Looking to stump your favorite geek of French wines? Or at least throw him a curveball? The upper, outer reaches of the Loire might not be a bad place to start. Just about any VDQS designated area might do the trick as well. Combine the two and the odds will be stacked in your favor.
Châteaumeillant VDQS “Extra-Version,” Domaine Geoffrenet-Morval (Laure and Fabien Geoffrenet) 2006
$20. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: A Thomas Calder Selection, Potomac Selections, Landover, MD.
I went into this one with just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Neither I nor any of my table mates had ever tried a wine from Châteaumeillant. I was pretty sure it was a wine village located somewhere in the Upper Loire, vaguely in the vicinity of Sancerre… or maybe Saint-Pourçain. I knew that the red wines produced there are usually made primarily from Gamay. And that’s about it. One might call it blurry tasting, an idea supported by my rather simple – and slightly questioning – raw tasting notes:
Distinctly mineral, with pretty black cherry and violet/rose petal aromas. Tastes and feels more like a softer, rounder wine from Saint-Pourçain or Côtes du Forez than Beaujolais. Pure Gamay? Gentle, medium acidity. Macerated cherries.
While I do believe there are merits to blind tasting, I’m a much more avid supporter (and regular practitioner) of the importance of contextual tasting. Knowing a little up front about the wine and its frame of reference may indeed create certain preconceived notions but it also helps create a stronger base for understanding and learning. What I expected in this case was a wine that would taste like Upper Loire Gamay. While some of my expectations were met, just as many questions were raised. It sure didn’t taste like Gamay-dominated wine but, just in case it’s not clear, it did taste really good. And it did taste very much like red wine from the Upper Loire – bright, delicate, mineral and full of tangy cherry fruit.
I was right about some things going into our tasting. Situated 70 km south of Bourges, Châteaumeillant is indeed in the general vicinity of both Sancerre, which is roughly 110 km to the NNE, and Saint-Pourçain, about 88 km ESE of Châteaumeillant. (Here's the INAO map of the region.) The reds and rosés from the area – it’s not a white wine zone – generally are dominated by Gamay, with Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Gris sometimes playing supporting roles.
But there were definitely some things to be learned along the way. Technically, though it’s a rather fine distinction, Châteaumeillant is not in the Upper Loire but in the Central Vineyards, an area named for its proximity to the geographical center of France. It’s actually situated between the Upper Indre and the Upper Cher, in the SW corner of the Cher Department. And as it turns out, the “Extra” in “Extra-Version” refers to Pinot Noir – to the tune of 80%. From Domaine Geoffrent-Morval’s website:
"The vintage 'Extra-Version' is made from 10 year old vines of 80% pinot noir and 20% gamay, made into wine in wooden barrels, [then] raised in stainless steel vats. It only represents a maximum of 10% of our production since it does not follow the direction that we wish to give to our Appellation in keeping with the harmony of wines of Chateaumeillant (100% gamay with possibly extra support of pinot noir to a maximum of 40%)."
The Châteaumeillant growers union has recently petitioned the INAO for promotion of the Châteaumeillant appellation from VDQS to AOC status. Though I don’t know what the specific requirements for the AOC, if granted, will be, Geoffrenet-Morval’s notes would tend to suggest that their “Extra Version” may end up falling outside of the AOC guidelines. However, even if the wine isn’t “in keeping with the harmony of wines of Châteaumeillant” – impossible for me to say given that this was my first experience with any wine from Châteaumeillant – it certainly is in keeping with the style, feel and expression of reds from the Central Vineyards and Upper Loire. I look forward to exploring the other wines from this producer and other examples from this, perhaps, soon-to-be AOC.