Côtes de la Charité
In my explorations of the vineyards and appellations of the Loire Valley I have, on the whole, restricted myself to talking about the region’s long-established appellations (as well as one or two not-so-long-established). I have thus far resisted the temptation to pick my way through the wine regions once known as Vin de Pays, but now more correctly referred to by the Europe-wide designation of Indication Géographique Protégée. Perhaps I was fearful of getting distracted and losing my way, somewhere between IGP Urfé (which caters for wines made from Aligoté, Viognier, Marsanne and the like from the Auvergne) and IGP Mâche Nantaise (an IGP for lamb’s lettuce salad leaves, but if I said it was for wines made using Machoupet from around Nantes, who would not have believed me?). Whatever the reason, I decided to stick with the most significant regions, from Muscadet to Sancerre.
Having said that, one or two IGP regions do stand out as distinctive and of potential future significance, and these seem worthy of some examination. One region I would place in this category is the Côtes de la Charité. A stepping stone between the Loire Valley and Burgundy, in terms of terroir (Oxfordian limestone) it resembles large parts of Sancerre as well as the Côte d’Or, and the varieties (90% of the vineyard is planted to either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir) provide another obvious link with the vineyards of Burgundy. Little wonder then that a number of vignerons from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé have ventured south to plant in the Côtes de la Charité, like Ligérian moths to a Burgundian flame.
In this guide to the region I explore its origins, its history, the terroir and its wines. Much of what is written here can also be found in the introduction to my Côtes de la Charité Retrospective tasting report published in 2019, with the added benefit of 18 tasting notes on the wines, from some of the region’s leading lights.
The focus of this wine region is the town of Charité-sur-Loire, which grew up around a convenient crossing point on the Loire. The town owes its existence and historical status to the church, as indeed do the vineyards that surround it. It was in 1059 that Benedictine monks arrived from Cluny, at the time the site of the largest church in the Christian world, (as the time of their arrival predated the construction of the giant basilica in Rome). They were in receipt of a donation of land at Charité-sur-Loire, given by the Bishop of Auxerre, and they envisaged the construction of a huge religious settlement.
Their dreams were soon realised; the church and monastery they built, the former consecrated in 1107, was the second largest after Cluny and therefore in the entire world. At its peak it housed two hundred monks. And these monks needed wine, either for their communion or to sell in order to fill their coffers.
The Middle Ages
It was thus under the direction of these monks from Charité-sur-Loire, as well as some from nearby Bourras-l’Abbaye, that the vineyards were first established. No doubt they drank the wines themselves, but they also poured them (for a fee, I am sure) for passing pilgrims who were en route for St-Jacques-de-Compostelle, the monastery sitting on one of the many well-worn pilgrimage routes through France. They were also a commercially minded body of monks, happy to sell their wine, shipping it by river as required. As a consequence the wines of Charité-sur-Loire could be found on the tables of Burgundian dukes, and the region’s vineyards developed an enviable reputation.