957 – 656hl
1956 – 1,481hl
1955 – 1,879hl
1954 – 1,491hl

Wine Styles
Production figures indicate that there is currently an equal split between white and rosé. Growers, however, have been seeing an increasing demand more recently for white wines. It’s also true to state that Touraine Azay-le-Rideau has benefitted for the recent trend in drinking rosé, but this is always subject to fashion and the balance could easily change within a single season.  

Rosé Wines
Whilst only officially recognised since 1976, the rosés of Touraine Azay-le-Rideau are an important part of the total production within the appellation. The cahier des charges states that the wine must contain at least 60% Grolleau, but this can be supplemented with Gamay, Côt and up to a (combined) maximum of 10% Cabernet (both Franc and Sauvignon). The reality is that almost without exception, growers elect to vinify their rosés using solely Grolleau. The legislation also demands that the residual sugar level is below 4 grams per litre and that the only permitted method of production is pressurage direct. Any deviation from the above means that growers need to de-classify their production to the generic Touraine appellation. Some elect to do this anyway. The general profile of the rosés produced from Grolleau is that of an earthy, yet highly textured wine with a phenolic grip with firm acidity but relatively low alcohol. Even when dry (below the prescribed 4g/l) they can appear to carry more sweetness that the analysis states. Longevity is not really proven since neither growers or consumer bother to age the wines, with demand ensuring that they are consumed within a year or two of the vintage. Despite their somewhat unique profile, Touraine Azay-le-Rideau rosé is a very credible wine and deserves to be taken more seriously than it has otherwise been.

White Wines
Chenin Blanc is the only permitted grape variety, although there are three distinctly different yet officially recognized styles: sec, demi-sec and moëlleux. In order to qualify for the appellation the dry wines need to be below 6 grams per litre of residual sugar, whilst the limit for demi-sec stands at 18g/l. The moëlleux wines are more likely to be produced through passillerage rather than botrytis for reasons of soils and location. Regardless of the style produced, all wines must achieve a natural minimum of 12.5% for the right to the appellation.

So can, as Gaston Huet once suggested, these wines rival the very best Chenins of the Loire? I’ve certainly tasted some very good older examples over the years, although I would generally place them in the same division as a middle ranking Vouvray. Whilst the commune of Saché might once have commanded special attention, this is now purely of academic interest since there are few vineyards remaining. Of the current releases tasted during the preparation of this report, there are few wines that currently compete in a purely qualitative level with the best of the Loire, although there are some very decent wines overall. In conclusion, however, I would go as far to state that it is the appellations rosés that currently offer greater interest and individuality.

Red Wines
Although it needs to be recognised that a considerable amount of red wine is produced within the boundaries of the Touraine Azay-le-Rideau appellation, these wines are only permitted to carry the generic Touraine AC and are generally based on an assemblage of Gamay, Côt, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Sparkling Wines
It would seem that every producer within the region supplements their range with at least one Méthode Traditionelle or Crémant de Loire in both blanc and rosé forms regardless of whether they elect to perform the second fermentation process themselves or choose to outsource it. One fact that can’t be ignored is that the single largest estate within the appellation, Chateau de l’Aulée, dedicates 80% of its total production to fizz; and of the additional 150 hectares planted within the boundaries of the Azay-le-Rideau appellation, an estimated two-thirds of these are dedicated exclusively for the production of bottle fermented sparkling wines.  

Recent Vintages  

‘We had come to the season of the vintage in Touraine always a high festival. By the end of September the sun is less fierce than during harvest, making it safer to linger in the open air without fear of sunstroke or fatigue. It is easier, too, to gather grapes than to reap corn’.

- Honoré de Balzac - from Le Lys dans la Vallée

2011
A hard winter followed by a warm and dry March and April. By the start of May the vines were already four weeks in advance of the normal cycle. Spring frosts remained a potential danger until the second week of May with the growers praying that this precocity would not be undermine. Given the dry conditions, the next concern is over the lack of water and the potential problems that drought might reap later in the season.

2010
Rain at the end of the ripening period ensured that this needed to be a very quick harvest in order to avoid problems of disease. This is an excellent vintage, however, delivering a full crop, although some growers fell victim to hail in specific locations; notably Marc Badiller in Cheillé who lost the equivalent of two hectares – about 15% of his crop.

2009
The season started with a proper cold winter with temperatures often below minus 12 degrees centigrade. Spring was dry and some vineyards were hit by frost which ultimately resulted in a smaller harvest. Like elsewhere in Touraine, this was a very successful season and can be considered, along with 2005, as the best year of the decade.

2008
A small and late harvest due, in part, to a difficult flowering period. Later, rain also diluted the crop and the result this year was decent if generally ordinary wines.

2007
A minor vintage producing lighter wines; August was best described as ‘fresh’ and September proved to be the most important month of the season, saving the vintage. Yields were again low due to the presence of rot in the vineyard. Ordinary.

2006
The good summer conditions meant that everything was set for an excellent vintage, but rain arrived at the onset of the harvest meaning that the grapes needed to be harvested quickly. This is a year of low yields due to the meticulous selection needed in the vineyards to avoid picking anything remotely tainted. This was a good if not great year.  

2005
A great vintage with healthy fruit harvested in perfect conditions. Vignerons tend to agree that this is the best vintage since 1990 and comparable in greatness to the likes of 1947, 1964, 1976 and 1989.

2004
This was a big vintage but with variable quality.

2003
The year of the heat-wave, although with some surprisingly good examples produced.

2002
A difficult and late summer was saved by favourable conditions in September and October. Sunshine and an easterly wind helped to dry out the grapes and concentrate the juice. In the end the vintage produced some good, well balanced wines.

2001
A difficult vintage producing wines of average quality.

2000
Average quality and not for keeping.  


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