Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cotes d'Auvergne

Last Friday our "best of show" overall was the "Le Chardonnay" from Cave Saint Verny in the Cotes d'Auvergne, which lies in the geographical center of France. Our best red of the evening was "Le Pinot Noir" from the same people. I had been informed that d'Auvergne was just outside of Burgundy, offering Burgundy varietals at a fraction of the prized AOC price. These two were a $14 retail and exhibited to a lesser extent the finesse of their Burgundy counterparts.

Cotes d'Auvergne has been called the "lost wine region of France" by wine writer Richard Kelley because of a convergence of twentieth century developments that effectively took it off the map for a century. In 1885 d'Auvergne ranked third in wine production behind Herault and Aude in the Languedoc and ahead of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the elite appellations of France. As you may recall the phylloxera epidemic hit France at that time followed at the turn of the century by blights of mildew, frost, rain, and drought, all before the devastation of the two World Wars. As we have already stated with regard to Spain, viniculture does not automatically spring back from disruptions, moreover as a commercial business, tastes do change and the wines from the 1880's don't necessarily translate into 20th century tastes.

The "lost region" also refers to d'Auvergne's geographical isolation and here is where things really get interesting. Richard Kelley is a chronicler of the Loire Valley wine industry and the Loire River actually begins in d'Auvergne in a natural basin created 12-20 million years ago by the most volatile volcanic activity in Europe. That volcanic activity resulted in natural barriers to invaders but also created a natural inhibition in the ethos of the people to outside cultural influences. The people of d'Auvergne historically were untrusting of outsiders, primitive in culture, and frugal due to endemic poverty.

The intense volcanic activity of 20 million years ago proved beneficial in ways we in the wine industry recognize in retrospect. Today d'Auvergne in the Limagne basin has soil composed of alluvial deposits of cinders, lava, and ash. The slopes of the mountainsides where most of the vines are now planted have a bedrock of alkaline basalt (weathered lava) which is rich in minerals and a topsoil of granite and argile-calcaire. Because of what volcanic eruption is, the basin is mottled with different soils throughout depending on what deposits were spewed in whichever direction. Along with the mountains themselves, hills and plateaus were formed by lava flows over the base surface composed of limestone and clay.

Viniculture is first chronicled after the Roman invasion around 50bc and was most likely started by monks. It really never took hold though until the eighteenth century due to the success of vegetable farming in that fertile valley and the ancillary success of the cuisine of d'Auvergne that found its way to large city restaurants around France. The locally trained chefs of d'Auvergne who left the area for career positions were known to return home for retirement.

The d'Auvergne wine industry was "lost" in the twentieth century for another reason. The Michelin tire company made Clermont-Ferrand in the middle of d'Auvergne its home and the entire region became a commercial/industrial center. Gone today is the expansive wine monoculture of the nineteenth century. Gone is the historic food culture of the region. Today there is industry and suburban sprawl and, if France is like this country, hardly a glance over the shoulder at what once was.

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