The Enduring Rebellious Rabelais – Chinon’s Famous Son.
You can’t go anywhere in Chinon without seeing that rascal, Rabelais. François Rabelais is one of France’s greatest authors and he often draws comparisons to Shakespeare. His literature was often written as slightly grotesque fantasy, verging on the profane. He was purposeful in his use of fanciful characters to slyly poke fun at and satirize the ruling elite. In this respect he was a bit subversive and in portraits you can see the twinkle in his eye – a man who clearly enjoyed living on the edge and challenging authority. Rabelais has come to personify Chinon and its people – and to a certain extent the French themselves. His anti-establishment bent has been Chinon’s great contribution to the French national psyche. It is part of what makes the French French. The French relate with the naughty, individualistic and scandalous scallywag and tolerate more of his naughtiness in themselves than many other cultures would do.
Does any of Rabelais’ legacy translate to the wine culture of the Chinon region? Well, possibly (although you never want to stretch a metaphor too far). Perhaps the wines of Chinon do not have his insubordinate or dissident personality so much but, like Rabelais, they are irrepressibly strong characters. They are flamboyant representatives of their place. The wines of Chinon come in the main 4 expressions: red, white, rosé and sparkling. The grape varieties are binary: Cabernet Franc for red and Chenin Blanc for white. These are some of the world’s most characterful wine varieties. But do they have a bit of Rabelais in them? Can they express themselves in a way that makes them distinctive and larger than life? There is no question that these are wines that make a strong statement and command attention for their sometimes audacious sensory impact. Do they challenge and upset the status quo? Well, you might go so far as to say that they do. These wines are seldom boring versions of Cab Franc or Chenin. They are also a little bit undiscovered which adds to the sense of subterfuge.
Where On Earth is The Chinon Wine Region?
Chinon lies at the geographical heart of the Loire Valley. It lies in the province of Touraine (with Tours as its capital) and the wine region is nestled along the banks of the Vienne River. In this part of the Loire Valley the lacy strands of the Cher, the Indre, the Vienne and the Loire itself, weave valleys and shape marvellous folds in the countryside. Within these folds, the wine traveler will get a little lost as she navigates the narrow country roads, the villages and the vineyards. Never fear, roads are well sign-posted throughout the Loire. If you are lost near Chinon the impressive Château de Chinon that looms over the Vienne River acts as a visual reference and an anchor point. Then, from the town of Chinon, it is only a short distance to any number of Chinon’s family domaines.
For a fantastic map of the region and other very useful information go to www.loirevalleywine.com
Why Chinon Is A Great Destination for Wine
Winemakers, as a group, typically share a number of traits like perfectionism and a certain dedication to hedonism. After all, their pursuit is ultimately to make something that is sublime to all five human senses. Few winemakers set out to make an anonymous wine. Rather they are usually deeply motivated to find a distinctive personality for their wines and to capture the ethereal magic that great wine contains. One nearly universal passion of winemakers, in their pursuit of the transcendent, is their obsession with terroir. Most of them will tell you their most sincere goal is to allow the place the wine is made to define the personality of the wine. These are people driven by some instinct to have the particular combination of soils, climate, geographical aspect and other factors of their vineyards come through in the flavours, aromas and and other sensory elements of their wines. Chinon is a place that brings individual terroir characteristics out in bold, vibrant tones. The reason for this is partly due to the difference in soils between the higher parts of the valley’s flanks and the lower parts. The vineyards all share the limestone base that is so emblematic of the Loire, but higher up the slopes the vines grasp more tenuously at the limestone (tuffeau) rock. The vineyards lower down on the slopes have more fertile soil and as you move down to the valley floor there is an even thicker, sandy bed for the vines to enjoy. All of this is a great over-simplification, but the sandy/clay locations will give a more approachable, fruity style to the wines while the higher reaches will give more austere, complex and challenging styles. When it comes to Cabernet Franc, be prepared for the wines to come with rusticity and farm-infused aroma elements. These are tell-tale markers of real, small-holding wine.
Who Are The Winemakers of Chinon?
The wineries of Chinon are relatively small, family operated places. They are sprinkled along the roadsides with unobtrusive sign posts on farmyard gates or a billboard among the vines or a name painted on the winery building. The best way to find Chinon winemakers is to drive around and try a few as you find them. As you are visiting, ask the winemaker what other domaines might be good to visit, particularly to experience different expressions of terroir. The winemakers are friendly, intensely proud of their wines and willing to spend a lot of time telling you the marvels of Chinon soils and terroir. Here are a few of the domaines that you are likely to find in the international market:
Domain Bernard Baudry – a smashing example of single vineyard Chinon wines, each clearly demonstrating the effect of different terrors (see the schematic of the Baudry vineyards above)
Wine Touring in The Chinon Region
Chinon is one of the better known wine regions in the central Loire but it also has some very famous neighbours in close proximity. The road signs here bristle with famous appellation names that beckon you to keep driving just to find out what village lies around the corner. Sometimes it is hard to slow down and take the wine touring in stride when there is such a smorgasbord of names. Villages and appellations like Bourgueill, Saumur and Vouvray. Wine touring in the central Loire and in Chinon should be experienced at a measured pace. Patience is rewarded and make sure you set aside at least a few days for local travel. You can establish Tours as your base and have the benefit of its historic charm or you might spend a couple of days in the beautiful and well preserved medieval town of Chinon. The food and the hotels here are lovely and reasonably priced. A few ideas to get you started in Chinon: Hotel Imago ; Hotel Le Diderot; Hôtel Saint-Jacques
Some Last Words – Discover More
There is a great companion podcast to this blog featuring an interview with Matthieu Baudry of Domaine Bernard Baudry. Check that out to learn more about Chinon wines and to add great background for your wine touring in Chinon. For more on the Loire region, see The Wine Beat articles on Sevre et Maine and Cremant du Loire and also listen to our podcast episodes from Muscadet, Saumur and Montlouis (see links below).
As you travel the wine roads of Chinon, keep in mind the wisdom and wit of François Rabelais. He was a passionate gourmand and lover of wine and he didn’t mind saying so: “There are more old drunkards than old physicians”.