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Domaine de la Charmoise Provignage 2006

There is a lot to discuss with this week's wine, starting with the grape variety Romorantin, which is I think unique to the Loire Valley. It was introduced to the region in 1519 by François I, or so the story goes, a tale which Henry Marionnet finds sufficiently interesting to recount on the back label of this wine. He brought vines from Burgundy, planting 8000 around Romorantin-Lanthenay in the Loire, which I assume then gave its name to the new arrival (or perhaps vice versa?). Genetic studies of the vine have since shown it to be a cross between Pinot Teinturier and Gouais Blanc, the latter a rather promiscuous variety which plays a role in the parentage of many of today's so-called noble varieties, including Chardonnay, Aligoté, Gamay, Melon de Bourgogne, Petit Meslier, Colombard and even Riesling, as well as the more ancient German variety Elbling. Although a number of these Vitis vinifera varieties are familiar to all, Romorantin is almost certainly not; today it is limited to a very small area of vineyards in the Cour-Cheverny appellation, near Blois.

The vines in question in the case of this wine were planted in 1850, before phylloxera swept through France. Phylloxera, the vine louse that ultimately destroyed most of France's (indeed, Europe's) vines, was introduced from North America on imported vines during the 1860s. The first vines seen to succumb were in the Rhône Valley, in 1863; although some distance north there was no way the Loire would be immune. The disease was first reported near Vendôme in the Loir-et-Cher department (the origin of this wine) in 1877, and it spread rapidly. The process of grafting onto American rootstock was not at this time universally accepted, so many of the local vignerons refused to act, even in response to the actions of the local vigilance committee and departmental Préfet. Those that did largely employed carbon bisulphide, one of the most widely used treatments, injected into the soil using newly developed equipment. It was not, unfortunately for them, a good solution.

Domaine de la Charmoise Provignage 2006

Despite this some vines survived, including these Romorantin vines. The name of this cuvée, Provignage, reflects this; this is the French term for layering, the process whereby vines are propagated by forcing an already established vine to re-root. A cane from the old vine is bent downwards, and the tip pushed into the soil, and perhaps held in place by a peg or stone. As the summer progresses the tip will root, and once established the original cane can be cut leaving a new vine. Although this method of propagation has its disadvantages - the daughter vines carry all the faults of their parents, including whatever viruses they had - there is one major advantage; the new vine costs nothing. With the post-phylloxera need for grafting many vignerons simply couldn't afford to continue running a vineyard, as establishing and maintaining a vineyard would now mean purchasing expensive vines from the local nursery. Small wonder that France's vineyard area contracted dramatically and, indeed, has never since fully recovered.

This week's wine allows us to look, somewhat vicariously, to the pre-phylloxera era, a wine made from ungrafted Romorantin vines, over 150 years old. The Domaine de la Charmoise 2006 Provignage, a wine bottled as a Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France (a classification since renamed Vin de Pays de Loire), has a shimmering and limpid hue. The nose is fascinating, and somewhat difficult to describe; there are aromas of pure, dried tropical fruits, apricots, white pepper, liquid stone and almonds. The palate is fresh, fairly rich and broad, but brilliantly defined by firm, juicy acidity. Lovely weight, fresh and flavoursome, with bright lemon and mineral fruit. Dry but rich, sappy and slightly sour, but always juicy and mouth-watering, this is delicious. And it is long and bright too. This is brilliant wine, full not just of historical significance, but also great intrinsic quality. François I would, I am sure, have been proud. 18/20 (30/3/09)

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