Coteaux du Giennois
Take one of the region’s traditional flat-bottomed river boats down the Loire, through the Central Vineyard region, and the first vines that will come into view are those of Pouilly-Fumé, in the commune of Pouilly-sur-Loire, on the right bank. Soon afterwards you will reach the vineyards of Sancerre, at first in the communes of Thauvenay and Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre, although to be frank these (and indeed most of Sancerre’s vineyards) are set well back, away from the river and largely out of sight. But you will still catch sight of some of them, especially those around Saint-Satur, which sit much closer to the water’s edge.
And then, just as quickly as they appeared, the vineyards are gone. The regimented rows of Sauvignon Blanc are no more, the riverbanks returning once more to their natural state, wild scrubland, shifting sandbanks and listing trees. It will be another 200 kilometres (or thereabouts) before the river meets another vineyard of equally serious standing, when it bears down on the Chenin Blanc of Vouvray and Montlouis.
But it was not always thus. The Loire downstream of Tracy-sur-Loire was once home to two great vineyards, now all but lost. The first was located around the town of Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire, on the right bank of the Loire and around several of its tributaries which flow into it from the east. The second was a few kilometres downstream, the focus here being the town of Gien. In their heyday, immediately prior to the devastation of phylloxera, these two regions combined boasted nearly 4,000 hectares of vines. To put it in context, this is larger than the modern-day Sancerre appellation, and it dwarfs Pouilly-Fumé, which today has barely one-third this area planted to vines.
Whereas Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé staged a strong post-phylloxera recovery, these less familiar vineyards continued to stumble and falter. Today, a mere fraction of those 4,000 hectares remain. What does is gathered together under a single banner, the Coteaux du Giennois appellation.
Charles le Chauve
Although little-known compared to its two famous cousins, the story of the Coteaux du Giennois appellation is no less illuminated that that of its more illustrious peers. Vines have been cultivated along this section of riverbank for centuries, millennia even; the discovery of grape pips dating to the 2nd century, uncovered during archeological digs at Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire, tells us this much. These grapes were surely used to make wine, just as they were in other appellations with similarly ancient Gallo-Roman origins, most notably neighbouring Pouilly-Fumé. Of course nothing is known about the viticulture here at this time, not even which cultivars were grown.
The earliest documented evidence that vines were here comes from Georgius Florentius Gregorius (c.538 – c.594), more commonly known as Gregoire de Tours. Although made bishop of Tours in 573, Gregoire is best known for having penned Historia Francorum, a wide-ranging thesis dealing with the history of the church and indeed the world in general. The wines along this part of the Loire Valley do receive at least a fleeting mention. Further evidence for the presence of the vine here comes a few centuries later, from Charles II (823 – 877), a Carolingian emperor and grandson of Charlemagne, who was also known as Charles le Chauve (and who is pictured above in a much later painting). In 849 he sanctioned the donation of vineyards and a residence from the Bishop of Auxerre to the church at Saint-Laurent-de-Cosne, which lies close to Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire.
It was during the Middle Ages that viticulture really took off here though, with the support of both the church and the crown.