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Noble Joué, France's smallest appellation
France - 03/03/2004
France’s Smallest Appellation
by: Rita Erlich
One of France’s small appellations is a triumph over war, urban sprawl, and forgetfulness. Noble-Joué is made by a handful of growers near the central French city of Tours, and was granted its appellation of Touraine Noble-Joué in 2000.
It is the smallest appellation in the Loire. There are six producers of this wine, which is little known outside its region of origin. Its name comes from a double source. Noble refers to the three varieties of grapes that go into this vin gris, or rosé: pinot meunier, pinot gris, and pinot noir. Joué comes from Joué-lès-Tours, now part of the urban area of the city of Tours.
The wine has a noble ancestry. Louis XI commended it. In the 19th century, it was a highly regarded local wine with extensive production. The story is that the vineyards suffered badly when the city of Tours grew and spread into Joué-les-Tours and the land was more valuable for housing. The real problem occurred earlier, according to the father of one of the producers, Remi Cosson.
“Three million Frenchmen died in the First World War,” he said, bitterly matter-of-fact. There was no one left to tend the vines.”
Phylloxera was also a major problem in the area, according to one source. The wine might have disappeared entirely except for the efforts of oenologists at the Insitut de Goût at Tours in the early 1970s. By the mid-70s a few growers had become interested and replanted vineyards. The Rousseau brothers made their first Noble-Joué in 1980. They had replanted five years earlier.
The vineyards are clustered in the five communes within the département of the Indre-et-Loire: Chambray-lès-Tours, Esvres, Joué-lès-Tours, Larçay et Saint-Avertin. They are small villages in the heart of the Loire, the so-called ‘Garden of France’. There is little evidence of industrialization around here, and the vineyards fit into a landscape where houses are surrounded by vegetable gardens.
The regulations concerning the wine limit production to 55 hl/ha, rather lower than that allowed for Touraine. Total production is small, around 1200hl, a volume comparable with Echezeaux in Burgundy.
Technically, Noble Joué is a vin gris, and gets its salmon-pink highlights from the slow pressing, which is enough to give color to the wine. It is the only wine in France made from the three pinots. The wines are typically light-bodied, with an appealing nougat-like palate, with honey, nuts and flowers.
Noble-Joué is known well enough in Tours, and can be found on wine lists in some restaurants. Some finds its way to Nantes and even to Paris, but most of the production is sold locally at the cellar door.
Its producers make other wines as well. Remi Cosson produces a sweet wine—vin moelleux—from pinot gris, which is also known locally as malvoisie and a sparkling wine from the pinots. The Rousseau brothers, Michel and Bernard, also make reds from cabernet sauvignon, gamay, and a variety called cot, which is sometimes known as malbec.
The revival of Noble-Joué is entirely consistent with the nature of Touraine, a region well represented in the 2000 UNESCO classification of the Loire Valley as a landscape of significant cultural value. Touraine values its heritage in large ways and small.
Even at the great chateau of Chenonceau, one of the most visited sites in France, the ancient vineyards have been revived and extended under the stewardship of the maitre de chai and winemaker Laurent Briand. In their Renaissance heyday, there were 200 ha of vineyards in production. Now there are 27, with more planted, but two decades ago, there was scarcely anything. The Renaissance planting cannot be revived, under the limitations of the Appellation Controlée system, which restricts wine production to cabernet franc and chenin blanc in this area. In Catherine de Medicis’ day, the vineyards included every grape variety of the wines she had drunk and enjoyed, wherever they were. The wines now are some of the best in the area, as befits the image of Chenonceau. What is notable about the achievements of Noble-Joué and Chenonceau is that they are part of a profound respect for tradition that is enlivened by modern knowledge and technology.
The wine of Chenonceau are available from the chateau’s cellar door, and also in in local restaurants, including Au Bon Labourer, where the English novelist Henry James dined after visited the chateau in 1884. He drank sparkling Vouvray, according to his record. Perhaps Noble-Joué wasn’t on the wine list that year.
Rita Erlich is an Australian food and wine writer based in Melbourne, Australia