Ahead of the pack - premier tastes of new vintage French Chenin Blanc

Tuesday, 13 July, 2004
Myrna Robins
The first French wines of the 2004 vintage were bottled and sampled in May at a winery high in the mountainous centre of an Indian Ocean island. Myrna Robins elaborates...

There we were, crowded into a tiny tasting room in the former Creole home that now houses Cilaos Chai. The spotless cellar is tacked on behind, lined with small steel tanks, empty bottles, a pile of labels and sundry vinous equipment.

Laidback Cilaos winemaker, Bruno Range poured us samples of his newly bottled Chenin Blanc, pale straw-coloured and well chilled on a warm May afternoon

And we sniffed, snipped and swallowed, smug in the knowledge that we were among the first in the world to be sampling a French vintage of 2004, some six months ahead of the pack - perhaps those who race to get Gamay to the world should consider taking a turn down south one year?

Reunion is one of the most exhiliarating islands on earth to visit, offering a bewildering diversity of cuisines, landscapes, climates and people. But, first and foremost it is very much French territory, which is emphasised as you take the modern ring road that circumnavigates the 207 km coastline in style, dotted with Gallic road signs reminding drivers to Rappel, rappel...

From its urban north with sophisticated capital and beach resorts to the wild, lush south, from the west coast where pretty French villages welcome hordes of (mostly) French tourists intent on soaking up sun or enjoying watersports to the east coast where fields of waving sugar cane part to reveal wooden Creole homes, roadside shrines and vanilla plantations, the island's coastline presents strong contrasts, and diverse attractions.

But for sheer impact and stunning beauty, its hard to beat Reunion's mountainous middle - where a trio of calderas or cirques , tall mountain peaks that have imploded to form deep, almost impenetrable valley centres - beckon tourists, adventurous sportsmen - and winelovers. Because it is on the summit of the cirque of Cilaos - the only one accessible by road - that the island's one winery perches, surrounded by a few hectares of terraced vineyards.

The road from the coast rises fast, through a series of hairpin bends, traversing forested cliffs with tree ferns and waterfalls. We were lucky to have a driver in the person of knowledgeable guide, Laurent Hoareau, who knows Reunion like the back of his hand - but he hooted cautiously before he took the car around each blind corner.

The mountaintop resort of Cilaos is a pretty town of 7 000 inhabitants, well geared for its many visitors. Restaurants range from those serving good French fare to the charming hotel Tsilaosa where we savoured a delicious array of Creole sweet treats with our afternoon tea.

While vines have been growing on Reunion since 1771 the quality of the wine was questionable until about a decade ago, when the farmers started replacing traditional cultivars with Pinot Noir, Malbec and Chenin Blanc. They commissioned a new winery and employed French oenologist Bruno Range, who accepted the challenge of making good wine in difficult circumstances.

In 1998 France made Cilaos a wine appellation, which gives an indication of the agreeable quality of Bruno Range's dry red (a blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Malbec), a bright and fruity rose that partners the local Creole dishes admirably well and a sweet white wine. His dry white is 100% Chenin Blanc, offering a dense bouquet of fruit and floral notes, fruity flavours tempered with some acidity.

While coffee and rum vie for first place as Reunion Island's national drinks, and there are plenty of French imported wines from which to choose, the wines of Cilaos are worth hunting down.

And this Gallic dot in the Indian Ocean - some 2 500 sq metres - is a destination worth considering, with a wealth of attractions to please every taste.

An eight-day tour of Reunion island for South Africans, with several gastronomic highlights, has been scheduled for September. For more information, telephone Lucinda on 021 487 4300.

Myrna Robbins

Bruno Range, winemaker on Reunion
Bruno Range, winemaker on Reunion

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