Friday 26 September 2014

The lost vineyards of the Lochois

A feature of the landscape of la Touraine du Sud is the vinehouse - a little building, in scale from a one-room shed to a two-story house, where the vineyard workers kept their tools, and maybe ate their midday meal out of the heat of the sun. Once upon a time these would have been surrounded by lines of neatly tended vines, and a few of them still are. Many have gone for good, more are in ruins, but some are being restored. The Association for the Preservation of the Ligueil environment (l'association pour la sauvegarde du cadre ligolien) is particularly active in this respect.

Vinehouses at La Taille des Rois, Perrusson
Until I read Xavier Roche-Bayard's article in La Nouvelle Republique of 20th September, I wasn't aware of how extensive the area of land under vines used to be in our area. There is one commercial vineyard left - La Domaine de Ris at Bossay sur Claise. At the peak, vines were cultivated on 10,600 hectares of the Lochois. Most of the wines were classed as "vins de commerce" and considered as part of the Cher appelation, to distinguish them from "vins de Touraine".  There were prize-winning wines among them. Chateau Chanceaux, bronze medal at Paris, the same for le Clos du Main, from the vines of Chanceaux près Loches. The same for the Chateau de Marolles, de Genille... The wines of La Touraine du Sud also won medals at the Paris exhibition of 1878. These included les Clos du Temple (Ferrière-Larcon) and Chambertault-et-Malavisé (Grand-Pressigny).

James Derouet, in his authoritative work on the wines of Touraine between 1830 and 1930 (1), records that
these wines of the Lochois were described as "brightly coloured and very fresh", "very well sought by the trade as wines for blending (coupage) and "very good wines for drinking young (consommation courante)". Wines produced at Montrésor, Le Liège, Loches, Perrusson, St Jean St Germain, Chambourg, were listed on the same level as the wines of Chenonceaux, Bléré.. Le Clos de la Cloutière, belonging to M Delvaux, with 12 hectares of vines was "respected and well known for its good red and white wines, particularly well cared for"; reds from Gamay Beaujolais and Groslot whites, derived from Gros and Menu Pinot.

Vinehouse from La Cloutière, restored and relocated on a traffic island next to the LeClerc hypermarket in Perrusson
The area of vineyard in the Lochois extended over more than 10,600 hectares, when Chinon was only 5000 hectares larger, and  Tours, which included notably Amboise, Vouvray... was at its largest 39,000 hectares. This was in 1882, the year when the French vines began to feel the effects of a minute aphid, phylloxera vastratrix, now called Daktulosphaira vitifoliae. By 1885, 200 hectares over 20 communes were infected with this plague.

An abandoned private vineyard, next to a carefully tended plot including fruit trees at La Taille des Rois, Perrusson.
The vine continues to retain its presence in a very agricultural South Touraine. Valerie Louault records, in her work "Chédigny 50" issued in 1995 on the occasion of the Chédigny "Festival of the 1950s":
"Chédigny: principal culture: Vines!"  indicated the PTT (Post and Telephones) directory entry of 1950 for the town". 
The author also collected what the people of Chédigny had to say about postwar life there.
All the farm workers  possessed at least a few ares (2) of vines, sometimes several hectares.  There was a press in every farm. One would have found five grape varieties: Cot, Grolleau, Gros Noir, Sauvignon and Pineau.
The vines had the unusual feature that all the fruit trees of the farm were to be found there. Effectively, orchards did not exist and peach, pear and apple trees were planted among the vines.
This explains the occasional long row of fruit trees strung out across a field, now probably of cereals, that one sees from time to time in our district.

Vinehouse and orchard, formerly a vineyard, La Taille des Rois, near Perrusson
The small area called "Les Vignes de La Taille des Rois" is marked on the 1:25000 IGN Série Bleue map of Loches (1924 E). We have passed through this spot many times on the D93 from the direction of St Senoch, heading for LeClerc and Lidl, and noticed the (now) unusual plantings, but it's definitely worth a second look. Here, three vinehouses in a line decorate the skyline, and there are several individual patches of vines such as this one.

A family-sized vineyard, grapes just ready to harvest, La Taille des Rois 24/9/2014
To quote Xavier Roche-Bayard
In the country, the wine was not exclusively for personal consumption. If the Gris, the Grolleau, which give light wines at 7 degrees, quenched the thirst generated by summer labour, the wine, like the wheat, was a money-earner, sold to the cooperative. With mechanisation, and modernisation of agriculture, many vines were torn up.

(1) Histoire de la vigne en Touraine de James Derouet, editions Hugues de Chivré, 2013
(2) one are = 100 sq metres, almost 120 square yards or a quarter perch. A standard allotment is 250 square metres (300 square yards).


Susan said...

Fascinating. Lots of stuff I didn't know about the reputation of the local wines and the grape varieties. The fruit tree thing is interesting too.

Vinehouses are protected ie you are not allowed to demolish them, with the end result that anyone who doesn't want their vine house simply leaves it to fall down.

The current Loire Valley Michelin guide talks about the slopes of Preuilly being covered with vines -- it's obvious the Michelin writer hasn't visited the area for a loooong time.

Pollygarter said...

Thanks to Xavier Roche-Bayard for the article. James Derout's book sounds interesting too.