Coteaux du Layon Premier Cru Chaume
It could be argued that the vineyards and wines of the village of Chaume should be discussed within my guide to the Coteaux du Layon and its communal or ‘village’ appellations. After all, despite the confusion witnessed in recent years over the ranking and naming of this corner of Anjou (confusion which I will explore in more detail further down the page), today it remains a tiny part of the much broader Coteaux du Layon appellation, albeit with exalted premier cru status. There are many reasons, however, why I feel Chaume should be considered separately from the rest of the Coteaux du Layon vineyards, including the communal ‘village’ appellations.
The principal reason Chaume deserves special attention is that the wines are of a distinctly superior quality to the other wines of the Coteaux du Layon appellation, and I include the wines of the six communal ‘village’ appellations in this statement. This difference in quality was apparent even as I first explored the wines, more than a few years ago. It was during one of my first encounters with Claude Papin of Château Pierre Bise; having tasted through several cuvées from his other Coteaux du Layon vineyards we came to his Coteaux du Layon Chaume, and the step up in quality was breathtaking and tangible. It was a wine of a deeper grain, more textural with greater breadth and more certain complexity, the toasted fruit here contrasted against the freshness of scented herbal tea, and although I don’t think I was using the term at the time there was also a more evident sense of minerality to it.
Of course there is not just one single factor that elevates the wines of this corner of the Coteaux du Layon vineyard above most others. Naturally, the vignerons involved make a difference. And the regulations laid down within the cahiers de charges, the rulebook for the appellation, which describes the different methods which must be applied to the vineyards and wines of Chaume compared to the other parts of the appellation, also reinforce the distinction. The recognition of the distinctive quality of Chaume and its wines long predates the creation of these rules though, and it seems impossible to deny that the terroir of the village of Chaume also plays a significant role.
Before exploring in detail these different facets of the vineyards and wines of Chaume, I will first look at the history of the Chaume vineyard. Because the two appellations are inextricably linked, much of this story is shared with the Quarts de Chaume appellation.
The story of Chaume (and Quarts de Chaume) can be traced back to Foulques Nerra (970 – 1040), a powerful Count of Anjou born to Geoffroy I Grisegonelle and Adèle de Vermandois. Pious but with a military mind, Foulques Nerra is widely regarded as one of the first great builders of Medieval castles. His mortal enemy was Eudes II de Blois, and many of the castles he built including those at Blois, Montrichard and Loches were part of a long campaign against Eudes and his other neighbours.
It was the pious side of Foulques Nerra (pictured above, in a 16th-century painting) which was more relevant to Chaume and its vines. During his life Foulques undertook four pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the first as penance for crimes committed, but later in life as protector to other pilgrims. This pious nature also came through in his support for the religious orders within Anjou, providing funding for the construction and expansion of local abbeys and monasteries. One of the more significant institutions that received his support was the Abbaye du Ronceray in Angers. Prompted to do so by his second wife, Hildegarde, in 1028 Foulques Nerra helped to establish this institution. Remarkably, although a thousand years have since passed, the Ronceray abbey still stands; it is situated in Angers, on the right bank of the Maine, behind the Église de la Trinité. I confess I have taken a shortcut around the corner of the abbey many times, when scuttling through the streets of Angers, long before I realised its significance to the story of wine in the region.