A tasty Gamay red wine from the Côtes d’Auvergne

by Tom Fiorina on October 21, 2013

The 560-meter-high Clos des Monts vineyard sits above the medieval village of Boudes. In the background is a chain of extinct volcanoes, the "Chaîne des Puys."

The 560-meter-high Clos des Monts vineyard sits above the medieval village of Boudes. In the background is a chain of extinct volcanoes, the “Chaîne des Puys.”

The Côtes d’Auvergne is certainly one of the lesser known wine regions in France. Motorists traveling along the A75 autoroute, which connects Paris to Béziers and other parts of southern France and which runs through it, might not even realize that they’re crossing what was once one of  the country’s largest wine-producing region. Before phylloxera devastated Europe’s vineyards in the late-19th century, over 45,000ha of vines stood here. Only the Languedoc’s Hérault and Aude wine regions had more vines.

The main reason for all of those vines in what is pretty much the center of France is the presence of the Allier River, the main source for the Loire River.  A steady stream of 15-25m-long, flat-bottomed barges called sapinières went north via river and canal to connect to the Seine and into Paris. It was a one-way trip for the barges, as that would have been a long row upstream to get back home, and the crew made their way back to the Auvergne on foot (the barges were broken up, the pine used to help keep Parisians warm in the winter).

And “home” in the Auvergne was a bleak place. This is Europe’s largest volcanic area, with the last eruptions happening around 12,000-15,000 years ago. If it weren’t for its verdant coat, the rolling, largely featureless landscape here wouldn’t be out of place on the moon. The one notable feature is the Chaîne des Puys, a well-defined, north-south line of peaks that form the geological vertebrae of central France. The highest, at 1,465m, is the Puy-de-Dôme, which gives its name to the department. Its largest city is Clermont-Ferrand, home of Michelin tires.

Many of the Auvergnats (as the local populace is called) who decided not to hoof it home stayed in Paris to open restaurants, cafés and bars. The same frugal, shrewd and thrifty characteristics that enabled them to survive in this poor, rural area helped them prosper as businessmen. The region is famous for its charcuterie, for its cheeses (Saint Nectaire, Bleu d’Auvergne, Cantal, Salers and Fourme d’Ambert), and for its mineral waters (particularly Volvic, named for its volcanic origins). Naturally, along with the wine, a steady stream of charcuterie, cheese and water also made its way on those barges to Paris to furnish the establishments run by these former locals.

Phylloxera and depopulation have reduced the Côte d’Auvergne vineyard surface from 45,000ha to just over 2,000ha, with less than 400 of those hectares in the AOC and IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée). Curiosity about the wine from this region and a perfect late-summer day that might have been the year’s last opportunity for a long motorcycle ride brought me to the village of Boudes, which is in the southernmost part of the Côtes d’Auvergne. At over 550m, the Boudes vineyards are also the highest in elevation in the Côtes d’Auvergne. The vines are planted on steep, southward-facing slopes that descend 150m to the medieval village. The soil is mostly clay with a substrate of limestone.

Of the 54 communities within the Côtes d’Auvergne appellation, five sub-regions, including Boudes, are listed as Crus. Besides carrying a specific geographical status (historically, these areas are viewed as being the region’s best sites), the five Cru wines must have a natural minimum level of 10.5% potential alcohol (vs. 10% for generic wines) and a maximum yield of 52hl/ha (vs. 55hl/ha).

Christophe Grayon is pictured with the “motoculteur” that he purchased from a small agricultural equipment manufacturer in the Champagne region. This sort of combination snow mobile-tractor straddles the vines. Tools for working the soil or applying the copper sulfate-and-lime treatment used to protect the vines from mildew and other fungal diseases are mounted on rails that allow them to be attached and removed easily. The light-weight machine rides on twin tracks that allow it to climb and descend the steep slopes without compacting the soil.

I visited the Clos des Monts vineyard in Boudes. It was created when Christophe and Fabienne Grayon purchased five hectares of vines here in 2007. They have restored a 17th-century house in the village, creating a modern cellar with a vertical and horizontal wine press, temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, a vaulted cellar for aging their wines, and several rooms that they rent as Chambres d’hôtes.

The Close des Monts received the AB Bio designation in 2010 for its vines, and Christophe Grayon continues this organic philosophy in his cellar; his wines are unfiltered and he doesn’t use any chemical intervention during their fermentatin, and the level of SO2 is around 15mg/liter, well under EU regulations for organic wine sulfite levels (100ppm total for red wine and 150ppm for white or rosé).

He makes three varietal wines from the vineyard’s three grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay. Of the three, the 2012 Gamay was the standout wine. It has an intense nose of red fruit and earthy aromas. The palate is medium-full in weight, with firm and savory tannins, and a good overall balance with flavors of red fruit and pears. The finish was a little short, but it was a very “quaffable” wine—you wouldn’t leave your glass empty as long as there was wine left in the bottle.

The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were less interesting, with the 2010 Pinot Noir that had just spent 12 months aging in one-to-three-wine oak barrels, being on the thin side with a short finish, and the barrel-aged 2011 Chardonnay, despite a nice grilled-almond nose and a rounded, rich and creamy mouth-feel, lacked the acidity or minerality to balance its heft. And, once again, it lacked length after swallowing the wine.

The Gamay, at €6 a bottle, is an excellent buy for such an elegant, delicious wine. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, at €12 a bottle, didn’t represent, in my opinion, as good value for the money. I’m certain that the pricing difference is explained by the investment in oak barrels.

Although my preference is for single-variety cuvees that best demonstrate the vigneron’s viticultural practices and best express the terroir, I would be interested in tasting a 50-50 Pinot Noir-Gamay blend from this vineyard. I think that it might just be a winning combination.

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