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Wines, Beers & Other Tipples

The Vendée is home to a fine selection of wines, beers, liqueurs & aperitif drinks. This is an introduction.

Wines of the Vendée


The wines of the Vendée – both the wines of the Appellation d’Origine Controllée (AOC) Fiefs Vendéens and the local Vins de Pays – are comparatively little known in the world outside of Western France.  In some ways this is quite a good thing, because production is not huge and we’d quite like to keep an ample supply here.  On the other hand, the wines of the Vendée are of increasingly high quality and reputation and deserve a higher profile and so, faintly grudgingly, we are doing our best to let people know what is out here.  Many local producers sell direct to the public and are more than happy to have visitors to their vineyards to taste the product before buying. We’ve listed some of the best producers below.


In the north of the Vendée, a number of producers make wine for the well known AOC Muscadet.  A smaller number make wine for the more obscure AOC muscadet-côtes-de-grandlieu. Although very different from the bulk of Vendéen wine, this can be quite excellent and a separate entry is included at the end of this page.




AOC Fiefs Vendéens - A Little Bit of History


The Romans were the first people to recognise the potential for the production of wine in the Vendée and planted vineyards for local consumption.  During the middle ages, the monasteries extended and improved production and under their ownership the terms “fiefs” came to describe the various areas of production.  White wines made in the Vendée from the Chenin Blanc grape and known as “Franc Blancs” became very popular with sailors working the coast of Western France.


In the 14th century, the then Bishop of Luçon – Cardinal Richelieu – donated the fiefs to the local peasantry.  At this time they became known as the Fiefs du Cardinal, but from this point until the mid-20th century, the wines of the Vendée declined in both quality and importance as growers planted any old vine, crossing and re-crossing varieties, aiming for quantity over quality.


In 1953 the first serious attempts were made to improve the wines.  The many and curious local strains of vine resulting from centuries of hybridising were grubbed up and recognised high quality vines planted in their place.  A decade later, the first official designation of quality was awarded and qualifying wines were labelled as “Anciens Fiefs du Cardinal” Appellation d'Origine Simple.


After a further two decades of improvement, in 1984 the qualification was upped to VDQS -Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure and, finally, in 2011 after considerable effort and investment to Appellation d’Origine Controlée.  Notwithstanding, there are still local producers outside of the AOC that are producing Vins de Pays of sometimes exceptional quality.


Wines from five communes are included within the AOC Fiefs Vendéens: Mareuil, Brem, Chantonnay, Pissotte and Vix.



The Grapes and the Character of the Wines


The grapes that are included in the Fiefs Vendéen either as a blend or (sometimes) as a single variety include:


• Red -Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Gamay, &Négrette ;

• White - Chenin, Sauvignon, Chardonnay & Gewurztraminer.


Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are also grown by some producers of Vins de Pays.


Although the AOC gives assurance as to quality meaning one won’t be disappointed by the contents of one’s glass, often the most characterful and interesting wines are labelled as vin de pays because they contain grape varieties that are not included in the AOC.  Finding a good one of these requires a little more effort.  Here, price is a good guide, though the input of a good “caviste” is better.


Where they are known in the wider world, Vendéen wines are most commonly thought of as being better-than-average-quality rosé wines.  In fact, the entire gamut of wines is produced – red, white & rosé; sparkling & still and even – now and again – luscious, sweet, dessert wines. The total production is around 11400 hectolitres (about 1.5 million bottles) with 40% being rosé, 30% white & 30% red.


In character, the wines of the Vendée owe more to the South West of France than to the Loire valley, a reflection of the sunny, maritime climate of the locality.




The Best Producers


Of course “best” is a rather subjective term: wine is a personal taste.  These, however, in our opinion are the vineyards making the best wines in each of the five communes in the AOC.  The communes are listed in order of the volume of wine produced.


Although supermarkets in the Vendée all carry a selection of local wines, these are often the products either of the smaller producers or the less prestigious (but still very good) products of the big houses.  Quite often the larger producers will buy in wines from smaller growers in the area and bottle these to sell either under their own name or under a different brand.  The “Domaine des Loups,” for example, is a Mourat brand that is commonly found in supermarkets but is not one that the house advertises on its website.  For the wines made from a growers own grapes, fermented in their own winery and bottled by they themselves it is often necessary to head to the source or to visit a specialist “cave” (there is a list of local ones at the end).


Prices: for the less prestigious AOC and vin de pays it is possible to buy very acceptable wines for as little as €4 per bottle. Some enterprising producers are selling in boxes too. The more prestigious wines will cost from €6 to €20 per bottle and the rarest / very best can cost upwards of €40.


Mareuil


This “Fief” is the biggest producer by far and there are around a dozen vineyards producing AOC wines.  The town of Mareuil is a pretty little place on the river Lay between Luçon and La Roche sur Yon.  There are, naturally, a number of shops dedicated to the sale of the local product.  The vines grow on a variety of terrains but for the most part the soil is volcanic in origin. Some of the lighter reds can be served just a little chilled; heavier reds marry particularly well with goats’ cheese, while the whites and rosés are arguably best as aperitif wines.


Mourat (www.mourat.com) produces an extensive range that includes both AOC and vin de pays wines. The selection includes AOC“Collection” and AOC “Château Marie du Fou” both featuring red, white & rosé wines.  The vins de pays range includes wines labelled OVNI, Moulin Blanc and Clos St André and amongst these one can find such curiosities as a sparkling red wine (“Pétillant Naturel Rouge”) and a red made entirely from the Négrette grape (“Grenouillère”).  Mourat has a shop in Mareuil at 2 Place Circulaire and at the vineyard itself on the Route de La Roche sur Yon. Opening hours are Monday-Saturday 09.30 to 12.30 and 14.00 to 19.00.


Other Mareuil produces that are well worth seeking out are:


Fabian Murail at the Clos des Chaumes (www.fabienmurail.com ) who produces a small range of highly regarded, medal winning AOC wines (the cave is at La Tudellière, 85320, La Couture)


Château de Rosany AOC and vins de pays, 5 rue du Perrot,Route de Mareuil, 85320, Rosnay, www.chateauderosnay.fr )



Brem


The second largest production of wine in the Vendée comes from the commune of Brem-sur-Mer and its environs, located just a little inland form the coast to the north of the resort town of Les Sables d’Olonne. The influence of the nearby ocean is strong: the wines are often said to be “iodised” and have a salty edge to them, particularly the whites.  Certainly the wines of Brem have a strong affinity with seafoods, including, perhaps counter intuitively, many of the reds.


Two producers of note from Brem are:


Domaine Saint Nicolas - www.domainesaintnicolas.com – the cave is at 11 Rue des Vallées, 85470, Brem-sur-Mer. Thierry Michon makes high quality red, rosé, white & sparkling wines from grapes grown bio-dynamically.


Domaine La Rose Saint Martin has its cave at La Mignotière - 85470 Brem sur Mer and also produces a full range of colours and styles. Website: www.vin-larosestmartin.com


Vix


The nearest vinyards to our gites (about 12 km away) are near the town of Vix to the south of Fontenay-le-Comte. Production here is essentially the preserve of two producers.


Vingnoble Mercier is the larger producer and concentrates on making AOC wines. Always reliable and priced very keenly, given the consistently good quality of the output, Mercier has been one of the two suppliers we have habitually used to provide the wine we leave in the gites for the benefit of arriving guests. They welcome visitors to their cave at 16 rue de la Chaignée
85770 Vix. Website: www.mercier-vins.com.


The other wine maker of any size at Vix – and I hope he won’t sue me for deformation here – is quite probably more than a little crazy. Christian Chabirand and his wife Estelle established a vineyard in 1997 at the Prieuré La Chaume where there had never been one previously and then proceeded to make wines outside of the AOC with a character that shouldn’t really be possible in the South Vendée. Great big Joe Bugner style bruisers of wines running up alcohol levels of 15%.  These are real special occasion wines that are worth every centime (they are not cheap, but they are excellent value).  Yields from their organically managed vines are kept deliberately low to maintain the high quality of the four reds, two rosés and one white they produce.  Website: www.prieure-la-chaume.com



Pissotte


Just a few km to the north of Fontenay lies the village of Pissotte. The sole producer marketing the wine produced in the commune – Domaine Coirier - has been run by the same family since 1895.  Coirier is the other vintner whose wines we supply to our guests and over the years the cave at 15 Rue des Gélinières, Pissotte  has, in turn, been visited by quite a few of them.  


Domaine Coirier produces both AOC and vins de pays. Website: www.pissotte.com/index.html. Coirier’s “standard” range, Origine, is excellent but the other red and white produced – respectively “Melusine” and “La Petite Grole” – are exceptional and can take some years of aging. The vin de pays range “Zen” is far from traditional and are particularly good summer wines.  Like other houses, Coirier also bottles and markets under its brand other wine produced in the commune for sale via supermarkets and other local retailers and these are amongst the best of the genre.



Chantonnay


This commune was admitted to the “Fiefs Vendéen” only in 2011 when the AOC was granted.  Notwithstanding, it didn’t take long for the only producer in the commune to really make a mark.


Domaine de la Bobinière produces a range of AOC wines (the “Silex” red, white and rosé) and a selection of vin de pays that are arguably their best output; the red Le Bois Bouquet and the sweet white La Douée are particularly well regarded. The cave is at La Barbinière, St-Philbert-du-Pont-Charrault, 85110 Chantonnay and the wesite www.domainedelabarbiniere.jimdo.com.


Other Wines of the Vendée


It comes as a surprise to many (not least people who live in the Vendée) that, presumably for obscure historical reasons, two communes in the north of the département (Rocheservière and St Philbert de Bouaine) are included in the AOC Muscadet de Côtes Grandlieu and the AOC Gros Plants.  These are crisp, bone-dry, white wines that are just about the best thing to drink with oysters


As far as can be devined, most of the wine made in these communes is sold on to other vignobles for bottling.  Indeed, I have found only one single producer marketing their own wines (though I would be very happy to hear of more).


Domaine de la Pierre Blanche is located in St Philbert de Bouaine (Website : www.vignoble-epiard.viti.pro ) and makes a range of both AOC and vin de pays.  The AOC Muscadet has won medals and is worth looking out for.



Beer in the Vendée


There is an ever-growing interest in artisanal beers and microbreweries in France, and the Vendée is home to an excellent brewery whose output can be found in shops and bars throughout the département.


Brasserie Mélusine (www.brasserie-melusine.com ) was established in 2001 in the village of Chambretaud.  The brewery produces an extensive and varying rage of beers including:




There are a number of other microbreweries in the nearby Deux-Sèvres, Charante and Charante Maritime producing beers of equal excellence and interest.  These can be found, along with the Mélusine beers) in some of the specialist “caves” listed below.



Aperitifs & Liqueurs


Troussepinette


Troussepinette is an aperitif that has been made in the Vendée for a very long time.  The origins of the name are somewhat obscure, but it is thought to have been coined around 1910 as an early attempt to bring traditional but anonymous “aperitifs maison” under a portmanteau name, all the better to market them to a wider audience of more discerning drinkers.


So what is troussepinette?  It is a marriage between wine, eau de vie (50% plus alcohol spirit distilled from fermented fruits), sugar and various hedgerow products.  Again, the exact original recipe is not known, but it is thought most probably to be a combination of red wine and eau de vie de marc (a kind of grape spirit) in which spring-blossoming shoots of blackthorn or hawthorn are steeped for some weeks.  The liquor is then strained, adjusted to about 17% alcohol via the addition of more wine or spirit as required, sweetened to taste and bottled.


These days red white or rosé wines are used and the various recipes available in the shops include peach blossoms, apple blossom and assorted berry fruits.  My home made version (concocted after a fair amount of frankly lethal experimentation) uses dry white wine, a firewater distilled from pears and either blackberries or black currents.


Expect to pay something between €8 and €15 for a bottle  Drink well chilled with melon or salted snacks.



Liqueurs


The distillery of H.Vrignaud (www.liqueur-kamok.fr) has been making liqueurs and other “alcohols” in the Vendéen town of Luçon (just a few minutes down the road from us) since 1812.  


Vrignaud produces a formidable range, some of which appear to be prepared from some faintly bizarre ingredients.  For example, their  “Liqueur à la Mogette” is made by macerating locally grown white beans called mogettes (and for which the Vendée is justly famous), in an alcoholic liquor before sweetening and putting an rather fetchingly labelled tall bottled.  I’ve not tried this one and may never be quite prepared to do so.


Happily, Vrignaud also produces some excellent, more conventional, liqueurs.  Their “Délice de Caramel” is made with cream and salted caramel is particularly appreciated as a topping to icecream (think Bailey’s only with more oomph); they make a drink from the kernels of apricot stones (tastes very similar to almonds, apparently) and an elixir made from  an infusion of a dozen herbs that is said by some to cure pretty much every dietary ill.


However, the drink that really made Vrignaud’s name in the second half of the 19th century and for which they are still famous 150-odd years later is Kamok.  This is fine coffee liqueur made from a blend of three types of Arabica beans and matured in oak.  It is taken as a digestive, mixed with ice & milk to make a sort of chilled Irish coffee, poured over icecream and used to flambée crêpes.  It is also used to make tiramisu, being (and this is also our experience) by far the beat coffee liqueur for the job.


H.Vrignaud’s products can be found in local shops and supermarkets and also directly from their premises at Place de Richelieu, Luçon.



Where to Buy


While the supermarkets do a fair job in marketing local Vendéen products, and as an alternative to visiting the producers directly, a far wider selection of the better wines can be found at certain specialist “caves.”  These also stock liqueurs and local beers.


Fontenay le Comte



Luçon



If anyone feels inclined to order a selection of the Vendée’s finest in advance of their holiday, then this organisation will package and dispatch (free of charge to addresses in the Vendée itself for orders of 12 or more bottles, no less) your vacation wines, Mélusine beers, troussepinettes and the liqueurs of H. Vrignaud direct to the gite : www.vin-vendee.com


For a wider choice of beers not only from the Vendée but also from micro breweries in neighbouring départements, the following is a good bet: