Guide to the Loire regions

Châteaumeillant

Le vignoble castelmeillantais
 


On n'achète pas de vignes à Châteaumeillant, sauf si l'on est du coin,
passionné par le vin et courageux...

One doesn’t buy vines in Châteaumeillant unless one is a local,
passionate
about the wine and courageous...

- CUISINE ET VINS DE FRANCE – JULY 2008

 

Contents: 

This page:

  • Facts and figures

  • Ten of the best

  • Overview

  • History

  • In the vineyard
    Situation and orientation
    Climate and soil

  • Permitted grape varieties

  • In the cellar

Links: 

Facts and figures – The appellation at a glance

Appellation Côntrolée Status: 9th June 2010
Limit of Appellation: 550 hectares
Vineyards in Production: 91 hectares (2006)

Declared Production: 3,956hl (2006)
Number of Growers: 6
Number of Co-operatives: 1
Communes: 7
Wine Styles: Only red and gris (rosé)
Permitted Varieties:
Gamay - cépage principal - minimum 60% for red and gris
Pinot Noir - cépage accessoire - maximum of 40% for red and gris
Pinot Gris - cépage accessoire - maximum of 15% for gris only
Vine Density:  6,000 minimum vines per hectare
Maximum Yield: 50hl/ha

Ten of the Best:
With only six growers and a single co-operative active in the appellation, declaring a Top Ten is a little difficult, as is producing a list of ‘Ten Wines to Buy Now’, given these are mostly wines that will have been consumed – 80% of them domestically - within a year of the vintage. For this reason, there are few tasting notes offered in this Report. What I can propose, however, is a list of 

The Best:
Fabien Geoffrenet, Domaine Geoffrenet-Morval
Pierre Picot, Domaine du Chaillot
José-Marc da Costa, Domaine le Pavillon

The Rest:
Cave des Vins Châteaumeillant
Henri Raffinat, Domaine des Tanneries
Valérie & Frédéric Dallot
Domaine Lanoix


Overview
Châteaumeillant must be able to lay claim to being one of the most isolated and marginal of France’s wine regions. The town itself is a pretty ordinary and undistinguished place with about 2,000 inhabitants. It is situated at the southern most point of the département of Cher, part of the ancient region of Berry, at the point where the Paris Basin meets the Auvergne. It is in the very middle of the country, and depending on the criteria used, it could well make a claim as the geocentric heart of France. Locally, this area is known as le Boischaut or La Basse-Marche, a triangle of land that encompasses the towns of Montluçon (a contender for one of Europe's ugliest cities) to the east, La Châtre to the west, and Saint-Amand-Montrond to the north - which does gracefully accept the title of the ‘centre of France’.

Because of its central location, Châteaumeillant takes commercial advantage of its position on one of France’s most important east-west trading routes; something it has enjoyed since Roman times when it linked Lugdunum (Lyon) with Limonum (Poitiers). Today, as a halfway point between Montluçon and Châteauroux, it still sees its fair share of passing traffic, although the D943 now bypasses the town itself, leaving it a quiet and uneventful place. There is a Friday market and it boasts an archaeological museum which houses a collection of over 300 amphorae and other Roman artifacts, uncovered during excavations in the 1950s (see attractions).

From a wine perspective, the fact that Châteaumeillant is annexed to the rest of Loire lies with its historical links to the Berry - now redefined as the administrative region of Centre. Its viticultural inspiration, however, come from the east, rather than the more established and recognised Loire vineyards to the north. Its vines, for the most part, face south - looking towards, and being influenced by, the Auvergne and the climatic conditions of the Massif Central - its connection to the rest of the Loire could be viewed as simply coincidental.       


History

The origins of the town go back at least one century before the birth of Christ. It was the Gaulois Bituriges, the dominant tribe in these parts, who established Maylan on what is now Châteaumeillant. It was an 18 hectare settlement protected by an earthen bank, and is recognised as one of the oldest settlements in the Berry. The evidence of amphorae in and around Mediolanum, the name the Romans gave to Maylan, suggests that the town was a transfer point for Italian wine destined for troops stationed in western Gaul before wine was ever produced locally. It is believed the first domestic wine was produced by the Romans from vineyards planted in the 5th Century, with Gregory of Tours confirming their existence in his Histroraie Francorum of 582.

In the Middle Ages, the vine was cultivated more intensely, and there are charters dated between 1220 and 1275 and issued at a time of feudal rule that relate directly to the production of wine. These corvées as they were known, helped to establish the ban des vendanges, the official harvest date, as well as mentioning specific parcels, whose names, Bidoire, Secondet, Aiguillon and Rochers are still used today.

There is no firm evidence as to what grape varieties were planted at this time, although one theory suggests Muscadelle, and it is possible to find a few old plantings around the region. In 1773, a new vine arrived, imported from Lyon by a Monsieur De La Chassaigne. Although referred to at the time as ‘le plant lyonnais’, this was, in fact, Gamay and by 1830 the variety had become the most widely planted in the region.

In 1869 and prior to the scourge of mildew, oidium and phylloxera, there were 1,200 hectares of vines planted here, and taking in the wider arrondissement that includes Châteaumeillant, there were a total of 2,700 hectares of vines; more than those declared in Sancerre and Menetou-Salon combined. Viticultural statistics for the départements Cher and Indre documented in the book ‘Les Vignes et les Vins du Berry’ and published in the late 19th Century show that there were 336 hectares planted in the canton of Châteaumeillant, and there are equally impressive levels of planting in each of the adjacent cantons: Le Châtelet (131 ha) to the west, Saulzais (462 ha) to the north-east and, just over the departmental border in L’Indre: La Châtre (887 ha) and Sainte-Sévère (75ha). By the turn of the century the vineyards had practically disappeared, and for the most part never replaced.

The first half of the 20th Century held all the usual challenges for the establishment and maintenance of vineyards, but by the early 1950s there is evidence that vines, in Châteaumeillant at least, were being replanted. In 1951, the town held its first ever Foire aux Vins, and by 1960 there were some 400 hectares of vines back in production (which is still four times what is planted today). At this point, the majority of the regions wine would have been sold off to négociants, probably as nothing more distinguished than Vin de Table, but Châteaumeillant entered the world as a quality wine producing region in 1965 when it was awarded Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (V.D.Q.S.) status; one year after the establishment of its own co-operative. In 1991, the application was made to upgrade the region to full Appellation Côntrolée (AC) status, although a favourable answer was only secured in January 2006. With the system of V.D.Q.S. being made obsolete, the need for Châteaumeillant to elevate itself to full AC status was accelerated. Producer, Pierre Picot, the president of the local grower syndicat since 2004, has been working closely with the I.N.A.O, with the appellation being granted on the 9th June 2010.


In the vineyard  

Situation and Orientation
Châteaumeillant sits at the cusp of four different départements. Whilst the town is physically in Cher, the majority of its seven communes are across the border in Indre. Migrate south for a few villages, and one finds oneself in either the départements of either Creuze or Allier.  

Permitted communes

Châteaumeillant (Cher)
St-Maur (Cher)
Vesdun (Cher)
Champillet (Indre)
Feusines (Indre)
Néret (Indre)
Urciers (Indre)

This is very much a region of mixed farming, with only one vigneron dedicated solely to the production of wine. Cereals are planted on the low rolling hills whilst herds of Charolais graze in the hollow valleys, with the vines accepting their position on the poorest soils on the exposed plateaux. The greatest concentration of vineyards is found on a long, low, ridge that extends from east to west on the south side of the town and which is dissected by a series of small streams - the Senaise, Noire and Goutte - all tributaries of the river Arnon, and eventually, the Cher. Once one heads west through the communes of Champillet, Urciers and Feusines, the vines become more intermittent, with the occasional row planted by viticulteur-co-opérateurs. Located to the east near Vesdun, past the Medieval Château at Culan, are the vineyards of grower Pierre Picot who has been working hard to re-establish this neglected corner of the appellation.    

Climate and soil
The location, close to the very centre of France, means this is a semi-continental climate and less influenced by the Atlantic-maritime climate of the northern Loire. It’s a region of relatively short, hot summers and harder winters, with spring frosts always posing a danger. The altitude of the vineyard ranges between 320 and 400 metres, no more than those of Sancerre, but its proximity to the Massif Central means that it is generally the last of the classic appellations of the Berry to be harvested. This means in lesser vintages there is a risk of grapes not achieving full maturity.

The vineyards are planted on a range of undistinguished looking Triassic sableaux-limon (sand-silt) and clay soils. The subsoil of volcanic origin and primarily red granite with micraschist and gneiss, flecked with pieces of quartz and silex. If one draws a comparison with Beaujolais, it would appear an ideal partner for Gamay.   

                                                                                                                                                         

Permitted grape varieties
There are three permitted varieties for the appellation Châteaumeillant and the table below illustrates the extent to which is each is currently planted.

Gamay
Gamay was introduced here in 1773 under the colloquial name of ‘le Plant Lyonnais. By 1830 it had become the most widely planted variety in the region. Today, the law states that it must form at least 60% of the red or gris style wines that are permitted within the appellation. The chosen vine stock is invariably from selected clones, and there are ten different references to choose from, the most widely accepted being Clone 3309.   

We are, of course, talking about the Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, to give the variety its full name, and this is what is permitted. It is, however, still possible to find random parcels of old Gamay Teinturiers, notably Gamay Freau, the black fleshed version scattered around the region. One local example - although not within the appellation Châteaumeillant itself - comes from vines in Magny, a hamlet just south of La Châtre, where local cavistes Eric and Didier Raffault make an opaque looking Vin de Table called ‘Cuvée ‘Bon! Et Maintenant’ from a blend of Gamay Freau, Gamay Beaujolais and Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir
The variety was first introduced into the region in the 1970s and has been widely accepted, although it polarizes the views of the various vignerons. Older growers, such as Henri Raffinat have widely endorsed the variety, replanting his entire domaine since the early 1990s to accommodate the variety. Fabien Geoffrenet, perhaps the appellation's leading producer also flaunts the rules with his cuvée ‘Extra Version’ which is centred on 80% Pinot Noir. At the other end of the spectrum, Pierre Picot has no Pinot Noir planted, believing that the soils within the appellation are not suited to the calcaire-loving Pinot Noir. As a result his red wines are pure Gamay, grown on the classic micraschiste soils in his vineyards around Vesdun.

Pinot Gris
Permitted, but rapidly becoming obsolete. It is allowed as an auxiliary variety in the production of gris where it can officially be used for up to 15% of the blend. There are only two exponents of the variety: Dallot and Fabien Geoffrenet, the latter buying vines from the family of recently deceased vigneron Jean-Pierre Bourdeau.

Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay
These are obviously not permitted within the appellation, but they are grown and form the basis of the local Vin de Pays du Cher.

Muscadelle
Thought to have been widely planted prior to the arrival of Gamay, it has now all but disappeared, although some random plantings do still exist. It is allowed for the production of Vin de Pays du Cher.

Tressallier
Also known as Sacy. It is an old Bourbonnais variety that has just been re-established by Pierre Picot, although outside of the appellation and across the departmental boundary in Allier. He has planted it as a ‘curiosity’ and the first crop was realised with the 2008 vintage.     



Vine density and pruning
The appellation laws state that each of the three permitted varieties for the appellation Châteaumeillant can utilise Guyot simple, gobelet and Cordon Royat for training the vines. Gobelet, although widely used in Beaujolais with Gamay is rare and used almost exclusively for old pieds. In terms of planting density, the rules dictate a minimum of 6,000 vines per hectare, recommended as 1,5 metres between the rows and 1 metre within the row.  

Declared Plantings

2006 – 91ha
2005 – 98ha
2003 – 89ha
2002 – 96ha
2001 – 86ha
1998 – 81ha
1995 – 59ha


In the Cellar

Wine Styles
There are two permitted styles of wines allowed within the appellation: red and gris. The proportion between the two styles fluctuates year to year, depending on the conditions of the vintage and, where the gris is concerned, fashion. The current demand for all things pink has led to an overall increase in the production of this style of wine - it now stands at about one third - with the appellation pushing it as a point of difference, notably perpetuated by the co-operative. This style of rosé has been produced in the region since the early 1970s and the appellation dictates the method of production as pressurage direct for both Gamay and Pinot Noir, although the small proportion of Pinot Gris that is grown for this purpose can use the traditional maceration method. The gris must also be dry, displaying less than three grams per litre. 

Gamay is the most important grape variety for both red and gris and, in theory, account for a minimum of 60% of the blend. Whilst it is possible to find wines made exclusively from Gamay, it is normally blended with Pinot Noir. The resulting light, fresh and juicy reds can be best described as the Loire’s answer to the Burgundian Passetoutgrain.

Recently declared production

2006- 3,956 hl
2005- 4,283 hl
2004- 3,243 hl (red) / 1,356 hl (gris)
2003- 3,155 hl
2002- 4,351 hl
2001- 3,566 h
1998- 4,046hl
1995- 1,700 hl


Recent Vintages  

2008
This saw a difficult and prolonged growing season, saved only by excellent conditions in September. The harvest was late with the da Costas only starting on the 15th October. This is a year of very small yields but excellent quality. Hail in August decimated the Gamay at Raffinat. A 500 metre band of hail ran through the vineyards resulting in a loss of 40%. What remained was vinifed into rosé.

2007
A very small vintage with lots of problems with rot. Fabien Geoffrenet didn’t make any ‘Cuvée Jeanne’ as he had a reduced crop due to hail.

2006
Excellent

2005
Excellent

2004
Difficult

2003
This is typical of the 2003 vintage elsewhere in that it is a low acid year, producing short lived wines. There was only 25% of a normal crop.


Back to top