Obscure & Delicious
Of the dozens of obscure grapes cultivated in France, few are as cloaked in mythology as Romorantin, a variety grown only in one place in the world – the area surrounding Cheverny in the Eastern limits of the Touraine in the Loire Valley.
The vineyards of this area were created in the Middle Ages around the local abbeys, and eventually aroused the interest of the kings of France, who sought out the best wines for their elaborate dinners. In the 1500’s, the Loire Valley was a popular spot for the court of Francois I, a notoriously thirsty king who had chateaux in the region for escaping Paris summer heat and organising grand hunts in the fall. Francois ordered 80,000 vines to be brought from Burgundy to the Loire and had them planted around the town of Romorantin-Lanthenay, a place where he often spent time with his mother. Legend says that these vines were Romorantin, and we have the king to thank for these wines we have today.
By contrast, there are many locals who believe the grape is actually a cross created in the region by a winemaker in the 1800’s. Both theories seem plausible, but there really is no way to be sure and they remain a subject of heated debate. Certainly the royal link adds to the intrigue of this mysterious grape, and the recent planting of several plots of Romorantin on the grounds of the famous Chambord castle, which was built by Francois I, will only add fuel this story.
Unfortunately when phylloxera arrived in the late 1800’s and vines had to be uprooted and replaced, many winemakers abandoned historical grapes like Romorantin, choosing more productive or trendy varieties. By the mid-1990s the variety was virtually extinct, grown on just a few hectares in the world...
The area near Cheverny is nestled between the gates of the Loire and the Sologne and is generally known for casual, user-friendly country wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Romorantin is quite the opposite. It can be aggressively acidic, often has oxidised notes, and was for a long time considered an edgy wine that appealed primarily to rare grape lovers and Loire purists.
Romorantin is a very unique variety, so unique that some call it the marmite grape – it’s often a love it or hate it situation. It is a natural cross between a grape in the Pinot family and Gouais Blanc, an unfortunately named variety that is a parent of almost every interesting French grape. Romorantin is sometimes described as a mix of Chenin acidity, Chardonnay body and the oxidative notes of Savagnin. These wines have a lot of character and body, as well as a long finish and great ability to age. Fruitier in youth, it evolves to a golden yellow with time and develops more honey and acacia notes.
The AOC Cour-Cheverny was created in 1993 exclusively for the production of Romorantin, from the 11 communes of the original court of the king. About 20 winegrowers now grow the grape, but there are still only 60 hectares of plantings.The production rules are strict, ensuring the grape is produced in a manner that honours its unique qualities. That said, the heavily-oxidised and weighty Romorantins of the past have evolved to a lighter, fresher style.
Domaine de Veilloux
The iconic example of this modern style of Romorantin is made by Domaine de Veilloux. Twelve kilometres northeast of Cheverny, Michel Quenioux and his wife Sylviane grow a range of regional grapes on their 25 hectare estate. But they are especially proud of their Romorantin. While many local winemakers blend the grape with others, Michel makes a 100% pure Romorantin that is a defining example of the potential of this variety. Michel says the grape thrives in his sandy clay and limestone plots. Better phenolic ripeness, lower yields, later harvesting and increased rigour in the cellar also help to create an incredibly enjoyable wine from this formerly challenging grape. His low-intervention approach to every aspect of production ensures his Romorantin the purest expression of the variety.
It is surprising, tangy and an absolute delight to drink. It is complex enough to be interesting but no so much as to be hard work. The acidity is still high, but it is precise and fine, and there is just a hint of oxidation. And it’s a wonderful wine to pair with tricky foods. Young Romorantin can accompany asparagus, strong fish and game birds. With age, it is an ideal companion for partridge, lobster or seared foie gras.
Since some of the vines are outside the Cour-Cheverny appellation, the wine is sold as Vin de France. But Michel says this may be changing soon too, as there is a current proposal to expand the area where Romorantin can be grown, and to change the name of the Cour-Cheverny appellation to AOC Chambord. We hope this change encourages more winemakers to explore this unique grape, and like to think the king would raise his goblet as well!
Images by Matt Hickman
Words by Allison Burton-Parker