It is somewhat ironic that the most central of all the Central Vineyards is also one of the nation’s most obscure and peripheral. Stand among the vines of Châteaumeillant (provided you can find them, there are not many left) and you will find yourself at the geographical heart of France, as far from the ocean and this nation’s borders as it is possible to be while maintaining one’s feet on French soil. This is, after all, why this little collection of appellations, which also includes Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly and the Coteaux du Giennois is known as the Central Vineyards.
Châteaumeillant, however, sits some way to the south of these mostly more famous names, on the very margins of this wine region, and indeed it teeters on the very margin of existence. Like the Coteaux du Giennois this is another once-great vineyard which also tumbled into a precipitous decline, to the point where it had all-but disappeared. And it continues to flirt with extinction today, its vineyards having experienced a 20th-century renaissance before, in recent decades, having slipped into modest decline once again.
Today, the entire appellation could be squeezed into the vineyards of one or two of the larger cru classé estates of Bordeaux, such is its diminutive size. There are barely a handful of growers working in an independent manner, vinifying their own fruit and bottling the resulting wine under their own names. There are rather more who tend vines on the side, among other agricultural activities, and who are happy to send what they pick to the local co-operative in exchange for a handful of euros. Even so, there are still delicious wines being made here, proof that when it comes to seeking vinous adventures in the Loire Valley, no stone should be left unturned.
The Bituriges Cubi
The Bituriges tribes of Gaulish France were at least two in number, these being the Bituriges Vivisci and the Bituriges Cubi, both of which were in existence during the first few centuries after the time of Christ. The former lived in Burdigala, the forerunner of modern-day Bordeaux, and they were known to tend vines and make wines. They are not relevant to this tale of Châteaumeillant, however (unless you believe the two tribes were somehow related, which is not impossible), which begins with the less frequently discussed Bituriges Cubi, another Gaulish tribe with a confusingly similar name. The Bituriges Cubi had established a settlement named Avaricum, on the river Yèvre (which at the time was named Avara, hence Avaricum); this settlement was on the site of modern-day Bourges, the central region’s most significant city. And like their Bordeaux namesakes, the Bituriges Cubi also tended vines, evidence for which comes from the discovery of grape pips, pruning knives and amphorae in the region, all of which date to the 1st and 2nd centuries.
The Bituriges Cubi had another nearby settlement, Meylan, the name of which had by the Gallo-Roman era evolved into Mediolanum. This was to grow into the town we know today as Châteaumeillant. Both Meylan and Mediolanum (and indeed Meillant) seem to evoke the town’s central position, on a complicated crossroads, where eight Roman roads met. The town brought together travellers from as far afield as Clermont-Ferrand, Issoudun, Tours, Lyon and Limoges, and it was naturally an active trading post. There is documented evidence of early viticulture, which not for the first time comes from our old friend Georgius Florentius Gregorius (c.538 – c.594), more commonly known as Gregoire de Tours, his likeness (pictured above) imagined by the renowned sculptor Jean Esprit Marcellin (1821 – 1884). Made bishop of Tours in 573, he is best known for Historia Francorum, within which he describes many of the region’s vineyards, including those around Mediolanum.