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Catherine & Pierre Breton

Catherine & Pierre Breton

Ask any vigneron in Chinon or Bourgueil about the origins of Cabernet Franc, and they will soon be waxing lyrical about Cardinal Richelieu, the old abbey which towers over the town of Bourgueil, and a certain abbot who know what was good for him. Indeed, I am sure the first time I had this conversation with a vigneron we were standing directly outside that same abbey, which is perhaps why this tale has been lodged so firmly in my memory.

The story seems to originate with Comte Alexandre-Pierre Odart (1778 – 1866), a famed ampelographer, who wrote that in 1631 Cardinal de Richelieu sent vines from Bordeaux to the abbey in Bourgueil for planting. The abbot, none other than Abbé Breton, naturally obliged (disobeying Richelieu probably wasn’t a wise move). The grapes of this vine gave a particularly good and elegant wine, and its reputation soon spread. Soon the Plant de l’Abbé Breton was a popular choice for planting, and before long the local viticulteurs were referring to it simply as Breton. Abbé Breton’s place in Loire Valley wine folklore was forever assured.

Catherine & Pierre Breton

There are, of course, a few glitches in this tale, not least the fact that Rabelais wrote of Breton more than a century earlier, in La Vie Inestimable du Grand Gargantua, Père du Pantagruel (published 1534);

“Et par ma barbe pour ung buffart tu auras soixante pipes, j’entends de ce bon vin breton, lequel poinct ne croist en Bretagne, mais en ce bon pays de Verron.”

Of course, it my have been that Rabelais was using the term ‘breton’ to mean something more wide-ranging. It has been suggested that the term was initially used to describe wines exported to Brittany, or that is was a catch-all term for the region’s red wines? Alternatively, we could just ignore this historical discrepancy; after all, we mustn’t let facts such as this get in the way of a good story!

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