I have been following the wines of Henry Marionnet ever since I first encountered his cuvées from nongrafted vines, so I was delighted to be invited to have lunch at the domain when I was in the Loire updating my Guide to Wines and Top Vineyards of the Loire. The vineyard is pretty much at the eastern edge of Touraine, not far from the great Chateau of Chambord (of which more in a moment).
“Here we only make special wines that others don’t make. All my life I have looked to make the best wine, and not like the others,” says Henry Marionnet. Henry’s father started the domain before the first world war, but he had 20 ha of hybrids. Henry built it up to its present level, mostly with Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc, but with an interesting in reviving the original wines of the area, in this case meaning cultivating some old varieties, planting vines on their own roots, and making wine without adding sulfur. Today his son Jean-Sébastien is the winemaker, but Henry is still very much in evidence.
Ungrafted vines are a specialty of the domain, and there are presently 6 ha, including Gamay, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Romorantin. Both the cuvées of Romorantin come from ungrafted vines. Romorantin is an old variety of the area that has almost disappeared, possibly because it’s a late variety—it is always the last to be harvested. (It is permitted in Cheverny AOP and is the basis for Cour-Cheverny AOP). Indeed, most examples of Romorantin give me the impression of having struggled to reach ripeness. It is different at Henry Marionnet, where there are two cuvées.
Pucelle de Romorantin comes from a plot of ungrafted vines planted in 2007, while Provignage comes from a plot of vines that precede phylloxera. We started with Provignage before lunch, because “it has so much finesse and elegance it deserves to be appreciated alone,” Henry says. The very old Romorantin was a small part (a third of a hectare) of a 4 ha plot that Henry purchased in 1998. The plot was not regarded as anything special by the previous owner, who included the grapes with other varieties he sold to the cooperative, and it’s lucky it survived; it would probably have been pulled out but these were among the only vines to survive the great freeze of 1956, so they were left alone.
Are these the oldest vines in France? Henry Marionnet dates this plot of Romorantin from the 1850s.
“The owner proposed to sell the vines to me 15 years ago. I immediately called INAO and asked them to come and take a look at the vines. They couldn’t tell the age, and asked if they could pull out two vines. They dissected them at Montpellier and reckoned they had been planted in the first half of the nineteenth century.” The plot still contains more than three quarters of the original vines; when a vine dies it’s replaced by using marcottage (sticking a branch into the soil until it roots). Curiously for the era in which the vines were planted, they are in tidy, well separated rows. Henry claims these are the oldest vines in France. Provignage has dense flavors, with an impression somewhat reminiscent of white Burgundy with a touch of Chenin Blanc. It is unique.
Other varieties have multiple cuvées. “We’ll compare the normal cuvée—well, there is nothing normal here—with the ungrafted vines,” Henry says, as we start our tasting. In fact, things rapidly became more complicated as there are three lines: “normal,” Première Vendange, which is made in exactly the same way but has no sulfur used at all in vinification or maturation; and Vinifera, which comes from ungrafted vines. For Gamay, Renaissance is a cuvée that is a two-fer, coming from ungrafted vines and having no sulfur. Jean-Sébastien first made it in 2014. There is also Les Cépages Oubliés, a cuvée from the unusual variety Gamay de Bouze. This is thought to have come from a village near Beaune, around the 18th century. It’s a partial teinturier (the juice has some color) and was banned at one time—“because it made good wine,” Henry says dryly.
The Sauvignon is very good but the Vinifera has an extra level of purity. “The damage that phylloxera did lingers on,” Shakespeare might have said. When you taste the Gamay, you think, this is very good, it puts most Beaujolais to shame, then when you taste Première Vendange, you think, this goes a step further, and then Renaissance pushes that back, Each wine successively becomes more subtle and complex. “This is a pure wine, no sulfur, no rootstock,” Henry says when we reach Renaissance. Gamay is the heart of the domain: “here you drink Gamay and you eat Gamay,” Henry comments as we finish lunch with a fruit tart made from Gamay with a sauce made from Gamay de Bouze.
As if all this was not enough, the Marionnets are presently involved in a project to recreate the vineyards at Chambord, the great chateau built by Francoise Ier, who is supposed to have brought the variety Romorantin (from Beaune) to the region in 1517 when he built the chateau. A new vineyard has been planted about 1 km away from Chambord, 14 ha altogether, including Romorantin, Pinot Noir, Pineau, and Sauvignon Blanc, in an attempt to recreate the varietal mix of the original vineyards. Of course, the vines are ungrafted. The name of the wine is undecided, as the authorities will not allow it to be called after Chateau Chambord—”it’s crazy,” says Henry, “but that’s France.”
The fist vintage at Chateau Chambord (although not under that name) will be 2019.
When I mentioned to the sommelier at my hotel that I had visited Henry Marionnet, he said that the wines were good but rather expensive. That they are: but how often do you get to drink wines from 150-year-old vines, or for that matter from ungrafted vines in Europe? They are worth trying, and the comparison between vines on rootstocks and franc de pied (what the French call vines on their own roots) is fascinating.