A Kidnapping at the Chateau

The kidnapping of a Senator of France in his own home by six armed bandits sent by the Minister of Police: could this happen in the quiet riverside town of Azay-sur-Cher?  Indeed it could, and did, in 1800.  Subsequent events included a rigged trial and the execution of three innocent men, all to cover up a conspiracy against Napoleon by high officials in his own government.  We will get to the bottom of this murky affair, but first we need to do some biking.

Biking from Tours to Azay-Sur-Cher, 24 km

This article is the first of a series of three, during which we bike from Tours to Azay-sur-Cher, to Véretz, and then back to Tours, a trip of 52 km.  On our way to Azay-sur-Cher, we pass two railroad bridges over the Loire River and learn a bit about their history. Railroads helped establish the importance of Tours as a regional center in the 19th century and they continue to be crucial to the city’s development today.  In Azay-sur-Cher we will bike to the Chateau de Beauvais, the site of a mysterious kidnapping which Balzac spun into one of his great novels.

The first part of our route is the same as that of the Chenin Grapes article.  We head east on the Loire à Vélo passing the cliffs of Rochecorbon across the river.  To see our route to Azay-sur-Cher, click here.

As we approach Montlouis-sur-Loire, the Loire à Vélo bike trail goes under the TGV bridge on the line from Paris, which arrived in Tours in 1990.  Work is now underway to build a new high speed line south to Bordeaux, with completion expected in 2017.

1.  The TGV bridge across the Loire at Vouvray

TGV means Very Fast Train (Train de Grand Vitesse).  TGVs travel at speeds over 300 km an hour, compared to the Canadian trains which I took for most of my life, which are really flying if they hit 100 km an hour.  The dense population of France has allowed for the construction of high speed trains that are simply not seen in Canada.  Once on an early morning trip from Tours to Paris on the TGV, we hit snow approaching Paris, and over the PA system the chef de bord announced that “because of the bad weather conditions, the train will have to slow down to 220 km an hour; please accept our apologies.”  Now that is an announcement, I thought to myself, that you would never hear on a Canadian train.

After the TGV bridge, the bike route leaves the river valley, climbing to the levee on the left bank of the river.  Nearby is the giant 6 meter wine bottle with a Montlouis-sur-Loire label which we saw in the Chenin Grapes article.

Looking east from the Montlouis bottle we can see the railroad which crosses the Loire river on the line from Paris to Bordeaux.  This is not a TGV; it might reach speeds around 150 km an hour.  The bridge was on one of the first great long distance rail lines in France.  Paris-Orleans was built from 1839 to 1843; Orleans-Tours, 1843 to 1846; and Tours-Bordeaux, 1845 to 1853.

The Montlouis bridge was built as part of the Orleans-Tours run in 1845-46.  The original design had masonry piles and arches in wood.  A young engineer, Romain Morandière, was given charge of the project. He convinced his superiors that the cost of the project could be reduced if the arches were changed to reinforced concrete, with a veneer in stone.  Morandiére’s design was used for two other bridges over the Loire, at Orleans and Cinq-Mars.   His bridge at Montlouis was 11 m high and 383 m long, with 14 spans of 25 m.

2.  The railroad bridge across the Loire River at Montlouis-sur-Loire

Morandière’s bridge stood the test of time: it was described in an academic article in 1930 as “one of the most remarkable monuments on the Paris-Bordeaux line.”[1]  No one, to my knowledge, has praised the beauty of the TGV bridge just a kilometer downstream: it is simply an example of functional infrastructure, late 20th century.

The location of the Montlouis bridge deserves comment.  Why did the line not cross the Loire at Tours, the major city in the area?  The article just cited explains that Tours did not want the line to pass through the center of the city.  Hence the route chosen involved crossing the Loire to the east of Tours, heading west on the south side of Tours, and then turning north into the Tours station, which is a dead end.  The train would then back out of Tours, and continue south.

Within a few years the railroad company was tired of the delay, and over the strident objections of Tours, a station was built in St. Pierre des Corps, southeast of Tours, so that the trains could continue west and south without entering the main station in Tours.   The same drama occurred in Orleans, with the same result: a station (les Aubrais) outside the center of the city.  When the TGV reached Tours in 1990, like the 19th century line it crossed the Loire east of Tours (indeed, just 1 km west of Morandiére’s bridge) and then headed to the station in St. Pierre des Corps.

In the 1840s there was some debate about the northern section of the Paris-Bordeaux line: should it go straight to Tours or pass through Orleans?  Since a line had to be built to Orleans in any case, it was decided to take the route south to Orleans, and then west along the Loire Valley to Tours.  In the 1980s, 140 years later, the same question arose, but the response was different: the TGV line goes direct from Paris southwest to Tours and does not provide service to Orleans.

`Like most Loire bridges, the Montlouis bridge suffered damage in war time.  To frustrate German movements of troops and material, arches on the bridge were blown up by the French army in 1870 and again in 1940.  Allied bombing destroyed the bridge completely in 1944.  In 1946 it was rebuilt in the original style, with reinforced concrete and stone.  Two arches were added to deal with flooding on the Loire, the last undammed major river in Europe (in French, it is a rivière sauvage).   The bridge stands proudly today, its arches reflected in the mighty Loire, with a continuing beauty that would make Morandière proud.

Leaving the Montlouis wine bottle, we continue east through the town of Montlouis-sur-Loire to the fork in the road shown in our first post, when we took the road to the left along the Loire à Vélo to Husseau and Amboise on the Loire River.  Now we keep right toward the Cher River.  With vines on either side of the road we head south.

3.  A fork in the road west of Montlouis.

If you own a vineyard, you can only grow vines on a strictly limited area, part of AOC quality control.  So what do you do with the rest of your land that doesn’t require a lot of work?  For those who can afford it, an attractive option can be horses. In the photo above, the vines on left side of the road on the right continue for another 300 m and end in a large field with a few horses.  Two of them come up to greet us as we bike by, with the vines on the horizon behind them.  Alas, I had forgotten to bring apples.

4. Horses in a field among the Montlouis vines.

As we approach Azay-sur-Cher there is a wide flood plain on the north side of the river.   The vines are gone and we pedal through farmer’s fields and woods.  The bridge over the Cher River provides lovely views.

5. The Cher River at Azay-sur-Cher, looking west.

Just after crossing the bridge, we turn left on a dirt road and head east along the left bank of the Cher.  We are biking with the flood plain and river on our left, and slopes to our right which provide wonderful sites for chateaux which look out on the Cher.  We pass three chateaux, each with a link to a famous person or a significant event, as every significant chateau must have:

  • the Chateau de Coteaux, where Chopin gave piano lessons in 1833;
  • the Chateau de Leugny, where at the end of the 15th century lived Jean Descartes, said to be a progenitor of Réné Descartes, born in Touraine in 1596;
  • and the Chateau de Beauvais, where the kidnapping of Senator Clément de Ris took place in 1800.

At one point on the dirt road, we can see Cher and the Chateau de Leugny.

6. Dirt road along the Cher, with the Chateau de Leugny visible in the upper right

This is what I love about biking the back roads of Touraine: there is peace and quiet, and yet around every bend in the road there may be a beautiful view or an important piece of architecture or a significant historical site.  You can go as far, and see as much, as your legs will take you.

Another 200 m east, and we have a direct view of the chateau, with its stern yet lovely neoclassical facade from the late 18th century.

7. Chateau de Leugny

We are approaching the Chateau de Beauvais,[2] the site of the kidnapping of Clément de Ris (1750-1827), who lived through the Revolution, the Consulat, the Empire, and the Restoration, and held significant government positions in each, in Paris and in Touraine.  He could go with the flow.  He held an important office with Queen Marie Antoinette, but quickly became a supporter of the Revolution in 1789.  He owned property in Touraine, where he was living when Napoleon named him a Senator in late December, 1799.  The following fall, on September 23, 1800, he was kidnapped while in his Chateau de Beauvais by six armed men.  They first robbed the house and then held him in a cave near Loches for 19 days, when he was released without any physical harm.

8. Chateau de Beauvais

News of the kidnapping of the Senator reached the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, who ordered his Minister of Police, Joseph Fouché, to respond vigorously.  Fouché rounded up three Chouans–although there was no evidence against them and they had strong alibis–and had them executed.

Over time the true story of the kidnapping at the Chateau de Beauvais leaked out. There was apparently an alliance among Clément de Ris, Fouché, and Talleyrand, Bonaparte’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, to remove Bonaparte from power when the time was right.  The war in Italy against the Austrians seem to present an opportunity: if Bonaparte were defeated, he could be forced out of office.  However, reinforcements turned the tide at the battle of Marengo on June 14, 1800, and Bonaparte returned to Paris victorious.

Clément de Ris held incriminating documents with regard to the conspiracy and Fouché doubted his commitment to the cause: the Senator had come to prefer the quiet life in Touraine to the plotting of the French court.   Fouché staged the robbery of the Senator’s home in order to recover the documents, which he did.  To bring a quick end to the investigation and public discourse about the affair, he had three innocent men executed.  He ordered Clément de Ris to say nothing about the matter and not to testify at the trial; the Senator, a weak man who goes with flow, agreed.

Following this dreadful affair, Clément de Ris remained a Senator but appears to have avoided the intrigues of the Paris court.  He died at the Chateau de Beauvais in 1827 and was buried in the cemetery of Azay-sur-Cher.

The kidnapping is the subject of a film from 1958, The Mysterious Kidnapping of Senator Clément de Ris, part of a remarkable French television series broadcast from 1957 to 1966, La caméra explore le temps (“The camera explores history.”)[3]  Each of 39 episodes presents an original film describing an event in French history, with discussions before and after the film by two journalist-historians, André Castelot and Alain Decaux.   We will make reference to some of these films, which are both instructive and entertaining, in future posts on this blog.

At the start of the episode on Kidnapping, Castelot explains that in his novel on the crime, Balzac had considerably romanticized his subject.  He then sets out, in contrast, the purpose of “La caméra explore le temps” series: “However for us, as always, we will try to grasp the historical truth as closely as possible–truth which confronts us with questions we will seek to answer later in the show.” (“Quant à nous, selon notre habitude, nous allons essayer de serrer le plus près possible la vérité historique.  Vérité  … d’ailleurs qui pose une certaine nombre de points d’interrogation, auxquels nous essayerons tout à l’heure de répondre”).

In presenting the Kidnapping film, Castelot describes France as a dangerous, restive place in September, 1800.  As Napoleon “tries to get his house in order,”  in Paris “it is raining daggers” (ils pleuvent des poignards) in Fouché’s colorful words, while in Vendée the Chouans who support the monarchy and have fought the Revolution from 1991, continue to oppose Napoleon’s regime.[4]

Castelot focuses on the gross abuse of the justice system in the trial of the three Chouans: “Nothing could be more unjust than this trial” (Rien de plus inique que ce proces).  At the original trial in Tours it became clear that the three accused were entirely innocent; moreover, the principal witness, Clement de Ris, refused to testify.  The trial was moved to Anger, where the innocence of the accused was evident: they had watertight alibis; two witnesses to the crime (a guest of de Ris, and a medical doctor) said the accused were not among the kidnappers; the bribed prosecution witnesses could not keep of their lies.   Fouché invited the judges to dinner and told them not to acquit. He even read a letter to the judges. Castelot reads a passage from Fouché’s letter to the judges:

“It would be an unfortunate and dangerous example to find the accused innocent.  If they have not been positively found guilty, they have nonetheless merited death a hundred times in different circumstances!”[5]

In other words, Fouché was saying, if the accused are innocent of the crime charged, condemn them to death anyway, because I tell you to.  Two of the three judges complied and the three men were guillotined on the champ de Mars of Angers, November 3, 1800.[6]   The third judge, who refused to convict the accused, was a Captain who lost his rank and was persecuted the rest of his life.[7]

Below on the left is a 1795 painting of Clément de Ris by Joseph-Benôit Suvée (1743-1807).  On the right is a painting (date unknown) by Claude-Marie Dubufe (1759-1820) of Fouché in his uniform of Minister of Police.

Clément de Ris, by Suvée
9. Clément de Ris                                      10.  Joseph Fouché

During my visits to Azay-sur-Cher I had the good fortune to meet with Danielle Chouen at the City Hall of the town.   Mme. Chouen is an elected member of the Municipal Council, and serves as the Associate (Adjoint) to the Mayor for Social and Intergenerational Relations.  Her family has lived in Azay-sur-Cher for many generations.  Her father was the last boatman operating out of Azay on the Cher River.  Mme Chouen guided me through the historical documents held at the City Hall and talked at length about Azay’s interesting history.

11. Mme. Danielle Chouen of Azay-sur-Cher

Balzac enters the fray

A conspiracy against Napoleon, the kidnapping of a Senator organized by the Minister of Police, power struggles in Paris, trumped up judicial charges, bribed prosecution witnesses, shameful executions: sounds like a story for Balzac.  And it was.  Doubly so, in fact: Clément de Ris had been a protector of Balzac’s father.  Four decades after the kidnapping at the Chateau de Beauvais, Balzac penned Une Ténébreuse Affaire (A Murky Business) and gave immortality to an event which would otherwise have been largely forgotten by now.[8]

In a novel of over 200 pages, Balzac spins many tales and creates many characters.  From the historical record, he takes a conspiracy of three against Napoleon before the Battle of Marengo, including Talleyrand and Fouché, but the third conspirator is now Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836) a brilliant essayist and revolutionary leader, who assisted Napoleon in the coup d’état of 1799.

The Chateau de Beauvais and Clément de Ris do not appear; he is replaced (as the kidnap victim) by Fouché’s agent Milan, who is sent to occupy a property, Grondeville, in Champagne.  In Balzac’s tale, Grondeville was formerly owned by the Simeuses, ardent monarchists who were guillotined during the Revolution; their twin sons have been forced into exile.

Malin, who is involved in the conspiracy against Napoleon, has compromising documents (just as Clément de Ris did).  Fouché sends his agents to the chateau; they find and burn the documents, kidnap Milan, and leave him in a cave in a manner which throws suspicion on the Simeuse children and their loyal steward (régisseur), Michu.  Michu is convicted and executed, and Fouché’s conspiracy remains in place.[9]

The political complexity, the convoluted suspicions, conspiracies, and double crosses of all this are at the heart of Balzac’s novel.  When he takes power in the coup d’état in November 1799, Napoleon decides to keep Talleyrand and Fouché in senior ministerial posts, despite whatever doubts he has about them: Talleyrand as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Fouché, as Minister of the Police.  After the collapse of the 1800 conspiracy, the two continue to plot against their leader.

In 1809 a new opportunity arises: just as in 1800 Napoleon is outside the country waging war, this time in Spain, and the outcome is again doubtful.  A rumour arises that he has died in battle, and Talleyrand and Fouché plot to have the Empress Josephine declared regent, believing no doubt that the two of them will be in charge.  Napoleon hears of the conspiracy and returns to Paris on January 9, 1809.  He confronts Talleyrand, accuses him of treason, and says famously, “Listen, you are a load of s–t in a silk stocking!” (“Tenez, vous êtes de la merde dans un bas de soie !”)

And yet, far from having him executed for treason, Napoleon eventually keeps Talleyrand as a senior advisor, along with Fouché, who had been reinstated as Minister of Police in 1804.  In March of 1814, as the Allied armies enter Paris, it is Talleyrand, backed by Fouché, who negotiates the removal of Napoleon and the Bourbon Restoration of King Louis XVIII.

Photographs 9 and 10 are from the Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org. All other photographs were taken by the author.

[1]  “Le chemin de fer de Paris à Bordeaux,” Annales de Géographie, 1930, t. 39, n°221, pp. 449-467.  The quote is from p. 452, “un des monuments les plus remarquables de la ligne Paris-Bordeaux.”
[2]  Two kilometers east of Beauvais along the riverside trail is the town of Nitray.  While not on our route, the lovely Chateau de Nitray is worth a visit for those who have the time.
[3]  The films can be watched for free on the website of the Institut national de l’audiovisuel, http://www.ina.fr.  This was a favorite program of my wife Josette and we own a dozen DVDs of the episodes.
[4]  For the record, I note two minor errors at the end Castelot’s presentation: the film shows an image of the facade of a chateau, which Castelot says belongs to Clement de Ris, the Chateau de Beauvais at 4 km de Tours.  In fact the image shown is that of Leugny, the chateau just to the west of Beauvais, and the distance by road to Tours City Hall from either chateau is more like 19 km.  M. Castelot may have intended to say “quatre lieues” from Tours, which would be about right.  The length of a lieue in France varied over the centuries and according to regions, but in 1800 it would have been about 4.5 km.
[5] “Il serait d’un exemple regrettable et dangereux de prononcer l’acquittement.  Si les accusés n’étaient pas positivement reconnus coupables, ils n’en ont pas moins cent fois mérité la mort en d’autres circonstances !” Castelot reads this passage from Fouché’s letter at about 1hr 4mn from the start of the film.
[6] “Azay-sur-Cher: L’enlèvement du sénateur Clément de Ris,” Guide du Val de Loire mysterieux (Tchou, éditeur, 1968), pp. 180-182.  I am grateful to Mme. Danielle Chouen of Azay-le-Rideau for this reference and for directing me to the work by Jacques Maurice in the next note.
[7] In the discussion with Castelot following the film, Decaux points out that some writers have treated the kidnapping as a simple crime for ransom, in which Fouché was not involved until after the kidnapping occurred.  While he cites no examples, one may be offered: “Azay-sur-Cher: L’enlèvement d’un sénateur,” in Jacques Maurice, Petites Histoires de Touraine (Editeur, C.L.D., 1981), pp. 87-89.  Maurice even gives the odious Fouché a positive character reference: Fouché manipulates the trial “with an absence of his usual scruples” (avec l’absence de scrupules qui le caractérisait)!
[8]  Honoré de Balzac, Une Ténébreuse Affaire, first appeared in the journal Le Commerce, January 14 to February 20, 1841.  My English translation of the title comes from Honoré de Balzac, A Murky Business (Penguin Classics, 1978), translated and with an Introduction by Herbert J. Hunt.
[9]  Balzac’s writings on the police and the courts, which play such a central role in Une Tenebreuse Affaire, are reviewed in a fascinating article by Raynor Heppenstall: “Balzac’s Policemen,” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 8, no. 2 (April, 1973), pp. 47-56.

The Legend Continues

Last week we concluded our post with a visit to the Chateau d’Amboise.  Our bikes are parked in convenient bike racks on the main square of Amboise, near the entrance to the chateau.  Leaving the chateau we walk up the rue Victor Hugo 400 m to the Clos-Lucé, a small chateau where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last three years.  At the end of our visit there we will return to our bikes and cycle the 30 km back to Tours.

Clos-Lucé was built in the late 15th century of tufa stone and pink brick.  This is a rare and lovely combination; it is also to be seen at Louis XI’s chateau in Tours, Le Plessis-les-Tours, a place we will visit on a subsequent bike ride.

The University of Western Ontario 2010 student bike trip

1. Students on the 2010 Western bike trip at the Clos-Lucé.

The property was acquired by King Charles VIII in 1490 as a refuge for his wife, Anne de Bretagne, a very devout woman.  He added an oratory at the chateau for her, where she came frequently to pray.  A fresco in the oratory is titled the Virgin of Light (Virgo Lucis); it is thought that the Lucé in the chateau’s name comes from Lucis, a reference to the painting, which may have been done by da Vinci’s loyal assistant Francesco Melzi. Clos means an enclosed place, and in this case a quiet, protected place.

The chateau, which has been the property of the Saint Bris family since 1855, was opened to the public in 1954.[1]  From the chateau terrace, there is a splendid view of the Chateau d’Amboise, which Leonardo must have enjoyed.

Chateaux of the Loire: Amboise

2. The Chateau d'Amboise seen from the terrace of the Chateau Clos-Lucé.

The French kings of the 16th century knew Italy through warfare.  From 1494 to 1559, Charles VIII, Louis XII, François I, and Henry II waged a series of wars which involved invasions of northern Italy.  The wars were often based on competition among France, Spain, and Venice for control over the various city states of Italy. These excursions allowed the French kings and the nobles fighting with them to see the marvels of the Italian Renaissance.

In 1499 Louis XII’s troops marched through Lombardy and took Milan, where he visited the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and saw Leonardo’s fresco of 1498, The Last Supper, painted on the wall of a large room which became the refectory.  He was so taken by the work that he asked if it could be detached and transported back to France. His request was perforce denied (frescos don’t travel well), but copies of the painting soon appeared in noble houses in France.

François I invaded Italy and captured Milan in October 1515.  The king met with Pope Leo X in Bologna; Leonardo, who was present at the meeting, received a commission to make a mechanical lion for the French king. A year later, at the invitation of François  I, Leonardo was in France; he had been living a difficult life in Italy with few commissions. He arrived at Clos-Lucé during the first few months of 1516.  François I was out of town that day on state business, but he certainly would have joined Leonardo at the first possible moment.

François I had been well educated in the wonders of the Italian Renaissance and during his reign sought to bring the new artistic styles to France.   He would have known Leonardo as one of the leading lights of the Renaissance.  What better way for the King to show his leadership in cultural affairs than to have Leonardo live next to his court in Amboise? Leonardo was given Clos-Lucé as a residence and a substantial annual pension, so that he could work without financial worries.

The many sides of Leonardo’s genius are on display at the Clos-Lucé: the artist, the philosopher, the creator of magical events, the scientist, the engineer.  The artist is celebrated with reproductions of his paintings, including the Mona Lisa (La Joconde in French), which hangs proudly in the Renaissance Great Hall of the chateau.

Da Vinci at Clos Lucé

3. Da Vinci, "Mona Lisa" (1506).

The philosopher appears in the many pithy Leonardo sayings that are hung throughout the chateau, like the one below.

Da Vinci quote, Every obstacle is overcome by stern resolve

4. Dr. Al Salmoni of The University of Western Ontario at the Clos-Lucé during the 2010 Western student bike trip, bike helmet in hand.

Translating the French (“La rigueur vient toujours à bout de l’obstacle“) involves at least two options, depending on how you treat rigueurRigeur often refers to precision of thought, and thus da Vinci may be making a statement about science and intellectual work in general; in that case the translation might be “Precise thinking overcomes every obstacle.”  A more general interpretation of rigueur would lead to the translation which dominates the many websites devoted to da Vinci quotes: “Every obstacle yields to stern resolve.”  As a career professor and lifelong runner, Dr. Salmoni can endorse both interpretations, as his smile in the photograph indicates.

Leonardo had established a reputation in Italy as a creator of magical events, often held at night, using innovative lighting, costumes and backgrounds of his own design, and employing his technical skill with machines created for a specific party.  His first such event at Clos-Lucé was on May 3, 1517, to celebrate the baptism of the King’s first son, and the marriage of the King’s niece.  Leonardo was a master of theatrical drama and surprise, and the King and his guests loved his shows.

Leonardo the scientist and engineer appears in the many drawings displayed from Leonardo’s notebooks, including the one below.

Da Vinci sketch of helicopter at Clos-Lucé

5. Drawing by Leonardo of a machine with some characterstics of a modern helicopter.

Apart from his paintings, it is the sketches in his notebooks which provide the most tangible evidence today of Leonardo’s genuis. The notebooks consisted of some 13,000 loose pages which have wound up in museums across Europe. The pages show models for machines and scientific inventions, and sketches for paintings, along with grocery lists and household budgets.

The pages were not published during Leonardo’s lifetime and virtually all remained unpublished for centuries; thus for most of his proposed inventions, the eventual machines were designed, built, and run by people who had no knowledge of Leonardo’s drawings. A great many of the pages were gathered, translated, and published for the first time in 1883 by Jean-Paul Richter, a German art historien.  The Notebooks, as assembled by Richter, are now on the internet; Richter’s Preface is fascinating, as are Leonardo’s notes and sketches. [2]

Happily, of Leonardo the scientist and engineer, at Clos-Lucé we can see more than the sketches.  Years ago the IBM Corporation built actual models of forty inventions shown in the sketches, using materials available in Leonardo’s time.  These are on display in the basement of the chateau.  One of the models is a cross-section of a boat propelled by two side paddle wheels, driven by cranks which would presumably be turned by hand.   Two large flywheels would steady the motion.

6. Model of a boat driven by paddle wheels, built by IBM based on a Leonardo sketch

Like so many of Leonardo’s inventions this one had to wait until the appropriate source of power was available.

The park outside the chateau celebrates Leonardo’s love of nature; he strolled in this park 500 years ago.  The small Amasse river flows through the park on its way to the Loire; the river has been cleverly redirected to allow for a series of bridges and other structures which illustrate Leonardo’s designs: a two-level bridge, a swinging bridge for military use, a mill operated with gears he sketched, an Archimedes screw.  On the edge of a small pond is a larger model of the paddle wheel boat.

7. Paddle wheel boat in the park of Clos-Lucé.

While the IBM models in the chateau basement are fragile and cannot be touched, many of those in the park are made to be operated by hand, much to the delight of children, and indeed some adults.  There are two cranks for turning the paddles on the boat in the park.

A model of the “helicopter” sketch in photograph 3-5 is to be found down a grassy slope from the chateau entrance.

8. A helicopter model at Clos-Lucé

In the middle of the six supports is a vertical shaft.  In theory, if you could turn that shaft fast enough, the wings of the structure on top could lift it up into the air.  Just as with the paddle boat, the needed power was not available in de Vinci’s time.  Commercial paddle boats would await the steam engine and the early 19th century.  Helicopters, which needed the internal combusion engine, became operational in the 1930s and 1940s.

While celebrating Leonardo’s achievements, the Clos-Lucé site also allows us to contemplate the mystery of this extraordinary man.  Why so few completed paintings by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance?  Why so many projects, artistic and engineering, begun but not finished?  Why no major publication during his lifetime on his philosophy, his science, or his engineering?  And why, despite these shortcomings, do we hold him up as the ultimate Renaissance man?

This mystery is at the heart of a recent biography by Sophie Chauveau, Léonard de Vinci (Gallimard, 2008), who traces the life of a genuis who is constantly seeking new challenges and working most of the time in difficult circumstances.  She cites the British author and art historien Kenneth Clark, that each generation must reinterpret this extraordinary person.[3]  It is no accident that in his fabulously successful fictional story, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown gives a central role to Leonardo and his paintings and sketches, and even puts his name in the book’s title.  The da Vinci legend continues to fascinate us.

Leonardo died on May 2, 1519 at Clos-Lucé.   A popular myth, that he died in the arms of Francois I, is the subject of a painting by the great 19th century artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.  A reproduction of the painting hangs next to his bed in Leonardo’s bedroom at Clos-Lucé.

Ingres painting at Clos-Lucé

9. Ingres, "The Death of Leonardo da Vinci" (1818)

In all likelihood, however, the King missed Leonardo’s death at Clos-Lucé just as he had missed his arrival.  According to Chauveau, on that day Francois I was baptizing his second son at Saint-Germain-en-Laye west of Paris, over 200 km away.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Part of the mystery of Leonardo is the resting place of his final remains.  At his request he was buried inside the Chateau d’Amboise, in the Saint-Florentin church.  The church was badly damaged during the Revolution, and taken down by order of Napoleon I in 1808. A bust of Leonardo was later erected on the site of the church.

Where is Leonardo da Vinci buried?

10. Bust of Leonardo da Vinci in the park of Chateau d'Amboise.

So far, so good, but now the tale gets twisted.  One story has it that in the 1860s Leonardo’s bones were found on this site, and transferred to the Saint-Hubert chapel, where they still lie under the stone on the floor in the photograph below.

Where is Leonardo da Vinci buried?

3-11 The Saint-Hubert Chapel at the Chateau d'Amboise

The plaque on the wall in the photograph concludes with the following sentence on Leonardo’s remains: “His presumed remains found during excavations undertaken in 1863 were transferred to this chapel.”  The use of “presumed” (restes présumés) shows the appropriate doubt.   The official Chateau pamphlet drops the doubts and tells the visitor flat out that the Saint-Hubert Chapel is indeed the grave of Leonardo.

Yet doubts remain.  Why were the bones discovered so long after the razing of the original chapel in 1808?  One source suggests that the 1863 excavations were done by the French State.[4]  If true, this could certainly increase our scepticism, because the head of state at that time was Emperor Napoleon III, who was desperate to justify his undemocratic regime with popular causes.   Why not associate himself with Leonardo, just as François I had done three centuries earlier? The bust in Figure 3-10 is dated 1869, just a year before Napoleon III had to flee France.

Sophie Chauveau is convinced the whole “discovered bones” story is a myth and that his final resting place is just one more Leonardo mystery.  Indeed, she believes that the mystery of da Vinci’s life was one that he himself cultivated.  She ends her book as follows [5]:

“So Leonardo has played his last trick.
There is no gravestone real or figurative for the greatest artist of the Renaissance.  Nothing? Not the smallest trace.  A man who scattered traces of himself all his life, as if to cover his footsteps, sees his wishes literally granted in his death.
He rests nowhere.
The legend can continue.
And it continues.”

[1] The current head of the family, Gonzague Saint Bris, is a remarkable man–journalist, novelist, biographer, romantic, shameless self-promoter, loved or hated by all in the literary elite.  Jean-Louis Gouraud has written a wonderful portrait of Saint Bris, “Les Éléphants Sont-Ils Romantiques?” (La revue, no 6, octobre 2010), which is displayed on Saint-Bris’ website, http://www.gonzaguesaintbris.com.
[2] http://www.sacred-texts.com/aor/dv/index.htm
[3] Chauveau, p. 9:  “qu’a chaque génération cet étonnant personnage devait être réinterprété.”
[4] http://www.amboise.com.
[5] Chauveau, pp. 263-264:
“Ainsi le dernier tour de Léonard est joué.
Aucune sépulture réelle ni figurée n’existe pour le plus grand artiste de la Renaissance. Rien?  Pas la moindre trace.  Lui qui n’a cessé d’en semer de son vivant, comme pour mieux brouiller les pistes, voit ses voeux littéralement exaucés dans sa mort.
Il ne repose nulle part.
La légende peut continuer.
Et elle continue.”

Photographs 3, 5, and 9 are from the Wikipedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org.  All other photographs were taken by the author.

The Amboise Conspiracy

Biking from Montlouis-sur-Loire to Amboise, 12 km

At the end of last week’s article we enjoyed a winetasting with M. and Mme. Blot at the Domaine de la Taille aux Loups in Husseau, on the east side of Montlouis-sur-Loire.  Leaving the domaine, we head east along the Loire à Vélo to Amboise, where we visit the great royal chateau. To see our route from Montlouis to Amboise in Google Maps, click here.  Next week we walk up the rue Victor Hugo in Amboise to Clos-Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life.

Our route to Amboise is not along the Loire River, but up on the plateau, where we share the quiet roads with an occasional car.  After a few kilometers we pass by the Aquarium du Val de Loire, which offers a convenient rest stop (02 47 23 44 44) for those who did not stop at the Taille aux Loups.  I was biking this route in the summer of 2008, planning our Western student bike trip for 2009, and looking for a rest stop on a rural plateau with no cafes.

I came around a corner and there was the Aquarium, to which we had taken our young children during summer vacations in Touraine two decades earlier.  I had always come to it from the opposite direction by car, and indeed I had forgotten its existence.  What a surprise to find it there on my proposed bike route.  The perfect rest stop: if you don’t want to visit the aquarium, buy a snack at the counter, to thank them for the use of the washrooms.

This is one of the largest fresh water aquariums in Europe, with some 10,000 fish in 4 million litres of water.  The emphasis is on fresh water European fish, but there are also various exhibits involving sea water, including tropical fish, a coral reef, and sharks.  My favorite fish is the silure, which looks like an enormous catfish out of a horror movie.  They hang out on river bottoms and seem too fat too float or swim.   They can be up to 2.5 m long and weigh up to 250 kg, making them the largest fresh water fish in Europe.  They do well in the lower reaches (below 400 m altitude) of the significant rivers of France, including the Loire, where a reduction in oxygen (through pollution) can make life difficult for other sorts of fish.

Aquarium du Val de Loire

1. Silure for dinner?

Leaving the Aquarium, our route continues east, and then turns south, down the hill past the impressive St. Denis Church to the Loire and Amboise.  From the bridge over the Loire we have a fine view of the Chateau Royal d’Amboise.

The University of Western Ontario 2010 student bike trip

2. The Chateau d'Amboise

In the late 15th century the chateau was substantially expanded and renovated by Kings Louis X1 (who reigned 1461-1483) and Charles VIII (1483-1498).   The work occurred just before the adoption by French monarchs of the new Italian Renaissance styles in architecture, and Amboise maintained the look of a fortified castle.  Later renovations by Francois I (1515-1547) and Henri II (1547-1559) introduced the new Italian styles to the chateau.  Our visit inside the chateau takes us to the Royal Apartments, which include a magnificent Council Room, with a double vaulted stone ceiling and beautiful fireplaces at either end.

The University of Western Ontario 2010 bike trip

3. Students from the Western 2010 bike trip gather in front of a roaring fire in the Council Room on a very cold spring day.

The large round tower on the left of the main building in photo 2 is the Minimes Tower, housing a large spiral ramp which was used to bring horses with carts up to the terrace to provision the chateau.   The views from the tower are spectacular.   Looking west we can see the Boys’ Tower at the western edge of the Chateau terrace, the roofs of Amboise, and the massive St-Denis Church in the background.

The University of Western Ontario 2010 student bike trip

4. Looking west from the Minimes Tower at the Chateau d'Amboise

Looking east, we can the Loire winding down to Amboise.

5. Students on the Western 2010 bike trip on the Minimes Tower.

The beauty and peace of the chateau and the surrounding town may make it hard to imagine that they were the site of cruel, bloody events that took place here in March, 1560.  Those events have left their mark on French history.

The Amboise Conspiracy

Religion and politics should not be mixed.  When they are, the result is often disorder and bloodshed, as France experienced in the seven decades after 1560.   Among the best known events of the Religious Wars in France are the Saint-Barthélemy Massacre in 1572, and the assassinations of two kings, Henry III in 1589, and his son Henry IV in 1610.  A portent of all this bloodshed were some brutal killings in Amboise in March, 1560, which had both religious and political dimensions.

On the religious side, it all began with a German priest, Martin Luther, who in 1517 wrote his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”  (also known as the Ninety-Five Theses); he may have affixed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg, although many modern historians believe he simply sent them to his bishop.  Luther argued that salvation could not be bought, but only achieved through faith in Jesus Christ.  He wrote that our knowledge of God comes from the Bible, thereby disputing the authority of the Pope and his hierarchy.   These views were offensive to the established Church, and in 1521 Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X.  Today in Germany there are roughly equal numbers of Roman Catholics and Protestants.

Luther’s ideas travelled quickly through Germany in a 16th century version of social networking involving pamphlets and ballads.[1]  His doctrines also spread to other countries in Europe.  In France, the Reform movement was led by John Calvin, born in 1509 in Picardy.  In university, Calvin was attracted to humanism, and then to religious Reform.  His views forced him to flee to Switzerland in 1535.

The following year he published his Institutes of the Christian Religion, setting out his Reform doctrines.  Despite intermittent persecution, the number of Reformers or Protestants in France (or Huguenots, as their enemies called them) grew rapidly after 1850, especially among the nobility.   The criticism of each other’s church by Reformers and Roman Catholics was often bitter and extreme; each sought control of the French state as a means to control the rival church.

These tensions came to a head with the sudden death of Henry II, after a jousting accident in June, 1559.  His son became king at just 15 years of age, as François II.  Through an arrangment concluded when he was four, François was married at age 14 to Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots (later imprisoned and put to death by Elizabeth I of England).  When he became King, two of his wife’s uncles, the duc de Guise and his younger brother, the cardinal de Lorraine, became his chief advisors. They quickly took control of the government.  The painting below of the duc de Guise is by François Clouet, the official painter of King François I.

Amboise Conspiracy, Wars of Religion

6. François, duc de Guise.

The Guises became known for their violent suppression of Protestantism.  The House of Guise was found by Claude de Lorraine (1495-1550), a valiant military commander under François I, who in appreciation gave him the title of 1st duc de Guise. In 1525 the duc de Guise suppressed a revolt of Anabaptists, a Protestant sect, in a massacre in Saverne, Alsace, which earned him the title of “the Great Butcher.” His son François, the 2nd duc de Guise, organized the massacre at Amboise in 1560.  François’ son Henri, the 3rd duc de Guise, played a role in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572, and later founded and led the Catholic League (la Ligue Catholique), devoted to the anti-Protestant cause.  He was assassinated at Blois in 1588 on order of King Henry III, a story we will tell when our bike trips arrive in Blois.

In early 1560 members of the Huguenot nobility began plotting to kidnap the King, and return him to power after they had removed the Guises.  A meeting of the conspirators was held in Nantes on Feb. 1, 1560.  The plot was discovered and the King was moved from Blois to Amboise, where the Chateau was more defensible.  The conspirators were poorly organized, and an attack on March 17, at the gate of the Bons-hommes under the Heurtault Tower on the north side of the Chateau, was quickly repulsed by the troops of les Guises.

St-Hubert Chapel, Chateau d'Amboise

7. The Heurtault Tower, with the gate of the Bons-homme. In the distance, at the top of the wall, is the St-Hubert Chapel.

There followed a bloody massacre of all the conspirators and their troops.  The town quickly ran out of gallows and began hanging Huguenots from the balconies of the chateau.  Others were decapitated.  “The cobblestones of the interior courtyards were red and sticky from the blood of decapitated nobles.” [2]  An engraving by Jacques Tortorel and Jean Perrisin from 1570 shows the horror of the scene enacted in Amboise over several days.  Tortorel and Perrisin were Protestant artists in Lyon.  In 1570 they published in Geneva a collection of engravings on the religious conflicts in France between 1559 and 1570. [3]

8. Jacques Tortorel and Jean Perrisin, "The Execution of the Conspirators of Amboise" (1570).

The engraving shows the north wall of the chateau, as seen from the direction of Photo 2. In addition to the troops present, there are a good many spectators, including, near the lower right corner, a woman with a young boy.  The Huguenots are to be taught a lesson.

Two men are being thrown from the chateau balcony with ropes around their necks.  Five more are already hanging, along with a sixth on a gallows in the center of the engraving.  The latter is the leader of the conspiracy, Jean de Barry, lord of la Renaudie manor in Périgord.  La Renaudie was killed in a skirmish on March 19 in the Forest of Chateau-Renault as he headed toward Amboise with a small troop.  His body was displayed as the engraving shows, and then chopped into five pieces, each hung at a gate to the chateau.

In the left foreground, a gallows carries three heads; headless bodies lie nearby.   A Huguenot Captain, M. de Villemongis, about to be decapitated with a sword, seems ready for his fate, as he washes his hands in the blood of those who have gone before him. [4]

This last figure reappears a century later, as the great French historian Jules Michelet describes how those who had fought with the Huguenot forces faced death that day in Amboise:

“Dying, they raised their loyal hands to God.  One of them, M. de Villemongis, dipped his in the blood of his comrades already executed, and raising his red hands, cried in a strong voice, ‘This is the blood of your children, Lord!  You will avenge it!'”[5]

His words foretold 70 years of cruel religious wars in France.

[1] “How Luther went viral,” The Economist, December 17, 2011, pp. 39-41.
[2]  Jacques Debû-Bridel, La Conjuration d’Amboise (Paris: Editions Mondiales, 1963), pp. 203.  “Le pavé des cours intériueres était tout rouge et gluant du sang des gentilshommes décapités.”
[3]  A remarkable exposition of the work of Tortorel and Perrisin was held in 2006 at the Musée de la Rénaissance at Chateau d’Ecouen north of Paris, in collaboration with the Bibliothèque National de France.  The title was D’encre et de Sang – Les guerres de Religion gravées par Tortorel et Perrissin (Ink and Blood – the Wars of Religion engraved by Tortorel and Perrissin).  A summary of the exposition can be downloaded from the museum website, musee-renaissance.fr.
[4]  Villemongis is identified by Nicolas Le Roux, Les Guerres de Réligion 1559-1629 (Editions Belin, 2009), pp. 42-43, where the engraving in Photo 4 is also shown, although in a mirror image (left and right are reversed, as compared to Photo 4).
[5]  Jules Michelet, Histore de France, le XVIe siècle, II, Un siècle partagé, La Réforme (Lausanne, Editions Rencontre, 1966), p. 350.  “Ils levaient en mourant leurs mains loyales à Dieu.  L’un d’eux, M. de Villemongis, trempa les siennes dans le sang de ses amies déjà exécutés, et, les élevant toutes rouges, cria d’une voix forte: ‘C’est le sang de tes enfants, Seigneur!  Tu en feras la vengeance!'”

Photograph 1 is from the website http://www.magicsilure.fr.   Photographs 6 and 8 are from the Wikipedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org.  All other photographs were taken by the author.

Chenin Grapes

Biking from Tours to Montlouis-sur-Loire

We all know the admonition that driving and alcohol don’t mix.  I agree.  It is equally important to understand, however, that biking and wine do mix.  This is especially true in Touraine, where the quiet country roads through the vines present the cyclist with truly spectacular views, and where nothing is more wonderful than stopping at a vineyard to taste the local product, and discuss winemaking and wine with the winegrower.

The bike trip from Tours to Amboise is 32 km, or 64 km roundtrip. On this post we will bike to Montlouis-sur-Loire, through some lovely vineyards.  Next week we continue on to Amboise.  To see our route to Montlouis in Google Maps, click here.

2007 Western student bike trip

1. Three students on the 2007 University of Western Ontario student bike trip examine a Loire vineyard's progress in early May.

Beginning at the Tours train station, our bike route heads north to the Loire River, passing the St-Gatien Cathedral, where we pause in the square facing the church to admire the extraordinary facade.  The cathedral was built over 300 years, from the 13th to the 16th century.  The facade, with twin tours, similar but not identical, has a wonderfully harmonious feeling, despite the fact that it includes elements of Romanesque, Gothic, and Flamboyant Gothic architecture, all crowned with two lovely lanterns in the Renaissance style.

2010 Western alumni bike trip

2. The 2010 University of Western Ontario alumni and friends bike trip in front of the St-Gatien Cathedral.

From St-Gatien we bike our way to the wide sidewalk, which also serves as a bike path, on the left bank of the Loire, heading east, and thus upstream.  The road goes under the Autoroute 10 (Paris – Tours – Bordeaux) and leads us to the Loire à Vélo bike route, with no cars and beautiful views of the Loire.

Biking in the Loire Valley with The University of Western Ontario

3. The Loire à Vélo in winter. In the background are the spires of the St-Gatien Cathedral in Tours, about four kilometers to the west.

On the opposite bank of the Loire are the cliffs of Rochecorbon, with troglodyte dwellings that include modern homes, restaurants, and a hotel.  At one point we can see atop the cliff the Lantern of Rochecorbon, which once may have guided boats on the Loire but is now part of a private home.

Loire Valley Biking, Rochecorbon

4. The Lantern at Rochecorbon, with troglodyte dwellings on the cliff side. The large structure on the right is a water tower.

As we approach Montlouis-sur-Loire, the bike route leaves the river valley, climbing to the levee on the left bank of the river.  Nearby is a giant six meter wine bottle with a Montlouis-sur-Loire label.

The 2011 Western student bike trip

5. The 2011 Western student bike trip at the Montlouis bottle.

Leaving the Montlouis bottle, we arrive in front of the Montlouis-sur-Loire City Hall. Across the street from the City Hall is a rest stop, the Bar Le Bugatti (02 47 50 90 40).  We have gone 15 km.

From Montlouis we head east, entering a residential district with some large attractive houses behind impressive stone and concrete walls.  The road runs east on the cliff above the river, and then turns south past a water tower (chateau d’eau), and then east into farmland, divided among pastures with beautiful horses grazing contently, and vineyards featuring the Chenin grapes of Montlouis wine.  We are still on the Loire à Vélo bike trail, which will take us all the way to Amboise.

The Montlouis vineyards generally look south, turning their backs on the Vouvray district across the Loire River.  Montlouis and Vouvray white wine are both made from Chenin grapes–no mixtures here with other varieties.  If there is a grape that defines Loire wine, it is the Chenin, described by Hugh Johnson, the famous wine critic, as “the Loire’s own grape, the Chenin Blanc.” [1]  While the history of the Chenin grape in the Loire Valley is a bit uncertain, it goes back over a thousand years.

La Taille aux Loups vineyard, Montlouis-sur-Loire, France

6. Chenin grapes, ready for the harvest at La Taille aux Loups vineyard in Montlouis-sur-Loire

Records dated 845 from the Glanfeuil Abbey (also known as the Saint Maur Abbey) indicate that Chenin blanc was grown on the left bank of the Loire at that time.   The  Benedictine abbey, thought to have been founded in the 6th century, was in the town of Le Thereuil, which sits in a lovely spot on the left bank of the Loire, midway between Angers and Saumur.

The Chenin grapes migrated east along the valley of the Loire and in the 15th century reached Touraine, where they are associated with Thomas Bohier (d. 1524) and his brother-in-law, Denis Briçonnet (1473-1535).  Bohier built the Chateau de Chenonceaux, completed in 1521, and planted several varieties of grapes around the chateau.  The Chenin thrived.   After the death of Bohier, who was found to have embezzled a large sum of money from the Treasury, the chateau passed to King François I, whose son, King Henry II, adored the chateau’s Chenin wine.

Denis Briçonnet was the abbot of the monastery in Cormery, on the Indre River.  He lived in the nearby Chateau de Montchenin, where he grew a wide variety of wines, including Chenin.  A building was erected on this property in the 19th century which now serves as a medical clinic with the name Clinique du Chateau de Montchenain.  Opinion is divided as to which of the two chateaux gave us the Chenin name: Chenonceaux or Montchenin.

Biking through a vineyard in the Loire Valley

7. A fork in the road on the west side of Montlouis. The Loire à Vélo bike trail goes left, as the sign in front of the tree indicates. The Montlouis vines surround the trail. It is Bastille Day, July 14, 2008, and the grapes are growing well.

Two great names in French literature, Francois Rabelais (d. 1553) and Honoré Balzac (1799-1850), are associated with the Chenin grape.  No person in French history could have more credibility on wine drinking than François Rabelais, “who found the white wine of Ligré ‘like taffeta.'”[2]  Ligré is about 60 km southwest of Montlouis, and the white wine in question was almost certainly from the Chenin grape (which, by the way, is no long grown in Ligré).  In Rablais’ Gargantua, the Pricochole Wars near Chinon begin when the shepherds who are guarding ripe autumn grapes from hungry starlings are attacked by the bakers from a nearby town.   The grapes are for wine, but they also delicious to eat.  In Rabelais words, “grapes and fresh cake are a dish for the gods.”[3]

Rabelais goes on to list a variety of grapes, beginning with “pineau-grapes,” the name then for Chenin.  The grapes even have medicinal properties–a young shepherd injured in the attack by the bakers has his legs  “dressed … with big chenin grapes, so that they soon healed.”[4]  Shortly after this initial skirmish, Friar John, of the nearby Abbey de Seuilly, courageously beats off the marauding neighbors in order to save the abbey vineyard.  Wine is very important in Rabelais’ world.

Honoré Balzac consumed great volumes of Vouvray wine during his frequent visits to a chateau in Saché, south of Tours.  It is said that his work routine at Saché involved consuming two or three bottles of Vouvray at dinner, then entertaining the company with imitations of his characters, before heading to his bedroom and working from midnight to 10 AM the next morning.   Some of his characters also enjoyed Vouvray wine.

In 1938 Mountlouis-sur-Loire was established as a separate region from Vouvray by the authority of the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée), which controls who can put a particular name on a bottle.  The AOC acts as an agent of quality control, so that when you buy a Montlouis (or other AOC wine), you should know what are getting.

Back on our bike trip, we reach Husseau, on the east side of Montlouis.  As we leave the vines we arrive at an intersection with a Loire à Vélo sign, with its distinctive image of a cyclist and wheels in white on a green background.  One direction heads to Amboise, the other back to Montlouis and Tours.

Biking in France

8. A Loire à Vélo sign in Husseau, on the east side of Montlouis.

Nearby we stop for a wine tasting at La Taille aux Loups vineyard.  Late one afternoon, I had a fascinating visit with the winegrower, Jacky Blot, in a lovely wine tasting room on his estate.  He is a cultured and articulate man, with a deep commitment to his profession.   M. Blot spoke for 30 minutes on wine in general, and Loire wine in particular.  He explained that he was not born to wine growing, but came to it through a passion for the activity (“Je ne suis pas originaire de la vigne.  Je suis venu à la vigne par passion”).

For many years he worked as a wine broker, making the link between the growers and the buyers (wholesalers, retailers, restaurants).  He then decided, in 1989, that what he really wanted to do was grow the wine himself, rather than taste and broker someone else’s wine. He currently farms 65 hectares (163 acres), producing 300,000 bottles of wine a year.  His full-time team is 16 people; at harvest time (les vendanges) he will have 100 people in the fields.

M. Blot bought some good parcels in Montlouis, and began to grow his own wine with the Chenin grape, as required in Montlouis and Vouvray.  He describes the Montlouis wine district as bounded by the Loire and Cher Rivers and the Amboise Forest, which long ago would have given his property its name.  La Taille aux Loups can be translated as “the wood where the wolves gather,” as they would have done for centuries (they are gone now); la taille refers to a wood made up of small trees and underbrush.  In 2002, he bought good winemaking land in Bourgeuil, about 60 km downstream on the right bank of the Loire, so that he could apply his wine making skills to a red Loire wine.  The wines of the Domaine de la Butte are grown with the same attention to quality as the wines of Domaine de La Taille aux Loups.

M. Blot spoke at length of his philosophy of wine growing.   I remarked that I have long felt that Loire wine is not sufficiently appreciated abroad, or even in France.  He responded that wine regions become well known because of the elite growers who make the best wine, wine that is complex and takes great care in growing:  the reputation of Bordeaux is based on the outstanding wine of just 10% of the land in vineyards, and for Burgundy, 20%.

His view of the Loire wines is that for the most part the region has not had such leaders in quality, and the wine estates have been content to produce simple wines that are good but not outstanding.   Thus if Loire wines are not fully appreciated, it is the fault of the growers themselves.  He sees his mission, and that of other growers who share his view, as establishing some truly outstanding Loire wines that will bring the reputation of the whole area to a new, higher level.

Domaine de la Taille aux Loups, Montlouis, France

9. M. Jacky Blot in the winetasting room at his Domaine de la Taille aux Loups.

I asked M. Blot what makes a great wine.  He said that the determinants of a great wine are widely known, the same for all regions of France, and for the most part unchanged for the last 100 years.  You must begin with an outstanding terroir, a soil that has the right composition and drainage to produce a great wine.  You then need to plant the right vines for that soil.  If you have poor soil, or plant inferior vines, no amount of work or care thereafter will produce a great wine.  Then comes the care of vines in a manner that respects nature: no pesticides, insecticides, or fungicides; a reasonable quantity of grapes per vine; hand picking at the right time under the right conditions.

Once the grapes are pressed at M. Blot’s vineyard, there are no adjustments, chemical or otherwise, made to the pure juice of the fruit: the wine is made on the vine and not in the cave (“le vin se fait dans la vigne, il ne se fait pas dans la cave”).  A great fruit, and nothing else, makes a great wine, and that is true everywhere (“un grand fruit fait un grand vin, c’est ca et rien d’autre, et ca c’est vrai partout”).

M. Blot believes strongly that high quality wine is based on individual creative effort: he distinguishes “artisan wine” from “industrial wine,” the latter often involving the adjustment of the wine (e.g., adding an aroma) after the grapes are pressed.  The artisan wine may be imperfect, but it has a natural taste which will have its place in a growing world wide market:

“We can hope that 1 or 5 or 10% [of wine consumers] will want to drink an artisan wine, authentic real wines, with their qualities and imperfections.  I would rather have an artisan wine with a defect than an industrial wine with neither quality nor defects.  I think those people will come [to the artisan wines]…. We Loire producers have an impressive future before us.” [4]

There is no shortage of laudatory opinion on M. Blot and his wine to be found among the wine critics.  My favorite, because it captures both his commitment to quality and his pioneering sprit, goes like this: “Jacky Blot, at his domain since 1989, is upsetting only the conformist spirits of the Loire.  Committed to excellence, this producer of charming Chenins is upsetting the rustic snoozing of the Bourgeuil cabernets.” [5]

Mme. Blot conducted the wine tasting with me, which included some of the bottles in Picture 9.  I finally settled on a white 2009 Demi-Sec from the Domaine de la Taille aux Loups in Montlouis, and a red 2010 from the Domaine de la Butte in Bourgeuil.  We have had our first bottle of each and they are outstanding.  The red will improve with age over the next two or three years.  While I loved the taste of Triple Zero natural sparkling (pétillant) Montlouis wine, I have a surplus of Loire sparkling wine at home. When my stock is down, I’ll be back to La Taille aux Loups for some Triple Zero

Suitably fortified, next week we will continue our bike ride east to Amboise, famous for its Royal Chateau and for the Kings who lived there.

[1]  Hugh Johnson, The World Atlas of Wine, 4th edition, 1994, p. 114.
[2]  Johnson, op. cit., p. 117.
[3]  François Rabelais, Gargantua (Seuil, 1996), p. 213.
[4]   Rabelais says that the young shepherd’s legs were dressed  “avec gros raisins chenins.”  Rabelais, op. cit., p. 216.  Some English translations drop the reference to chenin grapes, which is unfortunate.
[5]  “On  peut espérer que 1 ou 5 ou 10% [des consommateurs] ont envie de prendre un vin d’artisan, authentique, des vins vrais, avec leurs qualités et leurs défauts.  Moi je préfere un vin d’artisan avec des défauts à un vin d’industrie qui n’a ni qualité ni défaut. Je pense que ces gens la vont en venir [aux vins d’artisan]….  La Loire a un avenir impressionant devant nous.”
[6]  “Jacky Blot, installé depuis 1989, ne dérange que les esprits conformistes de la Loire.  Soucieux d’excellence, ce vinificateur de chenins charmeurs bouleverse le ronron rustique du cabernet bourgeuillois.”  Le meilleurs vins de France.

Photograph 6 is from M. Blot’s website, jackyblot.fr. All other photographs were taken by the author or at his direction.