The town of Chinon, about 45 minutes southwest of Tours, is located on the banks of the river Vienne, which flows south of the Loire river and merges with the Loire just west of Chinon. Chinon is indelibly linked to two famous historical figures -- the author Francois Rabelais, born in Chinon around 1490, and Joan of Arc, who came to Chinon Castle in 1429 to meet the Dauphin Charles VII and inspired him to reconquer his kingdom.
The Chinon wine region is known for its cabernet franc-based red wines, among the best reds in the Loire Valley. Rabelais sung the praises of Chinon wine in his satires Gargantua and Pantagruel, and his vivid descriptions of wine-soaked feasts and revelries have made him a paragon of the "eat, drink and be merry" lifestyle. Rabelais is credited with a saying heard often in Chinon, "Beauvez toujours, vous ne mourrez jamais," roughly translated as "drink always and never die."
The best way to taste the famous Chinon wines for free is to visit the caves, or wine cellars, carved into the banks of the Vienne river. We recommend visiting Cave de Monplaisir, just west of the town. Be prepared for a sudden drop in temperature upon entering the cave. Cave de Monplaisir is owned by three Chinon wine estates -- Domaine De L'Abbaye, Jean-Maurice Raffault and Domaine du Raffault -- and offers free tastings of a variety of vintages from each estate. The immense cave holds dozens of large oak barrels in which most wines are stored for six months to two years.
Open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. - noon and 2 - 7:30 p.m., on Sundays from 10 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. and 3 - 7:30 p.m.
Another nearby cave worth visiting, just for the significance of the name alone, is Cave des Vins de Rabelais. This cave is also owned by several wine estates and offers free tastings of a variety of Chinon reds and rose wines.
Open weekdays all year round from 8 a.m. to noon and 2 - 6 p.m., and from April to Sept. on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. - 1 p.m. and 3 - 7 p.m.
The Chateau de Chinon is mostly in ruins but is impressive nonetheless both for the view it commands over the Vienne valley and for the historic event which took place there. In 1429 the teenage Joan of Arc came to Chinon to meet the Dauphin Charles VII, who was holed up after losing most of his kingdom. Suspicious of Joan, the Dauphin disguised himself as a courtier and had someone else sit on the throne, but in what was one of many miracles ascribed to St. Joan, she picked the young Charles out of the crowd and knelt before him. Joan then succeeded in inspiring Charles to reclaim his kingdom, after which Chinon became his capital and enjoyed a century of prosperity.
The Chateau de Chinon is open daily throughout the year, hours 9-6 in April-June and Sept., 9-7 in July-Aug., 9-5 in Oct., and 9-12 and 2-5 in Nov.-March.
The narrow, winding streets of Chinon have much medieval charm, and the town has a variety of restaurants ranging from casual to more formal. On one rainy day, we enjoyed a casual lunch of pizza accompanied by a bottle of fruity young red wine from a neighboring town, Bourgeil, at a homey restaurant called La Grappa on the main street, Rue Voltaire.
LA GRAPPA, Rue Voltaire, Tel 47931929
We also enjoyed dinner at a lovely restaurant on Rue Voltaire, Les Annees 30. This restaurant was recommended by the very gracious Marie-Claude Chauveau, proprietor of the bed and breakfast we stayed at, Domaine de Beausejour, which is also a wine estate (see below). Dinner was enhanced by the company of a very fun couple we met, Pat and Karen from Chicago, who were also staying at Domaine de Beausejour. The four of us enjoyed a delicious dinner, including a great cheese course, accompanied by a few bottles of, what else, the fabulous red Chinon wine of Domaine de Beausejour. All in all, a terrific evening!
LES ANNEES 30, 78 Rue Voltaire, Chinon, Phone: (247) 933718
For a truly romantic dinner, we recommend another restaurant recommended by Madame Chauveau, Restaurant Auberge de l'Ile. This charming restaurant is located on the banks of the Vienne in the town of L'Ile Bouchard, east of Chinon, and during the day you can dine while overlooking the river. We dined in the tastefully decorated main dining room, where we enjoyed an aperitif of a sparkling wine from the Touraine, Montlouis, and a bottle of Domaine de Beausejour 1996 with our meal. The restaurant is owned by Genevieve and Pierre Koniecko, and the delicious cuisine of Pierre was matched by the excellent service of Genevieve.
AUBERGE DE L'ILE, L'Ile-Bouchard, Phone: (247) 585107
We highly recommend the bed and breakfast we stayed at, Domaine de Beausejour, which is actually the home of a family that runs a wine estate near the small town of Panzoult, about 10 minutes east of Chinon. The bed and breakfast is run by Marie-Claude Chauveau, whose husband and son, Gérard and David, run the wine estate. There are two rooms for rent in the main house and two rooms located next to the outdoor pool. The views alone are priceless, as the house is situated on top of a hill overlooking the vineyards and the Vienne river in the distance. In addition to her excellent restaurant recommendations, Madame Chauveau is a very gracious hostess, serving robust coffee and delicious pastries for breakfast and offering wonderful rose wine and fresh fruit in the afternoon. The Chinon region would be a great place to find homes for sale to open our own bed and breakfast!
I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Madame Chauveau on May 6, 2004 in New York at a tasting of Loire Valley wines run by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau. Tasting her delicious Chinon wines brought back great memories of our visit and her gracious hospitality. Merci beaucoup, Marie-Claude!
DOMAINE DE BEAUSEJOUR (in French), Panzoult, Phone: (247) 586464, Fax: (247) 952713