In ancient times, both the Romans and the Greeks worshipped a god of wine. The god, known as Bacchus in Rome and Dionysius in Greece, was also the god of fruitfulness and vegetation. However, for the uninhibited ancients, it was, undoubtedly, the wine that really stoked their ardour and they worshipped the god by indulging in wine fuelled orgiastic rites.
After the ancients, the carnality and carousing couldn’t, with the coming of Christianity, continue and deity inspired debauchery was forsaken for the serene worship of Saints. One such Saint, was Saint-Verny (also known as Saint-Werner) who is the patron saint of winemakers in an area of forgotten France called the Auvergne.
Legend has it, that Saint-Verny was the 15 year old son of an Alsatian – think émigré from Alsace, not German Shepherd dog – who was ritually murdered by a hate mob in 1287. After the killing, it was claimed that miracles happened in the presence of the body of the young martyr and, as a result, he was canonized in 1431.
Saint-Verny’s gruesome tale was passed on through the centuries and in 1624 he was adopted as the patron saint of vignerons (winemakers) in the Auvergne. Nowadays, his image is seen throughout the region in the form of a figurine depicting a young, rustic-looking farmer with a pruning knife in one hand and a wine barrel at his feet. Every year, on the 20th May, the residents of Auvergne celebrate his Sainthood.
So, just where is the Auvergne and what sort of wine is produced there? The Auvergne is situated in central France and is the largest volcanic area in Europe with some parts that resemble a lunar landscape. The region is dominated by a range of dormant volcanoes that were last active some 7,500 years ago. The highest, at 1,465 metres, and the most famous, of these is the Puy-de-Dôme and it’s here that we find the region’s sole co-operative, the Cave Saint-Verny.
Named after the Auvergne’s patron saint, the Cave Saint-Verny was founded in 1950 and has vineyard holdings of 200 hectares. Since its formation, the Cave has had a somewhat chequered history and it came close to dissolution in the 1980’s but, after a 15 million Franc outside investment in 1991, it has been able to completely modernise its winemaking facilities and the wines have gone on to win praise and plaudits from all quarters.
Currently, membership of the co-op stands at 115 members which means that, on average, each member tends less than 2 hectares of land. With such small vineyards, most members of the co-op are in the enviable position of being able to handpick their grapes; a practice usually reserved only for grapes destined for far more expensive wines
The man in charge of the winemaking at the Cave Saint-Verny is Oliver Mignard and he makes wines from 3 red grape varieties – Gamay, Pinot and Syrah – and one white grape variety – Chardonnay. With 110 hectares in total, Gamay makes up the majority of the Cave’s vineyards and it’s the Côtes d’Auvergne Gamay 2012 that’s my favourite of the Cave’s lighter styles. The wine is ripe, elegant and pure with a lovely silky texture and fulsome flavours of red berries, cherries and underlying notes of herbaceous spiciness.
Syrah plantings at the co-op amount to only 0.7 hectares and the demand for the excellent Les Volcans Syrah 2011 was unprecedentedly high. So, last week, I was delighted to be allocated 90 bottles of the wine that has all the qualities of a Côte-Rôtie, which lies two sets of hills away to the east, but at nearly a third of the price.