Domaine du Bel Air
I confess that I am guilty, whenever my mind turns to Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley, of too often looking first to Chinon. At first glance Chinon has the more noble vinous pedigree, the vineyards swirled around the ancient royal fortress and the Medieval convent of Saint-Louans, the wines enjoyed throughout history, by everybody from Henry II to François Rabelais. And Chinon has some of the Loire Valley’s best known vineyards, from the Clos de l’Echo and Clos du Chêne Vert to the less immediately familiar but no less valued Clos des Capucins and Clos de la Hospice, all of which bear witness to this appellation’s viticultural heritage.
It is my pleasant duty, though, to look elsewhere in the Loire Valley, to uncover otherwise overlooked gems, like those we find in Benais. Superficially Benais seems like a typically sleepy Ligérian village, undistinguished save for its role as one of the eight communes eligible for the Bourgueil appellation. Peer beyond the walls that line the narrow streets though, and you will see there is more to this little village than at first meets the eye. The Château de Benais, hidden behind an imposing gate flanked by two solid towers, is a case in point.
Château de Benais
The imposing Château de Benais was a magnificent fortress of many towers, mentioned in texts dating to at least the 13th century, implying that it was built perhaps not much later than Chinon’s royal fortress. Nor was it unknown to France’s kings; once home to the Beaucay and then the Lavel families, it was here that Gilles de Lavel received François I (1494 – 1547) in 1532. This French monarch was of course a frequent visitor to the Loire Valley; he was responsible not only for the construction of the awe-inspiring Château de Chambord, but he has also been credited with the introduction of Romorantin to the lands around Cheverny.
Sadly the original château was destroyed during the 18th century, but in its stead a new building in the Renaissance style was erected, and this château still stands today. The original gate still survives though, as does another of its possessions, its vines, although ownership of château and vineyards was divided during the course of the Revolution. Of these the most notable of the château’s old vineyards is the Clos Nouveau (pictured above), which today boasts intact walls, a well and tower, 1.2 hectares of vines and a small garden, all of which lies just two minutes walk from the front door of the château. Today this esteemed vineyard, more handsome than any true clos I have ever laid eyes on, is in the hands of the Gauthier family of Domaine du Bel Air.