Chinon, Loire Valley

Today we journey to the Jardin de la France (the garden of France), the destination for many Parisienne holiday-makers for centuries. An historic and particularly pretty part of the region, the town of Chinon is based around the impressive Château du Chinon, which sits on the bank of the Vienne River. Quite a small region in French terms, the 2,300 hectares of vineyards all sit between the Loire and Vienne Rivers. So what makes Chinon so special? Why is this region known across the world?

The main reason for the fame of Chinon is that it is the stronghold of quality red wine production in a white-dominant region, and has managed to not only survive, but thrive throughout the centuries growing red grapes in a predominantly cool-climate region, where all surrounding regions chose white grapes to grow and sell. Chinon is a perfect example of the French term terrior where the local wine growers have ignored what is popular, instead paying close attention to the soil and microclimate in order to grow grapes perfectly suited to the region, believing that making good wine suited to their conditions will sell better than one suited to fashion. They would have been tempted to go other ways you see- to the north is sparkling Cremant de Loire and Vouvray territory, to the east is Sauvignon Blanc’s homeland, of both high and low quality, from regions such as Pouilly-Fume and Sancerrre, whereas to the west is Chenin Blanc territory, in varying styles from dry Savennieres to ultra-sweet wines from Bonnezeaux and Coteaux du Layon. In Chinon however, 95% of production is red, and one variety is king here- one that has a fairly pedestrian reputation across the rest of the world, usually hidden in a Bordeaux blend- Cabernet Franc.

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The soils of the Chinon region come in two fairly distinct types, both perfectly suited to the Cabernet Franc grape, but producing slight variations in the styles of final wine. The gravelly, alluvial soils in the north of the region close to the banks of the Loire generate lighter, fresher styles meant for early drinking (some have referred to these wines as the Loire’s answer to Burgundy’s Beaujolais), while to the south of the region, vineyards rich in the local “tuffeau jaune” produce darker, richer, spicier wines with moderate ability to age. This unique tuffeau soil is made up of a mix of sand and tiny extinct marine fossils and is extremely porous, making it perfect for high quality viticulture. During high rainfall the soil takes up excess water so the grapes don’t bloat, and in drought seasons, the soil slowly releases this stored water to make sure the vines stay hydrated. Cabernet Franc’s better known cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon can grow well in certain sites, however by law only a maximum of only 10% is allowed in the final wine. The wines of Chinon are medium-bodied with refreshing, crunchy acid and dense, coating tannins, which underwent a surge in popularity in Paris (250km north-west) in the 40s and 50s with the growth of the French Bistro due to the wines ability to match well with rich sauces and heavier meat dishes (think Boeuf bourguignon and Steak frites). This region however is not just about heavier reds; a good percentage of the Cabernet Franc is made into dry, refreshing rose with a distinctive herbal note, perfect for the warm summer months, where the temperatures here can get up to the mid-30’s in midsummer. A tiny (usually only 5%) of production is bracingly dry white made from Chenin Blanc- delicious, but incredibly hard to find.

“My interest in Loire wines hadn’t gone much further than the tasty “petits Chinons” I habitually drank in the wine bistros of Paris. In four days I changed my mind completely. Not only did my thirst grow for the mouth watering little Chinons, but I found the “serious’ versions made by vignerons like Charles Joguet and Bernard Baudry exhilarating.” A Wine & Food Guide to the Loire Valley, Jacqueline Friedrich

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager