Châteaumeillant winemakers were ready to celebrate their 10 years of AOC in 2020 when CoVid crisis made them cancelled all the scheduled events. All, not really and on August 1st and 2nd, the winegrowers of the most central appellation of France will open their cellars and I invite you to organize a journey in a region rich in history. As an appetizer to your discovery, I propose you a small but rich presentation of the vineyard.
A ride in the Center of France
If Châteaumeillant can be pride, with no contest until today, of the title of the most central vineyard in France, we can stay for a few moments on this famous "Center" because contrary to what many think, the Center of the France is in the department of Cher, in Berry, south of Bourges. When you come to enjoy the Berry countryside, you have to visit the magnificent cistercian Noirlac Abbey and, if you visit around it, you will see different monuments indicating that you are in the Center of France. Small issue, these monuments are not located in the same villages. Why ? Quite simply because of the various calculations used to locate this famous Center. Three municipalities (or even more) are therefore officially the epicenter of France: Bruère-Allichamps, Saulzais-le-Potier, Vesdun, this last village which is particularly interesting for us because it is the eastern entrance to the vineyard of Châteaumeillant.
Beetween Indre and Cher, 100% "Berry" wine
Châteaumeillant shares with Reuilly, located further north, the particularity to have its AOC area in two departments that make up the old province of Berry, Indre and Cher. Area starts in the east, from Vesdun to finish west not far from the city of La Châtre and from the nice village of Nohant, where George Sand received his prestigious friends.
The other particularity, even stronger, is to be located south of Berry, in a region called la Marche (litteral translation : the step), and for which we can already speak of the foothills of the Massif Central (which is not as long as central, but you already understood it).
This geographic position gives several characteristics for the vineyard. The first is that the soils and sub-soils come from volcanoes, so generally fairly acidic and essentially made up of sandstone, micashists and gneiss on which we find silica, sand and clay soils. The second characteristic is that we are located at altitude (between 220 and 388 m for the town of Châteaumeillant) with therefore quite cold winters and rather hot summers.
The combination of climatic and soil factors means the region is particularly well-adapted to the Gamay grape variety. It is now the main, sometimes unique, grape variety of the appellation, although this has not always been the case as we will see.
From Mediolanum to the A.O.C, a little history
In the 3rd century BC, Gallic people from the « Biturige » (which give Bordeaux and Bourges) people founded the city of Mediolanum. They very quickly developed the wine trade with the Roman Empire. Nearly 600 amphoras were discovered at Châteaumeillant showing that these exchanges were important. It also remind us that amphoras were used for wine transportation, not for vinification to vinify it (we make wine in jars, in kvevri but not in amphoras). The numerous wells found and especially the mention of Mediolanum on the medieval copy of a Roman map (Peutinger) shows the position of the city which was a real road junction.
We have not so much informations on wine production of the past. Grégoire de Tours mentions the presence of the vineyard at the end of the 6th century, charters from the Middle Ages regulating, among other things, the harvest ban, indicate places where the vines still grow.
Gamay was introduced at the end of the 18th and at the end of the Second Empire, nearly 1,200 hectares of vines stretch between Cher and Indre. Phylloxera will destroy the entire vineyard at the end of the 19th. After replanting, the national competition from other wines and other agricultural products such as cattle, the vineyard will never regain its former area.
In 1964, a wine cooperative was created. With two other domains, it will be emblematic of the vineyard for more than 30 years. In 1965, even if we already find a quote as Coteaux de Châteaumeillant in a 1947 book, the wine becomes Châteaumeillant and officially reached the status of V.D.Q.S. (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure).
As a reminder, in the twentieth century, when you learned French wines, teachers always used a pyramid with table wines at the base (not expensive and no rule), above the Vin de Pays and to finish the A.O.C.
Not quite finish because between Vins de Pays and A.O.C., queen category of the time, we had a thin slice of A.O.V.D.Q.S. This category created during the Second World War and validated in 1949 was supposed to be the last step that allowed a vineyard to reach the supreme category. For some, the stage lasted years, even very long years and, curiously, it is the Loire Valley which had the most A.O.V.D.Q.S. until the category disappeared in 2011.
So why the vineyard stay in this category for so long ? The main answer is to be found in one of the pillars of the Protected Designation of Origin: the human kind.
Give back to Pierre…
Until the early 1990s, Châteaumeillant vineyard was well established regionally, based on a reputation established thanks to « gris » (direct pressing rosé) and a good local customers. Unfortunately, the small number of operators did not create healthy and constructive competition (what an academic called coopetition) to make evoluate viticulture, the style of wines and find new customers. The arrival of new producers, including Pierre Picot, changed the situation.
Working 100% with Gamay while the Gamay-Pinot noir blend was the custom, on old vines, with small yields, he moved up this country of traditions and showed, with others, the potential sometimes unexploited in the vineyard.
This vision that some considered too radical led to many debates, sometimes rude, the coexistence for a few years of two unions but at the end of this eventful period, the winegrowers, aware of the need to move forward and therefore to work in collective way, focused on one target: the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée.
Châteaumeillant AOC : 100% Gamay or not 100%
In addition to the location of selected plots, the viticultural and oenological rules, the main arguing block of the projectr was, of course, the choice of grape varieties. Should we make 100% gamay regarding the soils and climatic conditions in the region or keep the « historical » blend.
Finally, Gamay became the main grape (From 100% to 60% in the wines), with the possibility of blend with Pinot Noir (40% maximum). Grape varieties all have optimal windows to be harvested at the best ripeness, Pinot Noir one is not very wide, as at Châteaumeillant which could be sometimes tricky. Technical developments in the vineyard, ability to analyze maturities make the problem solved and today it’s sometimes difficult, in blind tasting, to distinguish pure gamays from blends.
(For purists, note that pinot gris can also enter into the blending of rosés up to 15% but the production of this grape remains tiny).
Finally, in 2010, Châteaumeillant will become the 8th AOC of Center-Loire. But the story is not finished.
Thinking about the future of the vineyard Pierre Picot and his colleagues realized that it was necessary, in order ensure long-term development, to have a large number of producers, which was not the case.
For over 10 years, Châteaumeillant have seen a lot of newcomers arrived in the region. Welcomed in collective cellars, rookies have benefited from the experience of local and Quincy winegrowers or produced wines with personalized wine-making services. Thanks to this collective work, you can now find around thirty different domains for a 90 hectares vineyard in production.
This is one of the strong particularities of this vineyard, coming a long way, but, in my opinion, everything it need to secure a good future.
Today, the quality of the red and rosé wines, is one of its most precious assets, the human richness of the vineyard is another one even more important but we will speak about that in a few weeks.