A 16th century French château that looks like something out of a Disney film and has an estate equal to the size of central Paris is to start producing its first wines for 200 years.
It’s hard to accurately convey the scale of Château de Chambord.
Taken with its vast grounds, its expanse covers the same footprint as central Paris; 5,400 hectares surrounded by 32km of walls that make it the largest enclosed park in Europe, and the longest wall in France.
I’m standing under the shade of this wall in a spot called Ormetrou, where a small farm stood on a 1786 map of the estate. There are 13ha of vines here, just four years old but looking a little straggly, partly because their first real harvest is over and the leaves are beginning to drop, and partly because around 30% of them were lost to frost earlier in the year, when temperatures dropped down to minus 8°C.
The aesthetics of the vineyard are more than compensated for, however, by the view.
Follow your eye line straight from the vines through several vast fields of pastureland and you see the château building, with its barbed silhouette of spires, towers and turrets that was apparently built to represent the skyline of Constantinople and from where ladies would watch hunting spectacles performed by their lords in pre-Revolutionary France. François himself liked to fight wild boars armed with nothing more than a sword and his wits.
There are still over 500 deer and stags that roam the park along with countless game, wild boars, hares and the odd sheep.
Fences have been installed around the vines, so happily did the animals take to the new addition, because even their current state, these vines deserve the protection.
For a start, a good 4ha of them are Romorantin, a grape that was favoured by François 1er, the 16th century king who oversaw the building of Chambord from 1519, and a variety that has only 71ha planted in the whole country.
But these particular vines are even more unusual. Ungrafted, massal-selection of Romorantin dating from 1850, taken from pre-Phylloxera cuttings given by the Marionnet family of Domaine de la Charmoise, famed for owning some of the oldest vines of France.
Alongside Romaratin is L’Ourboué (also known as Menu Pineau, another grape that François 1er enjoyed), plus Auvernat Rouge, the local name for Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Gamay.
Together, they form the first vineyard planted in Chambord since the French Revolution, and as of 2019, the 500th anniversary of the estate, it will be officially sold to the public. For now the wine is being made in a former tobacco barn, but architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte is designing a winery that is due to open in 2020 (he has previously worked on Ch Pédesclaux in Pauillac, among several other high profile wine projects).
We are in the Sologne region of the Loire here. Just on the far side of Chambord’s walls are the appellations of Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny (where the entirety of France’s Romorantin can be found).
Chambord is not yet a part of them, because vines were a distant memory at this spot when the AOC guidelines were being drawn, but they hope in 2019 to be included.
For this first harvest, in 2018, the wines will be labelled IGP Val de Loire for the red, and Vin de France for the white.
‘This project is about reclaiming part of the cultural heritage of Chambord,’ estate director Pascal Thévard tells me, ‘but it is also about providing income for the estate.
‘And we are focusing on quality. We will be using some oak barrels from our own estate forest, and the farming is entirely organic. We have a further one hectare of vines being planted next year and hope eventually to produce 50,000 bottles, all of which will be sold direct from the property.
‘Visitors can also adopt a vine and receive priority purchasing in exchange for supporting the project.’
Chambord has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1981 and owned by the French government since 1932.
Before the French Revolution there were 50 small farms here, each with its own parcel of vines for personal use alongside other crops.
But it wasn’t until the Physiocrats encouraged the use of Chambord as a testing ground for their ideas for improving the agricultural health of the nation that a formal vineyard was planted, with records showing the land manager exchanging with a tenant over the planting of 6ha of Auvernat Rouge.
Unfortunately this was in 1787, and the small matter of the French Revolution got in the way two years later, when the château was ransacked and its vineyard slid down the priority list.
An inventory from 1817 describes vines being planted close to fruit trees and to the outer walls, but as Chambord changed hands, was abandoned and then fell into disrepair, the vines disappeared.
‘We have no record of Romorantin itself being planted at Chambord’ Thévard admits, ‘but we do have records of an agent invoicing François Ier for the purchase of 80,000 Romorantin vines from Beaune, together with the cost of his transport, restaurants and lodgings, and we know François decreed its planting in the Loire.’
The wine itself, from what I have tasted so far, has some way to go. You’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to get a thrill out of tasting juice from an ungrafted pre-1850 vine, but it was definitely work in progress.
I bought a bottle of Luc Percher’s L’Epicourchois to get an idea of what the white might taste like, as he also makes a Cheverny Blanc blend of Menu-Pineau and Sauvignon, and it was very good, although I didn’t taste his pure Romorantin.
There is also the small matter of a legal action with the makers of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, that is challenging the right of the château to use its own name because they produce a liqueur of the same name.
Thévard seems confident that ‘an agreement will be reached’, and you’ve got to believe that he’s right. Because if ever a new wine launch has a sense of destiny, this is surely it.