Wine that tempted royal tastebuds sparkles again

Saint-Péray, a sparkling wine that was enjoyed by Queen Victoria, Tsars and Jules Verne, is coming back more than a century after its vines were ravaged by disease

25 January 2017
By Emily Commander

Once a favourite tipple of Queen Victoria, the Russian Tsars and Jules Verne, Saint-Péray sparkling wine was all-but lost to history after a phylloxera outbreak ravaged vines across France during the second half of the 19th century.

The last 10 years have seen its return, however, and the results are promising.

Saint-Péray is in the Ardèche, in the Rhône valley. Its vines grow in the cool micro-climate that prevails on the gentle limestone and granite slopes surrounding the 11th-century Chateau de Crussol.

At 87 hectares, Saint-Péray is small for a wine appellation and - these days at least - little known. Better known are its neighbours, St Joseph and Hermitage. It is made by blending the maarsanne and roussane grape varieties, which originate from the Montélimar region.

Saint-Péray’s history is littered with moments of international fame, interspersed with periods of near-silence. The earliest-surviving mentions of Saint-Péray white wines were made by Pliny in his Natural History and Plutarch in his Table Talk.

It then disappears from view until the late 18th-century, when it was claimed by Napoleon Bonaparte to have provided him with his first experience of drinking wine as a young cadet.

The wine that Pliny, Plutarch and Napoleon admired was a still white wine, known in Saint-Péray as a ‘tranquille’ wine. It was not until 1829 that the first cork of Saint-Péray sparkling wine was popped at the foot of the 13th-century ruins of Château de Crussol. It was the brainchild of Louis-Alexandre Faure, who was the son of a wine merchant. He had sought the advice of the experts of Dom Pérignon, in Champagne, on the best production methods to use for his new venture.

In its heyday, the reputation of sparkling Saint-Péray exceeded even that of the wines of Champagne. It is said to have provided the inspiration for great works of art, notably Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, which was fuelled by 100 bottles, but also works by Lamartine, Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant.

In the 19th century, wine appellation rules were not as strict as they are today, so bottles of Saint-Péray sparkling wine were labelled Champagne de Saint-Péray. While it no longer has the right to call itself champagne, Saint-Péray is nonetheless made using the Champagne or traditional method. This requires the wine to undergo a second fermentation in the bottle, during which it is “riddled” (inverted and slowly and gradually rotated). At the end of the second fermentation, the temporary bottle cap is removed, pressure in the bottle is released, or “disgorged”, and the cork inserted.

Saint-Péray, like many other French wines, fell prey to the outbreak of the phylloxera aphid which came over from the US in the latter half of the 19th century. “By the time the phylloxera had done its work, the cultivated area had fallen from 130 hectares at its peak to under 60 hectares,” said Benoît Norin, President of the Appellation of Saint-Péray.

“We simply could not produce enough grapes to satisfy demand for the wine.”

As a result of this vastly reduced yield, local wine houses began to buy in grapes from elsewhere to make Saint-Péray, thus diminishing the quality of the wine.

It was partly in response to this crisis that, in 1936, Saint-Péray was one of the nine first appellations to be identified in France, one of four in the Côtes du Rhone. The appellation enabled growers to insist that the only wines produced from grapes cultivated on Saint-Péray soil could bear the Saint-Péray label. This measure would, they hoped, enable local growers and producers to re-establish the quality and reputation of their wines.

The years that followed the award of the Saint-Péray appellation were tough: “The wine still sold very well,” explained Mr Nodin, “but there was not enough of it for the producers to earn their living.”

Gradually, though, growers formed cooperatives and, from the 1980s, a new generation of growers was able to begin to re-establish the name of Saint-Péray.

“At first we focused on our white wines,” said Mr Nodin.

“Then, in the 2000s, we realised that the conditions were right to start looking seriously at sparkling wines again. We had good vines, a good cooperative, and merchants were showing an interest.”

Although it accounts for only 20% of the wine produced in Saint-Péray, there are now seven producers making sparkling wine, including Mr Nodin’s brother Rémy.

Saint-Péray sparkling wine is beginning to be talked about again in serious wine circles. The quantities remain too small for it to compete on price with many of the crémants that line supermarket shelves. It does, however, have the subtlety of flavour that should enable it to hold its own with France’s top-of-the-range sparkling wines.

Is Saint-Péray likely to make it back to the tables of European royalty? It has chosen as its slogan ‘a white wine transcends its origins’, which gives a clue as to the direction in which it appears to be, once more, headed.

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