Notes from the Underground

  • © Daniel Gallon -Dangal

    © Daniel Gallon -Dangal

  • © J.Decker

    © J.Decker

Notes from the Underground

By Mary Winston Nicklin


The fertile swath of land surrounding the Loire—near the mighty river’s Atlantic delta—is known for its awe-inspiring Renaissance chateaux. But below the surface, there’s an entire underground world. On the south bank near Saumur, more than 1,000 kilometers of underground galleries are home to wine cellars, mushroom farms, and even extensions of the everyday maison. These caves were hollowed out when the local white limestone, known as tuffeau, was excavated to build the castles, churches and villages that gleam in the Loire sunshine.

On each side of the street in Varrains, high white walls protect the historic mansions from prying eyes. For centuries, neighboring wine-makers competed with one another as they worked the soil, harvested grapes and aged their wines in troglodyte caverns. This is the heart of the Saumur-Champigny wine region, where generations of viticulteurs have developed their know-how and celebrated a unique terroir. The land’s geological composition—clay, limestone soil and tuffeau—allows it to soak up the sun’s heat by day and diffuse it by night, nurturing the vines that are bathed in a mild climate not far from the ocean. (Champigny comes from the Latin Campus Ignis, meaning “fields of fire.”)

Long overshadowed by the wines of Burgundy, Saumur-Champigny is an off-the-radar AOP (formerly the AOC classification system)—recognized as a red wine of quality. As such, it is a great value. The perfect representative of this full-bodied red, made from Cabernet Franc grapes, is the 2010 Les Lizières by René-Noël Legrand, the latest star in a long line of wine-makers (the 11th generation, in fact). This bottle was served in 2011 at the Loire Valley’s Maison du Vin to promote the Saumur-Champigny AOP.

“The Saumur-Champigny vignerons are aware that it’s a privilege to be a part of this appellation. The parcels of land are small, as estates have been divided up by successive generations over the years,” he explains while on a break from tending the vines after days of heavy rain. His reception room is recognizable from his old wine label, depicting a large-scale hunting scene underneath a cerulean sky. Dating from the 19th century, this wallpaper mural is classified as a historic monument.

Legrand was the first Saumur-Champigny winemaker to realize the importance of producing less wine of a higher quality. (For centuries, the wine had been produced in mass quantities, at lower alcoholic content, for copious quotidian consumption. “Grapevines covered France to satisfy the demand,” Legrand explains.) He pioneered the planting of grass between the rows of grapevines, which are then kept in check by the competing roots of the grass. Today, one of the rules of the AOP is to avoid the use of herbicides on this grass. Legrand’s 14 hectares of Cabernet Franc grapes are harvested by hand, the wine aged in oak barrels and put in bottles the following year. (Prior to 1950, Legrand wines were sold by the barrel.)

Wine reviews like Gault Millau and Hachette praise the poetry of Legrand’s “wines of character”—also visible in his photography, capturing the orchids thriving in his vineyards. These grapevines average 50 years of age, some even planted in 1927. Legrand’s winemaking is thus infused with a deep understanding of this history-soaked region. First cultivated by the monks of the Fontevraud Abbey in the 8th century, the vines later came under control of the Earl of Anjou, and when Henri Plantagent became the King of England in 1154, demand for Saumur wine skyrocketed across the Channel. Destroyed during the Vendéen Wars and replanted by Oratorian monks, these vineyards were also prized by the Parisian aristocrats who sent their sons to the famous cavalry school in Saumur and purchased coveted plots of land.

Soon Legrand’s 27-year-old daughter Clothilde will take over the reins, continuing the winemaking tradition into the 12th generation, and promoting the AOP internationally. (Legrand wines are currently sold in California, Quebec and Japan.)

Outside their home, a stone ramp descends to the cave. Clothilde easily navigates the galleries, pointing out an ancient washroom and bread oven hollowed out from the tuffeau. In the 19th century, the family pig and cow had their own troglodyte rooms with rock-hewn troughs. Deeper underground, an old grape press occupies a cavernous chamber, lit from above by an aeration shaft that also moderates the temperature. Legrand’s fossil collection—prehistoric shells imprinted in rocks found in the fields—decorates this underground world.

At the end of the passageway, Clothilde stops and smiles with pride at the web-like fungus draped over centuries-old bottles. A personal stash fit for a Renaissance king. 


Domaine Legrand

Wine producers of Saumur-Champigny

Saumur Office of Tourism

Fontevraud Abbey