The pictures in this story were all shot in a single location in the Loire valley last december. This is a limestone cliff in the back of a house in a village sitting along the Cher river to be more precise, let's say in the vicinity of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. But you can find remains like these in the backyard of virtually every old farm in France, because not so long ago almost everyone living in the villages across the country would make some wine for his own consumption. The farmer would grow various crops and raise farm animals but he would usually also have some vineyards and make wine, partly to sell in bulk, partly for family use, including non-farmers like, say, the postman. It was common then to own a couple of rows and make a few barrels of wine for oneself, like your forefathers had done before you.
Depending of the region and geological conditions, these improvised farm wineries were set up in a barn, an outbuilding, some sort of cellar, or like here in a cave. The loire valley has lots of such caves which are actually former quarries where a couple centuries ago the villagers extracted all the stones that were used to build their houses or to sell for the construction of these now-famous Loire chateaux. The stone type here in the region is a chalk-like limestone named tuffeau in French. The people living in the houses in front of these quarries would turn them naturally afterward into outbuildings for vegetable storage, mushroom growing and winemaking.
We'll visit two caves of which you can see the doors on the picture on left (the door in the center and the one on the left), and we'll begin with the smallest cave, the door of which is singled out on the picture at right. What you see on the picture above is this first cave. You can see the vertical press with the small decantation vat on its left and the larger fermentation vat in the back (the dark hole).
This chai has been used along a couple of centuries probably and you can see that there's cement here and there, proving that unknowingly to us urbanites, people here were making wine until recently like their forefathers had taught them. I saw evidence that these places were used until at least 1986.
This type of press is so simple and efficient that it's the one favored by many artisan vintners today, and you probably saw them on several of my stories even if in larger models. I remember for example being stunned by the number of vertical presses used by Claude Courtois in the Sologne (Loire), 8 of them in working conditions plus a few more needing work (mostly the only thing to do is change the wood staves and repaint/protect the metal). Claude Courtois had salvaged them all around his region from decaying farms similar to this one, he'd just ask and the farmers would be happy to let these presses find a new life.
Picture on the right : winemaking in a cave in the Loire (Vouvray) in the early 20th century (source : Oliv - lapassionduvin). The setting of this cave winery looks pretty similar to the one I've been visiting, with the press sitting near the wall and the fermentation vat carved into the rock mass.
The fermenter isn't very big, the people here hadn't obviously more than a few rows of vines, maybe 2 or 3, enough to fill a handful of casks to warm up along the year till the next autumn.
I can't but see similarities with the ancient winery remains with vats carved into the hard rock, that I saw in the Yatir forest in southern Israel a few years ago. Over there you could see also the small decanting vat to separate the juice from the gross lees.
I don't know what this full bottle is about, there was a name on it, and a hand-written date which was not really readable although I thought I could decipher the year 1990. It looks like a sample like the ones the wineries set aside for the wine administration.
These caves under the hill have the right humidity for the élevage of wine, they're cold in winter but they're cool in summer and people would store vegetables in there too, as electric refrigerators was a luxury that reached the French countryside in the late 1950s'. Look on the right, there are still some canned vegetables waiting in the dark at the perfect temperature (I didn't check but they say that in summer it doesn't go up 11 °C).
If I had such a cave/cellar, I'd ask myself if I would turn it in a cool retreat for the summer days (I visualize a Japanese Onsen in the Kawaï cement vat with low-voltage spots flooding light from above) or jump at the opportunity to try my hand at
After visiting the 1st cave, I walked into the 2nd one, the entry of which being just a few meters on the left. This one is much deeper into the hill, and at one point I had to use my pocket light to see the bottom and a couple of side rooms.
These caves belonged originally to the same farm, a longère or "long house" typical of many farms in Sologne and the Loire. From what I learnt from the people who know about the deceased owners, at one point during the first half of the 20th century, the heirs divided the long house between two parts of the family, and I guess that each family-half managed to continue make wine separately, thus these two mini private wineries in the rock. This second cave was probably an active winery until at least 1986, as you'll see in some of the next pictures. I happen to have met the old man who lived in the half-house related to this particular cave in 2010, and I even shot his portrait, but at the time I met him I didn't know about his winemaking just a few years before. The man lived in very simple conditions like often single elderly people in the French backcountry, but I guess he was just happy in this place where he had lived all his life.He passed away maybe a year after I shot his portrait (see at the bottom of the page).
Like you can see on the pictures on the side, this second cave has got some trouble and a couple of big rocks detached themselves from the ceiling on the front and fell on this mini-car, probably in the 1980s'. So, the entry is very messy and cluttered with rocks and debris, but once you've passed this ruin, you feel like you entered a forgotten Maya temple in the Chiapas jungle.
Here the press is a bit bigger, and it seems to be mounted on wheels like the one of Georges Descombes for example. The vat behind the press is samely built as a niche inside the rock mass, as if the winemakers wanted to take advantage of the temperature protection of the hill. I am sure that this place could be cleaned in a couple of days and present a better face, but right now it's strewn garbage all around.
These casks were used every year to store the wine along the following months. People had no access to cheap bottles before the 1970s' and they'd fill a few bottles according to their needs directly from the barrels. Remind that this is a typical winemaking operation for home consumption.
At this point, I saw on the left the entry to a side room with obviously lots of canned vegetables, probably the work of the elderly man whom I briefly met 3 years ago and who passed away last year. Beans, potatoes, all the wonders of a private garden are waiting in the dark for a humble feast, stored atop casks to stay clear of rodents.
Home-made canned veggies is certainly one of my new frontiers I have to reach one of these days when I'll stay long enough in the Loire. I make real bread from time to time, I have aged goat cheese the old way in a clay jar, but I have not yet prepared sterelized vegetables like locals do. I bought a tin can sterilizer (complete with empty glass cans but without thermometer) on a village flea market a couple years ago but I haven't used it yet. The guy sold it to me for 5 Euro only and I thought the good deal was a chance to explore this autarcic art. I could try canning mushrooms or tomatoes as well as other vegetables, especially that I found last year two villagers who farm in their backyard and sell their vegetables to people they know. They farm without chemicals (at least least I'm sure of it for one of them) and it tastes so much better than those purchased in the shops (even in organic shops I would say). Villagers in Russia do canned veggies routinely, and it's as much for the love of pure products as for economic reasons.
I love to wander in those sleeping places, like also in the abandonned factories that lie in the vicinity of certain big cities. I used to do it around Paris but it has become unpredictably dangerous in the recent years. There are lots of such dilapidated plants in Russia (in a somewhat safer environment) and my wish would be to find a few of these kombinats with the help of insiders, there's a great deal of photographic work to do in these places, to capture the somehow-mystical ambiance of Tarkovsky' Stalker, an iconic movie of the soviet era featuring a man guiding visitors in the"Zone" (Stalker story).
Bordeaux Malesan is a mass-bottling wine which, if not the worst of its kind, has no real interest. This is the type of wine that you'll find in supermarkets and local convenience stores, people love it because it's oaky and predictable. I didn't even know that they made magnums at Malezan, this is quite ironic, especially in this setting...One day in the distant future, an archaeologist will uncover one by one these artifacts and say after a long reflection that some caveman has been brewing a mysterious beverage in here, bearing the name of (let me decipher) M...A...L...E...S...A...N...
Equivinum also publishes a blog named Charrue-Vigne with many pictures (although too small).
On this issue, there is a large European gathering every year in Germany which is centered on modern draft horse and its technologies, this is PferdeStark.
If you haven't read them yet, I wrote stories on walk plows and draft horses, in Alsace with Francis Dopff, in Anjou with Olivier cousin, and in Sancerre with Sébastien Riffault.