I have just finished a very rewarding and interesting five days in the Côte Roannaise and the Côtes de Forez. In five days I was able to get to know the area, its vignerons and their wines much better, especially those of Forez where I had only once visited before and that was at least 15 years ago. In August 2009 I spent three days in the Côte Roannaise but that was mainly a holiday and I made just a few visits.
Of course it helped that the weather has fine for the first four days. It was only on the Saturday (22nd March) that the Loire’s long dry spell since the middle of February broke. Due to the long warm spell the vines are around three weeks in advance of last year. The buds have reached the cotton stage and will start to open soon. Although an early start often ensures a reasonable vintage, the vignerons will fear a frost at least until the end of April. As elsewhere in the Loire the last two vintages have been short, particularly for those hit by hail, so a severe spring frost would be very bad news. However, with most of the vineyards on the lower slopes of the Monts de Forez and Roannaise frost tends to less of a problem than in other parts of the Loire.
The Côtes de Forez and the Côte Roannaise have much in common: both are small appellations with Gamay as the only permitted variety and both have recently diversified by planting a range of white varieties generally sold as IGP Pays d’Urfé. The Côte Roannaise became an appellation in 1994 and currently has 220 hectares in production, while the Côtes de Forez was promoted in 2000 and has 150 hectares in production. Almost all vignerons in both Forez and Roannaise now have at least one white wine from a considerable range of varieties. The most popular are Chardonnay and Viognier but Roussanne is also planted as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvigon Gris, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and one producer (Vincent Giraudon) has Aligoté and another Muscat (Domaine du Pavillon). Then there are the hybrids: Bacco Noir, Siebel 54/55 (red) and Rava Par Six (white) planted by the rather extraordinary Pic et Vin based in the small village of Boisset Saint Priest.
Although it may seem surprising to find Rhône varieties – Roussanne and Viognier – in the Loire, parts of the Forez are south of Lyon although with a cooler climate. There are also a few parcels of recently-planted Syrah. Often the Viogniers are attractive being leaner, fresher and less opulent than their Rhône neighbours. In addition there is also a little Malbec.
Having flirted with a number of white varieties, several producers are now attracted by the idea of planting the world’s greatest white variety – Chenin Blanc. Indeed there has almost been a race to be the first to plant Chenin in the area. In Forez both Odile Verdier/Jacky Logel and Pierre Redon, Laurent and Christine Demeure are keen to plant, while in the Roannaise both Stéphane Serol and Romain Paire (Domaine des Pothiers) are also looking to plant and are looking for suitable sites.
The Chenin race looks to have been won by the Demeures-Redon as they will plant their first plot in two weeks time in the south of the Forez appellation at Boisset Saint-Priest. Of course the Chenin will either be IGP or Vin de France. Once planted this will certainly be the plot of Chenin closest to to the Loire’s source by several hundred kilometres. It will be very interesting to see the result. Will Chenin ripen properly here and how will it do on the region’s granitic soil? It would seem to be a reasonable bet that if you can ripen Roussanne and Viognier here you should be able to ripen Chenin.
Several producers put sheep in their vineyards, which helps to keep the grass under control and provide fertiliser. Yann Palais at Domaine des Palais (Roannaise) has sheep in his vineyards from the end of the vintage until the end of March. Simon Hawkins of Domaine du Fontenay also has sheep in his vineyards from time to time. While in the Forez I had to take photos of a fine troupe of hens with their splendid coq in the vineyards of Hervé, a member of the coop. Clearly vino-husbandry is more developed here than it is in Ingrandes-de-Touraine! Furthermore, unlike Bourgueil, the Roannaise/Forez people already have an Indication Geographique Poules d’Urfé for their eggs.
With around 10 out if their 30 producers signed up organic viticulture is now strongly implanted in the Côte Roannaise, especially as this includes two of the largest domaines – Robert Sérol (29 ha) and Domaine des Pothiers (14ha). They will be joined by Domaine de la Rochette, owned by the Néron family with 13ha who have just started their organic conversion.
There was a time when the Cave Coopérative – Les Vignerons Foréziens, which was created in 1959 – was virtually the only producer in the area. In the mid-1990s the Cave represented 80%-90% of the production. This is now down to around 50% from 40 members with around 80 hectares out of the 150. Out of the 40 members, ten supply the cave with some 80% of the grapes with the coop’s president Alain Patard having 12 hectares.
Unfortunately like some other cooperatives, such as the Cave de Haut-Poitou, Les Vignerons Foréziens face severe economic problems. For much of the time during the 2013 vintage Sylvain Deschavannes was the only person in the winery, which is on three levels with lots of different vats. Sylvain also has 6.7 hectares of vines to look after – most notably three on the steeply sloping Montaubourg. Given these constraints, and the fact that he is not a trained winemaker, Sylvain has done remarkably well to produce an acceptable range of wines in 2013.
Les Vignerons Foréziens already have a commercial tie-up with other cooperatives: in the Beaujolais, the Cave Coopérative Signé Vignerons at Bully which in 2012 incorporated the Louis Tête brand in their structure, and the Cave des Vignerons des Coteaux du Lyonnais. Now there is a project to vinify the Forez wines at Bully and to keep the current cooperative building just for sales to the public. This plan would avoid having to spend money on upgrading the facilities. The large fly in the ointment is that it is highly unlikely that the INAO would allow Appellation Côtes de Forez wine to be made some 60 miles away, while retaining the appellation. They might agree to a derogation for a year, possibly two, assuming that the Vignerons Foréziens make a good case of explaining how this move will be financed and that traceability will be assured, so that there is no possibility of the Forez wines getting mixed up with Beaujolais.
Although appellation rules generally permit an appellation’s wines to be made in an adjoining commune outside the appellation, making an AC wine outside the specified zone of production is not allowed. Beaujolais is certainly nowhere near the specified zone of production for the Côtes de Forez, so a permanent move to Bully would mean that the Forez wines would have to be Vin de France, which would then surely be more difficult to sell. Of course it is possible to sell Vin de France successfully at a considerable price but to do that it helps to be well known and to have a good reputation. Sadly neither applies to Les Vignerons Foréziens. Direct sales, especially during the summer months – mid-June until mid-September – account for a substantial part (€350,000) of the Cave’s turnover with tourists keen to buy a wine from the Côtes de Forez. Without the appellation, unless this Vin de France is very cleverly labelled it is unlikely to have the same attraction to visitors.
Doubtless the coop’s problems have not been helped by the August hailstorms that hit Forez in 2012 and 2013. Normally the coop produces between 3500-4000 hls but following a very severe hailstorm on 6th August 2013 they made only 1,800 hls last year. Hailstones the size of boules (de pétanque) fell as well blocks of ice causing not only very substantial damage in the vineyards but smashing roofs and car windows. The independent growers were, of course, also hit hard: Jean-Claude and Yves Gaumon in Leigneux and Gilles Bonnefoy in Champdieu.
The previous year the hail arrived a day earlier (5th August) and followed a different corridor hitting Verdier-Logel hard. They made only one red in 2012 from a small parcel in Rézinet. Fortunately they were able to source some grapes from Yves Cuilleron in the Northern Rhône, so making their FMR (a play on the word éphémère (mayfly) – the flying insects that live only one day.
The vignerons of Forez and Roannaise have created an association and they now work closely together. It is good to see two small appellations cooperating so effectively together. It makes a change from appellations like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Corbières, who have specialised in having rival syndicats all pulling in different directions.
One aspect that many producers in the two appellations could work on is developing a more coherent pricing structure. As in Chianti the most expensive wines are almost invariably either IGP or Vin de France (Vino da Tavola in Italy), sometimes being sold at twice the price per bottle as the appellation wines. Recently there has been a proliferation of different cuvées of appellation wine with often very little difference in price – only 30-40 cents – between an early drinking, early bottled wine and one from a single vineyard, such as the steeply sloping Boutheran in the Côte Roannaise, with its greatly increased production costs. It makes little sense to praise individual sites and then sell them for almost the same price as the basic wine. If there really is a quality difference between the various cuvées, and if special sites like Bouthéran and Montplaisir (also in Roannaise) are to be credible, then this needs to be reflected in the price.
My thanks to all the vignerons I visited for their warm welcome and a particular thanks to Gilles Bonnefoy, Stéphane Sérol, Jacky Logel and Mélanie for organising my visit – making it so worthwhile and enjoyable.