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La Renaissance d’Anjou

In 582, historian Grégoire de Tours, who wrote frequently on the wines of France, recorded that the then sitting Count of Anjou and the local Catholic administration had planted and managed vineyards around Château de Chalonnes, less than 20 kilometres from Angers. Besides scattered vines planted by earlier Roman settlers in Nantes, this is generally considered the genesis of professional winegrowing in the Loire Valley. French ampelographer, Pierre Galethas theorises that shortly after the first monastic plantings, chenin blanc was born—15th century writings reference a white grape known as Plant d’Anjou planted in Touraine at Mont Chenin, which would later lend its name to the variety. The Anjou monks were very likely farming a progenitor whose mutation gave the world chenin blanc. Between the late-sixth and sixteenth centuries, cultivation, trade and wine quality in the Loire grew significantly, particularly in Anjou where local monasteries—sponsored by powerful and wealthy nobility—planted new vineyards, tended vines, bottled wine, and improved production techniques. 

During this period, many of Anjou’s most prominent vineyards and villages took shape; in 1028, Foulque III, one of the first great builders of medieval castles, donated the village of Chaume to the clergy in Ronceray. Subsequently, the local nuns agreed that select local villagers could cultivate the land in return for one-quarter of their crop—it was said that one notable tenant paid the clergy with the best quarter of his harvest, from a south-facing portion of the slope, the section known today as Quarts de Chaume; in the 12th century, Cistercian monks planted vines on the steep slopes surrounding a monastery in Savennieres, the Coulée de Serrant monopole produced wines popular among royalty and famous French writers— Louis XI is said to have nicknamed it ‘a drop of gold’ and Alexandre Dumas and Maurice Constantin Weyer are said to have praised the wine. Plantings like these expanded in the same century, when Henry II Plantagenet, (another Count of Anjou) became king of England in 1154 and allowed only Anjou wines to be served at court, a custom continued by his successors, John Lackland and Henry III.

By the 12th century, French wine was gaining international renown in European markets including England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the Low Countries. Visiting French royalty also regularly enjoyed local wines, and by the 16th century, influential French writers like François Rabelais wrote glowingly about the white wines of Anjou. During the same century, Dutch merchants—who had established themselves as keen global traders—began identifying areas capable of producing sweet wines which would satisfy their thirsty customers. The same traders helped channel the Layon, and were familiar with Anjou wine production, which despite some tales, was sweet before they arrived—many authors wrote that they were ‘almost all white, and the majority are sweet’. Growing Dutch trade quickly became a crucial factor in local commerce, subsequently growers were increasingly incentivised to produce ever sweeter wines to satisfy buyers. In return, the Dutch also shared expertise and helped improve local production techniques. 

By the 19th century, domestic demand from Paris, catalysed by rapid urbanisation, overtook that of the Dutch and plantings flourished further. During the same century, French scientists Chaptal and Pasteur made significant advancements in oenology which were quickly propagated by burgeoning agricultural schools, research institutes, and universities. The French government even distributed a pamphlet titled ‘The art of making wine according to the Doctrine of Chaptal’ encouraging widespread production of ‘bourgeois’ wines, which were considered superior to most ‘local’ wines.Technological advancements also helped enhance production, including steam-powered grape presses, the use of sulphur dioxide as a preservative, and the introduction of temperature-controlled fermentation. In Anjou, local craftsman, Joseph Vaslin filed a patent in 1857 for a wooden wine press with a square basket and a horizontal screwing system, later iterations became commonplace in cellars worldwide. 

Alas, in 1860 French wine production faced a catastrophic blight; the phylloxera pest—accidentally introduced with American vines and plants—ravaged grapvines, destroying 40% of French vineyards between 1863 and 1890. Some regions fared far worse than others, not least due to their varying capacity to fight the louse. Regions were also divided in their respective responses, some chose to graft American rootstocks, others planted hybrids. Eventually grafting won out and mass replanting took place throughout France around 1900.

Phylloxera struck Anjou in 1883, and by 1890 had spread through the entire region. Importantly, the two hundred years before had been challenging, too; the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV struck a major blow to wine trade in Anjou; the wars of the Empire completely cut off trade in northern Europe; frost in 1789 and 1793 destroyed 40-60% of the regions vineyards; the counterrevolutionary War of the Vendée amidst the French Revolution stripped the region of labour; and in 1855, powdery mildew appeared on the left bank of the Layon, causing serious damage between 1863 and 1878, harvests were regularly just 10% of past years. Phylloxera was the final nail in Anjou’s winegrowing coffin. 

Upon replanting the region’s vineyard, growers chose quantity over quality, needing to repopulate their vineyards quickly and inexpensively. Chenin blanc was regularly replaced by inferior, resistant hybrids— Pierre Viala (inspector general of viticulture) visited Anjou as early as 1890 to warn against planting hybrids in place of noble French vines; plantings were spaced further apart to accommodate tractors and agrochemical application; planted clones were higher-yielding and rootstocks more vigorous; mechanisation foreclosed canopy management and pruning practices; and the most precipitous, grand sites were commonly abandoned. Additionally, despite fierce opposition, in 1905, the Winegrowers’ Assembly of France voted to authorize chaptalization in Anjou, which was indiscriminately and excessively adopted by growers and merchants. Subsequently, where fine chenin blanc once reigned supreme, cheap, sweet rosés quickly overrun the region.

By 1950, Anjou’s reputation had fallen into disrepair, the great wines enjoyed by nobility and traded by the Dutch were a distant memory, and favourable commentary was confined to the history books. In 1952, Russian wine writer and entrepreneur, Alexis Lichine wrote in his work ‘Wines of France’ that Anjou rosés were ‘not true rosés’ and were ‘pale and tinted faulty wines … better drunk when on the spot’. On the same page Alexis recognised some quality wine was made in the Coteaux du Layon, specifically in Quarts de Chaume. Later, in 1976, Pierre Marie Doutrelant, wrote in his book “Good Wines and others”, a chapter on Anjou, entitled: ‘But where are the Anjou’s of yesteryear! Today we say with a grimace: Anjou, this sweet rosé, which gives one a headache!’. 

This decay was not limited to Anjou, winegrowing in France following phylloxera and two World Wars underwent profound change—as did many other European wine producing nations. Synthetic pesticide application accelerated in the 1940s, vineyard mechanisation and all its trappings began in the late 1950s, and in 1974 glyphosate began its ascent amongst global agriculturalists. The French had also gotten lazy, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne ruled among fine wine drinkers, and without any apparent competition many winegrowers grew complacent, even at noted chateaux and reputable estates. 

Changing tides and newcomers aplenty

Despite these woes, change was afoot, beginning in Anjou with Nicolas Joly in 1977 and Jo Pithon in 1978. Joly and Pithon were both born in Anjou and of winemaking heritage, both men also left home in their youth for a new life in metropolitan France, which quickly proved disillusioning for the ambitious deserters, who returned to Anjou convinced their own home deserved a place among the French wines popular in restaurants and bars with worldly enthusiasts they had met on their travels. 

Upon returning home, Pithon rejected pesticides and instead promoted organic farming, he also abstained from chaptalization and acidification, inoculated with indigenous yeasts, aged wines in barrels, and bottled single-vineyard selections. Pithon also began resurrecting Coteau des Treilles, a notable vineyard which had been abandoned during World War II. Most importantly, Pithon spearheaded the recognition of the dry white wines in the Loire Valley, and the lesser-known Anjou appellation by producing high-quality, dry Chenin Blanc despite his peers churning out cheap, sweet alternatives. Pithon was later crowned grower of the year by the esteemed “Revue des Vins de France” magazine and once made local news for pricing a single bottle at 500 francs. Meanwhile, Joly set out reclaiming Coulée de Serrant and was an early convert to biodynamics, later becoming one of France’s leading proponents of Steiner’s farming doctrine. Crucially, both men committed themselves to making fine wine in a region long marred by unpalatable rotgut. 

Pithon and Joly worked in relative obscurity for many years. Fortunately for them, the late-70s and early-80s brought about a boon in fine wine consumption and a modest disruption to establishment and orthodoxy. During those years, travel and tourism increased, as did media and publishing. In America—where the middle class were gripped by all things French—writers like Robert Balzer, Robert Finnigan and Terry Robard introduced eager readers to great wines by means of regular columns and booming wine clubs. Steven Spurrier’s pesky Judgement of Paris a few years earlier also helped dislodge entrenched hierarchies and gave New World wine, especially California, a new global platform.

In Europe, their counterparts (Raymond Baudoin, Luigi Veronelli, etc.) encouraged winemakers to do better, sharing learnings and breakthroughs from emerging institutions and university campuses. At the same time, intrepid, wine-curious entrepreneurs (like Martine Saunier, Kermit lynch, Becky Wasserman, Neal Rosenthal, etc.) travelled Europe seeking out new, thrilling wines from far and wide to introduce to thirsty drinkers and sommeliers in their home countries. Most significantly, in 1982 Robert Parker began his meteoric rise to fame, amassing a colossal audience and quickly becoming the world’s most influential wine critic. Parker also wielded the power to make superstars of small estates and budding winemakers, ushering in a new era of cult wines capable of achieving boundless recognition regardless of origin. 

All this meant that by the nineties, ambitious entrepreneurs grew more courageous, convinced they too could make more than a living producing wine at home or abroad. This bravery quickly reached Anjou, where cheap land and boundless possibility made for fertile ground. Between 1989 and 2000, a wave of future stars arrived in the Loire; Mark Angeli (la Ferme de la Sansonnière) in 1989, Patrick Baudouin in 1990, Eric Morgat in 1995, Richard Leroy in 1996, René Mosse in 1999, and Stéphane Bernaudeau in 2000—Eric Calcutt and Olivier Cousin (who Angeli interned with) also arrived during these years. Many of these winemakers, spearheaded by Angeli and Leroy, eschewed the regions predominately sweet past, opting instead to produce complex, dry chenin blanc in a diverse panoply of styles. They also rejected old appellation rules, often opting to label their wines as simple vin de France. Many also farmed organically, worked minimally in the cellar, and bottled single-vineyard wines which quickly acquired cult status. A great deal of Anjou’s newcomers were also passionate advocates of natural wine, and it was with their arrival that the region became the nation’s hotbed for countercultural winemakers in search of a blank canvas, unconstrained by preconceptions and staunch tradition. 

By the late-2000s, a handful of Anjou’s luminaries were already roaringly popular among hip, savvy winos, setting the stage for more success and fledgling wineries. Between 2008 and 2022, countless more notable arrivals made Anjou their home; Bertin-Delatte and Clos de l’Elu in 2008, Thibaud Boudignon in 2009, Thomas Batardière and Vincent and Stéphanie Deboutbertin in 2012, Emmanuel Ogereau in 2014, Olivier Lejeune (Clos des Plantes) in 2017, Chateau de Plaisance and Rémi Pivert (Perray-Jouannet) in 2019, Florian Zuliani in 2021, and Mathilde Magne in 2022 to name just a few. These determined newcomers, many having gained experience elsewhere beforehand, compounded their peers’ efforts, producing an array of thrilling wines. In the same period, more tourists came, as well as sommeliers and importers, eager to drink, stock their cellars and lists and unearth the latest rockstar winery to add to their portfolios. And, despite worries that globalisation might homogenise wine, new media’s growing interest in artisan winegrowing helped propel select winegrowers to considerable popularity. By the late twenty-tens, Natural wine fairs, and the larger Paulée d’Anjou in Angers, also proved useful in introducing growing audiences to the regions changing tone.

Finally, four decades after Pithon spearheaded change, and following the valiant efforts of many great winemakers, Ivan Massonnat—a spirited, thoughtful and ambitious businessman and wine lover—arrived in Anjou, brimming with passion and committed to amplifying the regions many successes, and uniting its winemakers in restoring the areas former glory among contemporary, global fine wine drinkers. After meeting Jo Pithon, Massonat bought the Pithon-Paillé estate and two more significant plots soon after, including a quarter of the famed Quarts de Chaume. Massonat quickly hired an expert team at his nascent Belargus estate, making significant investments in his vineyards and cellar, committing to intensely considerate and respectful viticulture and land management. Beyond Belargus, Ivan took charge of the Paulee, ‘the event was dead before took over’ Louis Germain remarked when we met last year; became co-president of the Quarts de Chaume appellation; invested in local real estate; and gradually earned the respect of local winemakers. Today, Belargus boasts over 20 hectares of chenin vineyards, producing 15 cuvées of dry and sweet wines representative of each corner of Anjou. Massonat has already received roaring reviews (and pricing to match) from leading publications, is working with progressive and historic importers, and has made great strides in establishing Anjou as a ‘tier-one region’.

Present obstacles and future success

Compelling projects notwithstanding, there are challenges ahead; the predominance of local production remains industrial and of poor quality, and despite a modest cohort of inspired winemakers, Anjou wines have not yet penetrated the cellars, or minds, of many drinkers and collectors.

First, the administration is outdated, rigid and unhelpful. Feuds between local officials are longstanding, beginning most notably with Olivier Cousin’s legal battle over the word ‘Anjou’ playfully printed on his labels, which is technically illegal if a producer bottles ‘table wine’. Cousin went to war with the AOC, which he felt was embracing agro-chemicals, and increasing membership charges with no concern for artisan winegrowers. Cousin ultimately left the AOC in protest, reinforcing the regions growing countercultural image. Today, growers have assumed a less revolutionary stance, but are similarly committed to change. Massonat and others are fighting from within, currently campaigning for the Quarts de Chaume appellation to permit both dry and sweet wines be labelled with grand cru. Greater flexibility and more sensible rulemaking are needed if Anjou is to produce, and be recognised for, fine wines within a familiar and comprehensible framework.  

Second, Anjou has, as author Jon Bonné has written, become the ‘Capital of Natural Wine’, famous for its countercultural, rebellious hippy winemakers and its celebrated icons adored by natural wine enthusiasts. However, natural wine can be painfully unreliable, and there are plenty of inconsistent and unpleasant examples made in Anjou. Neither does persistent rebellion and revolt make for a healthy, productive landscape from which a stable, regional identity can be agreed on and communicated to global audiences. And so, should Anjou winemakers want to rival Burgundy for spots on lists and in cellars, it will need to play on similar terms, occupy the same ecosystem, and chiefly pursue quality not didactics. Finally, convincing more growers; small and large, new and old, to subscribe to an atypical mode of thinking and production is no mean feat. Conveying the long-term benefits of such a shift will require diplomacy and incentive but will be necessary to gain sufficient traction and lasting change.

Contemporary Anjou is a rich tapestry of villages, vineyard sites and noteworthy lieux-dits—spanning dark and light soils—with a rich history of producing fine wine. Despite a period of depression and a glut of poor wine, today, a flourishing array of savvy winemakers are putting Anjou on the map, continuing the successes of courageous pioneers who dared to think different. Free of oppressive traditions and preconceptions, the road to recognition as a fine wine destination is clear, albeit not free from challenges. Nevertheless, the time is right for great success, and the region is at a promising juncture; fledgling estates are increasingly awarded rave scores from incumbent publications; prominent importers are expanding their portfolios of Loire wines and planning greater investment in promoting them to clients; and the dry, textural and flavoursome chenin blanc leaving the regions cellars are affordable and in great favour with global palates and preferences. La renaissance d’Anjou is firmly in motion, take note and act now, your cellars will surely thank you. 

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