Rabelais and A.C. Chinon
Pantagruel has a snack and a little glass of wine
“Drink constantly. You will never die”—Francois Rabelais
I really want to like the wines from Chinon, one of the only Loire Valley villages specializing in red wine. This has less to do with wine per se than with Francois Rabelais. This bawdy 16th century Franciscan monk and extravagant humorist is Chinon’s favorite son and he dedicated his great satirical novel Gargantua and Pentagruel to the “most noble and illustrious drinkers”. Legend has it that his father made his own wine on Clos de l’Echo. This property, widely considered the best plot in Chinon, now yields the single-vineyard flagship wine at Couly-Dutheil, perhaps Chinon’s most prestigious name.
In English the adjective Rabelaisian has come to mean crudely humorous; “gusty and exuberant with the pleasures of life—food, drink, and lovemaking”; “grotesquely exaggerated satirical”. Gargantuan means huge, prodigious, gigantic. By all rights Chinon wine should be somehow Gargantuan and Rabelaisian. Just the opposite. It is usually light and fruity, elegant on the palette with a wonderful initial aroma and a deep red fruit. There are no sharp edges to Chinon. It can even be “a bit restrained”; how anti-Rabelaisian is that! Rabelais himself supposedly coined the term “taffeta wine” (soft and smooth like the silky cloth) to describe his beloved Chinon wines.
Much of this character comes from cabernet franc. In its native Bordeaux it is primarily used as a blending grape to soften cabernet sauvignon and merlot. In the Loire Valley cab franc shows what it is capable of when left on its own, and Chinon is 100% cab franc. The Loire is at the extreme northern limit for red wines and the stress of living on the edge can create some fantastic wines.
This versatile, food-friendly wine marries well across the board. Following the advice of the food-wine gurus, I have tried it with all sorts of things. It is very nice in red-wine-with-fish combinations; even fairly neutral fish are not overwhelmed. It is very pleasant when drunk alone or with charcuterie. It works with a milder goat cheese and even sushi. I especially liked it with a cold roast-pork sandwich. They can also be more “serious”. Local star winemaker Bernard Baudry has the reputation for making firmer, more complex wines. I had his “Les Croix Boisse” 2005 with a rosemary marinated Duck Breast at a Boston Legal Sea Food Loire Valley dinner. It was superb.
Ironically, Chinon’s wines do not pair well with Chinon’s favorite literary son. I first read Rabelais in college and still enjoy the occasional dip in his grotesque bawdy world. I recently tried new best friend Romanine du Roncee (2005) with select passages from old buddies Gargartua and Pentagruel. They didn’t get along. This excellent smooth-in-the-mouth “taffeta” style Chinon was out-of-place with those over-the-top monsters of the imagination. The next time the mood strikes me maybe a riotous sauvignon blanc, with just a delicate soupcon of cat pee, so admired by certain fans of Loire Valley’s most renowned grape.