Réunion island: A French wine discovery10th April, 2014 by Jean-Baptiste Ancelot
Crossing Madagascar during our African tour gave us the perfect excuse to visit La Réunion – a French Island east of Madagascar just an hour’s flight away.
It was the perfect opportunity for a brief stop in France on the other side of the world – 9,300 km from Paris – on an island which has a surface area less than one third of Corsica. La Reunion is famous for it’s three Cirques : Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie. These are natural calderas with steep walls and a circular shape, formed by a volcanic depression. Exceptional places for all hiking and nature lovers. Of the three, we came for the Cilaos where there is wine production.
Vines first arrived in La Reunion with the first settlers’ boats in 1665. Located in a tropical latitude, the vineyards are now exclusively located in Cilaos, between 600 and 1,300 meters above sea level, with no less than 51 microclimates. The dominant climate remains hot and humid from December to March and cool and dry from April to November. Erosion, very active, requires the creation of terraces to cultivate vines on steep slopes and work is done mainly manually. Amidst all of this, a holy curiosity remains – Isabelle: a grape variety which originated from the American species Vitis labrusca and was the only red grape introduced to the island until 1975. Today seven grape varieties constitute the Vin de Pays de Cilaos’ appellation: Chenin Blanc, Verdelho and Gros Manseng, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Syrah.
Rental car in hand, we began our ascent of the mountain. Better to be faint of heart and to have a light breakfast, wise and friendly advice to all. The hairpin turns keep coming, all the more sinuous than the ones before. According to the locals which we encountered on our way, there would be 400 turns before reaching Cilaos. I thought them out in words, I stopped counting at 399.
In the late ’80s, a dozen Cilaosiens farmers started a cooperative together to develop modern viticulture, with the help of French and European subsidies. This was the creation of the Chai de Cilaos, a vineyard of 20 hectares planted with noble grape varieties, sprinkled around the Cirque.
Our favorite, Blanc Sec 2013, a blend of Chenin Blanc (70%) and Verdelho (30%), bottled at the occasion of the feast of the lens in October, has a nose of mango and pineapple, a fresh mouth with exotic fruits and a nice bitterness on the finish. Cellar price: €12.50.
Other wines from the range include a Rouge 2013; a blend of Malbec (70%), Pinot Noir (20%) and Syrah (10%), sold at €12, a rosé 2012, sold at €8.80, and a Blanc Moelleux 2012, a blend of Chenin Blanc (30%), Verdelho (30%), Gros Manseng (30%) and Couderc13 (10%), sold at €13.
In good years, the Chai de Cilaos produces about 30,000 bottles, except in 2013.
“Cyclones in La Reunion can be a real problem for the vines. This year, we lost 80% of our harvest”, we were told by Gianny Payet, the technical manager of Chai de Cilaos.
The Réunion vineyard also consists of a handful of irreducibles made up from passionate individuals who continue to make wine for themselves, mostly sweet, because in La Réunion we love sugar. And with which variety? Isabelle of course! With no label on the bottle, here they sell wine from the property, directly from the producer to the consumer. This is what we commonly name “Vin de Cilaos“. It goes hand in hand with the lenses of Cilaos, a variety of lenses planted between the rows of vines during winter, and which complements the income of growers and farmers.
Fabrice Hoarau, winemaker and owner of Domaine du Petit Vignoble in Bras-Sec, who made wine for a few years in Alsace before returning home with his wife, said: “We are also affected by the vagaries of weather, and in addition we have no subsidies from the Government, because of the varieties we use.”
A few kilometers away, in the village of Îlet à Cordes, we met Eli Gonthier, the owner of Bon Vin de Cilaos estate, a local guy who loves his region. Eli is illiterate, but who cares. “I left school when I was 9 and it hasn’t prevented me from making wine for 40 years now”, he said, laughing. His winery produce mainly a sweet red and a sweet white (a blend of Muscat and Couderc13), plus a clementine wine, which we had the privilege of tasting in his cellar. Eli plunged the plastic pipe in a barrel, sucked briefly, brought the glasses on top… done ! Watering feet passing, it’s part of the folklore.
We wanted to finish our journey in style. Tomorrow it was decided, we would climb Piton des Neiges, the highest point of the Réunion island, standing at 3070 meters. Meanwhile, tonight it was all about bivouac into the wild with BBQ fish in foil, flambéed bananas and a night spent in a hammock. The area is perfect to do so. We were facing the cliff, amidst the vegetation. In front of us there were two waterfalls. Swimming in the river that borders the camp offered us a moment of relaxation before the following day’s efforts.
Climbing the Piton des Neiges was a real physical challenge including an 8km, 1500m vertical climb; no flat surface, only a series of steps that don’t allow you to catch your breath. We had a lunch break at Refuge de la Caverne Dufour, 2600m above sea level, after four hours of walking. My legs didn’t want to go any further. I had to resign myself to the fact that for me, it was time to descend. Sometimes you have to listen to your body. Fortunately, all ended well. And Ludo, courageous as always, went to the top to bring us this beautiful picture in the clouds.
One last night of rest Chez Lucette, in Cilaos, where a good bed and a wifi connexion which costed us only €14 (a smile and a welcome coffee included). We even left the day after with some passion fruit just fallen from the tree. A delight that we kept on the plane.