Experience Auvergne: Volcanic Wines

If you were asked to name a few French wine regions, the Auvergne wouldn’t even be on the list. 

This huge, mountainous region located at the very heart of France is a well-kept foody secret, lauded by those ‘in-the-know’ for having the best terroir going, not only for cheese but everything that springs from its gloriously fertile volcanic soil.

The sole exception is their vineyards which are mostly undiscovered

Auvergne: Nautical connection counter-intuitive but unique advantage

This wasn’t always the case.  Back in the 1800s, the Auvergne was France’s third-biggest producer of wine that was shipped to Paris by the region’s extremely able boatmen.  Bearing in mind that this mountainous province is about as far from the sea as you can get, it seems improbable that it should have such a strong nautical connection. 

However, not only were the pine trees of the Livradois Forez used as masts for the French Navy frigates, but the Auvergnats would make their own boats suitable for river transport. 

The River Allier is rather unique as it flows downstream towards Paris connecting the Auvergne to the capital by way of a canal system. Other rivers flow away from the city’s markets leaving little choice but to transport by horse and cart.

River Allier

So while products from the rest of France arrived bruised and rotten, the Auvergne produce drifted gently along, cool and fresh in the bows of a river barge. Little wonder it gained the reputation for being the best. 

The ingenious flat bottomed boats transported heavy items like Volvic stone to make the cobblestones of the Paris streets, but also the wine, fruit, cheese, and even coal, direct to the capital. 

It took ten pine trees to make one of the larger boats which could carry over 50 tons of produce.  Each boat was managed by 3 men and the boats would travel in groups of 10 so that if a boat was damaged, the load could be redistributed. 

Auvergne: river transport challenging—an extraordinary story

River transport was not without obstacles.  In summer, the waters were too low to give safe passage and too frozen to negotiate in winter. 

Once in Paris, it wasn’t possible to return by the river, so the boats would be dismantled and sold as firewood.  Only the anchor accompanied the boatmen on their two-month walk back to the Auvergne. 

Earliest cafés in Paris by Auvergnats

Not surprisingly, many of the boatmen decided to stay in Paris and became renowned for setting up shops selling coal.  The Auvergnats soon noticed that their customers were often thirsty, so came up with the idea to serve Auvergne wine while they waited.

These shops soon became cafes and even to this day, the Auvergnats are credited with creating the restaurant dynasties of Paris, and Auvergne produce is still fondly thought of as the best in all France.  

Avergne volcanic soil saves the day

In the late 19th Century disaster struck.  Most of the vineyards in Europe were hit by Phylloxera, a tiny mite bent on destroying vines.  Brought into the country on American rootstocks, the bug almost decimated the vines of Europe and France in particular. With one exception.  The Central Massif is the only area in metropolitan France to have volcanic soil, and as luck would have it, Phylloxera found it hard to take hold. 

The Auvergnats took full advantage and while all the other winemakers ground to a halt, the Auvergne dropped quality and went for quantity in a really big way.   So much so, that by the time the rest of France recovered, the reputation of Auvergne wine had been destroyed.

Do you have any favourite wines from the Auvergne? Share with us if you’d like to experience Auvergne? Please add your comments below.

Further reading:
Volcanic Wines Explode In Central France – An interesting article by Tom Mullens on Forbes about what’s currently happening with volcanic wines in the Auvergne. Boutique vignerons and wines are detailed.
Image credits:
All images copyright Samantha Wydymus

About the Contributor

Sam Wyndymus

Hi, I’m Sam Wydymus, a British chef, food writer, and cheese whisperer. I live with my husband & four children in the beautiful Livradois Forez Mountains where we run a B&B, restaurant, and culinary adventure centre. www.saminfrance.com

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