Imagine yourself transported back in time, to Boën-sur-Lignon, in the shadow of the foothills of the Monts du Forez. As the name suggests it sits on the Lignon, which runs off the foothills and across the Forez plain, eventually emptying its waters into the Loire a few kilometres to the east. You arrive here in the Gallo-Roman era, during the very first days of this settlement, which sits on a road connecting Lyon to Bordeaux. On the rocky slopes behind you monks from Cluny are breaking new ground, planting vines, keen to make the first Forez wines.
Now we move forward in time to the mid-19th century, and we find the vine has been good to Boën. It is now a bustling wine town, its streets thronging with folk going about their viticultural and oenological business. The little streets are crammed with wine bars, cavistes and bistros where locals and visitors slake their thirst. The slopes to the west are now a lush emerald green, a tsunami of Vitis vinifera having engulfed the landscape. There are more than 5,000 hectares planted here; in terms of vineyard area, Forez is a serious contender, a challenger to almost any other region in France. Times are good. Until the louse arrived.
Now we move forward another hundred years, into the 20th century, after the arrival of the louse. Phylloxera came late to Forez, the region being fairly isolated, but once here it all but erased two thousand years of viticultural history. Even today the slopes above the town remain largely abandoned, the ghosts of vineyards dotted with tumbledown cabanes, the huts where vineyard workers would spend the night after working in the vines, it being too far to walk back to the town.
Today fewer than 200 hectares of vines remain in the Forez region, tended by a resilient few, the majority working with the local co-operative. Which makes the arrival of Gilles Bonnefoy (pictured above) all the more remarkable.