Romorantin, Wherefore Art Thou?

by Jeff Harding with Emily Bell
Francois Cazin
April 2012

How does a grape go from regal heritage to near disappearance? That’s the story of Romorantin. Introduced to the Loire Valley in 1519 by none other than King Francois I, the grape was named after the nearby commune of Romorantin-Lanthenay, the king’s own homeland. And yet, for such a prestigious beginning, Romorantin didn’t take hold. Once widely planted throughout the Loire Valley, the grape gradually—and almost silently—receded into obscurity, making the little-known appellation of Cour-Cheverny its tiny, and exclusive, homeland. Almost four centuries later, in the hamlet of Le Petit Chambord just outside the village of Cour-Cheverny, Francois Cazin is still making some of the best Romorantin available, giving those few that know of it the perfect warm-weather alternative to Sauvignon Blanc and other crisp white wines. And while his wines are the little darling of many a sommelier, they are unknown to many more.

Strangely enough, this lesser-known grape is a sister-of-sorts to Chardonnay, the most well known of white wine grapes. DNA analysis (best explained by Jamie Goode, author of The Science of Wine) shows that Romorantin and Chardonnay both come from a cross between Gouais (goo-AY) Blanc and Pinot Noir. For the wine geeks, Gouais Blanc was the “mother vine,” and pollen (the dad) came from Pinot Noir. The Gouais Blanc grape was once so reviled for its inferior quality of wine that it was banned in much of Europe, but ironically, it is the mother of Aligoté, Auxerrois, Bachet, Chardonnay, Franc Noir, Gamay Noir, Melon, Romorantin, and Sacy.

The Vineyards of Le Petit Chambord

Good Neighbors
Just like its Loire Valley neighbor Chenin Blanc, Romorantin can make dry, demi-sec, or moelleux wine, and Cazin covers all those bases, depending on the harvest. The Cour-Cheverny can be considered Chablis-like in its crisp, fruity style, and the Cuvée Renaissance, made from 50- to 80-year-old vines, is a late-harvest, off-dry version that varies in sweetness. The Renaissance will always have some residual sugar, but is offset by its acidity, and can vary from off-dry to bracing in style. If you’re lucky enough to visit, look for the moelleux version, made in rare vintages when more extensive botrytis occurs. These wines are always small in production and as such are not available for export.

The Vineyards of Le Petit Chambord The Vineyards of Le Petit Chambord The Vineyards of Le Petit Chambord

Silver-Tongued Sommeliers
We reached out for comment on this rare grape, and not surprisingly, everyone responded with shining words about Francois Cazin:

Dewey Dufresne of wd~50 in New York City
We describe it on our menu in the following manner: “apricot, melon rind, honeysuckle.” Customers’ reactions [are] very favorable. And it pairs excellently with our food. Hard to sell? We can’t keep it in the house.

Carla Rzeszewski of The Spotted Pig, The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, and The John Dory Oyster Bar in New York City
That fantastic little grape that acts like dry Furmint [and] Chenin Blanc ... it ages spectacularly. A few months ago I attended an Australian dinner party, and I brought the 1996 Cazin "Cuvee Renaissance." It was absolutely vibrant, aging just like Chenin [Blanc], acid and tart fruit intact, with all of that musky wool and raw honey, dried floral and bruised apple magic.

June Rodil, of Congress in Austin, Texas
I like to refer to this as a "neat" wine. It's got great acidity and boisterous melon-like qualities with the citrus-y backbone of most white wines from the Loire Valley that make it great for aperitifs, as well as for light food pairings. Truly, I like it best in the Texas sun. I've tasted back to the 2007 vintage—while Romorantin may not be considered a grape that is worth aging, I have to say that it was still tasting well, though the zippy acidity had tempered a bit. Additionally, it's a great bargain, and when groovy grapes like that come at such a small price point on a wine list, it's easy to say, "Why not?"

Kyle Ridington of The Mark Restaurant, in New York City
I have tasted a few different vintages and it is fun to see the variation. In some vintages Cazin’s wines have a drop of residual sugar, like 2005, and other vintages are bone-dry with the acidity so high it makes your back sweat (I love that), plus it is eye-opening to see that the wines mature quite nicely. In Cazin’s wines, I usually get a pronounced minerality (pierre à fusil) and honeysuckle with fruits of green apple and sudachi lime.

Thomas Pastuszak of NoMad, in New York City
I love the wines of Francois Cazin, and his Cuvée Renaissance is an incredible example of botrytis-infected, demi-sec Romorantin—the 2006 is amazing, it drinks almost like Mosel Kabinett, ripping laser-like acidity and minerality, backed by juicy, tropical pineapple, mango, tangerine, and herbal tones.

Francois Cazin's wines in Cour-Cheverny