The vines of the Fiefs Vendéens appellation are the most peripheral in the entire Nantais vineyard, and its wines are perhaps also the region’s most infrequently encountered. While it seems to me that these two observations are likely to be connected, the fact that this is another region where Chenin Blanc, Gamay and other varieties including the esoteric Négrette and Grolleau Gris rule in place of Melon de Bourgogne, akin to the Coteaux d’Ancenis, may also be partly responsible.
It is perhaps only natural that most wine drinkers look to the Nantais for Muscadet, and for Muscadet alone; after all, the marriage between the region’s shellfish and its bracing, sea-breezy wines has been working well for all concerned for a very long time. And in the hunt for a wine to drink on the rare days when we don’t have oysters for breakfast, who wouldn’t look instead to Vouvray or Chinon, or indeed to the wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, before the name of the Fiefs Vendéens, long-forgotten and long-overlooked, comes to mind?
Even so, while ignoring the wines of the Fiefs Vendéens might make for a more simple understanding of the Nantais region, to do so would be to miss out on the unique and very noteworthy wines this region has to offer. There is more to the Nantais region than just Muscadet. Here we have wines, white, rosé and red, which combine the primary characteristics of varieties from the continental inland and south-western regions of France, including Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir and Gamay (bringing inland and even Burgundian nuances), Cabernet Sauvignon and Négrette (bringing warmer, more southerly features), with the cool Ligérian and Atlantic climatic influences. The results can be, quite simply, fascinating.
The Viticultural Fiefs
There were vines planted here in the Vendée as long ago as the 11th century. These first vineyards were probably restricted to relatively infertile pockets of land, well-drained, with shallow soils. These little islands of land deemed suited for the vine (and probably little else) would have been located along river banks, or on slopes overlooking the Vendée region’s coastal and otherwise sandy, marshy terrain. These little islands of viticulture, which expanded throughout the Middle Ages, were called fiefs, as if they were little kingdoms or ‘fiefdoms’, and as a consequence the region became known as the Fiefs Vendéens.
Evidence for active viticulture during the Middle Ages comes, as always, from documents drawn up in the region’s abbeys and priories, the church being intertwined with all aspects of life at this time. Local vignerons would ‘donate’ a portion of their crop to the church, possibly as payment for use of the land. The documents describe the receipt of these tithes, traditionally one-tenth of the harvest, by the church. As was also the case with the Muscadet vineyards to the north, the Dutch played an important rule, although they seem to have arrived in the Fiefs Vendéens earlier than they did elsewhere, as even during the 11th century wines from the sub-region of Brem were being exported to Holland. And from the 12th century onwards wines from another sub-region Mareuil were transported by barge to St-Benoist-sur-Mer or Moricq-sur-le-Lay, both of which had landing stages on the river Lay. From here the wines would be taken to La Rochelle, where they would be loaded aboard ships and exported to England and other no doubt thirsty nations.