How French châteaus became central to the making of wine
The Romans carried winemaking throughout the empire and across Southern European nations from Spain to today’s Romania.
For the Romans, wine was more than an elixir, it was a valuable trading commodity and traveled everywhere and the Greeks were the first bearer of wine to France about 600 B.C.
However, it was the early Christian monks and nuns who were key to creating the beverage we know today as wine.
Around A.D. 360, Roman soldier Martin of Tours left the army, was baptized, became a hermit. He is believed to be Europe’s first skilled viticulturist.
The Roman legions were skilled at winemaking, so he transferred his knowledge and curiosity to planting the first Vouray vineyards. Most importantly, Saint Martin founded France’s first monastery that house up to 2,000 monks and ensuring the Roman knowledge of winemaking would survive, flourish and improve during Europe’s darkest ages.
Wine was not just used for religious events. After all, Jesus elevated wine to be his blood. But it was also known to disinfect, long before Antonie Van Leuwenhook’s discovery of micro-organisms in 1675.
The Benedictines grew the monastic power of winemaking throughout France, emphasizing prayer and the study of agricultural practices and labor. We know the monasteries with their Romanesque architecture would become the model for future château’s* and wine making experiences.
For 500 years the Benedictines monopolized the wine making and trade. By the 11th century, the Benedictines had grown very wealthy from land holdings and producing agricultural products, so they invested in building towering Gothic basilicas. One could say wine was the foundation of Notre Dame and countless other Medieval French cathedrals.
It became common to carry the name of the monastery that produced the wine right up until the French Revolution. Today, there are only four monasteries in France making wine.
I’ve often wondered what the early Roman wines tasted like. One such experiment in the Rhône Valley, Mas does Tourelles, has been to re-create the 1st century Roman country villa, with not only the vineyards but the working conditions including wine cellar cave, press and amphorae for storage.
They produce three replica wines. I’m curious to see if the 2,000-year-old blueprints and recipes still works.
How French châteaus contributed to wine
Châteaus generally mean castles, stately homes and palaces but were originally built as private fortifications throughout France, as well as countless castillos in Spain and schlosses in Germany.
As nations settled in and stopped fighting among themselves, French châteaus, especially in the Loire Valley, became headquarters for winemaking and storage. The Périgord region is famous for 1500 châteaus and winemaking from the 15th century.
The French Revolution finished the monastic monopoly of wine and propelled wine as a elixir for the people, rich and poor. At the same time, the glamour of the château as an environment for wine becomes celebrated.
Here are the best examples of the French château-style of wine mystique:
- Château d’ Chenonceau
- Château d’ Chambord
- Château d’ Azay-le-Rideau
- Château d’Ussé
- Château d’ Villandry
- Château d’ Sailhant
The question often comes up as to what is the difference between a château and a castle? Generally, the French word for “château “is translated as “Castle“ but it’s more likely to mean a country house or aristocratic manner. The line between a château and a castle is blurred. A castle is a more fortified château than a country home.
There are three types of castles:
- Motte and bailey: Norman words for “Hill and Protective fortification” where a steep mound is created with a wall or moat at the base.
- Stone keep castle: typically a square stone- based fortification often with tall walls and intermediate gaps called crenels to pour hot liquids on attackers.
- Concentric castle: A fortification with multiple curtain walls; the outer walls lower and the inner ones taller for defense.
But, the one element they all have in common was a wine press and storage, often buried deep in the bowels of the underground caverns.
The 19th century saw wine and architecture become intertwined in mutual desirability that become legendary, far beyond the palate complexity. To wine connoisseurs, only good wine could come from French châteaus.