(French) Wine from a Tropical Island: La Réunion


La Réunion (Reunion Island)—one of the five Départements d’Outre-Mer (Overseas Departments) of France—is located about 340 miles/550 km east of Madagascar and surrounded by the Indian Ocean. Considering its tropical-island vibe (as well as its position at 21°S latitude), it is easy to understand the fame of its locally-produced rum—which has been protected as a geographical indication—Rhum de la Réunion IGP—since 1989.

What is a bit more surprising is Vin de Cilaos—an esteemed wine produced from island-grown noble grape varieties such as Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Malbec.  Cilaos—located somewhat in the center of the island and home to 6,000 people—is one of the larger villages on La Réunion.

Vin de Cilaos can truthfully call itself a mountain wine, a high-elevation wine, and a volcanic wine. The village and its vineyards are situated in a volcanic caldera (crater) known as the Cirque de Cilaos at an elevation of 1,200 meters/3,940 feet above sea level.

Not surprisingly, Vin de Cilaos is—along with the wines from the Tahitian vineyards—one of the only French wines produced in the Southern Hemisphere. Vinifera grapes are believed to have been brought to the island in the year 1655, but most were wiped out by Phylloxera. In 1992, the Chai de Cilaos Cooperative was founded and planted over 6,000 vinifera vines—including Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Malbec—in the region. The first wine produced by the cooperative (in 1996) was a dry Chenin Blanc. Since then, other wines—including a red blend of Pinot Noir and Malbec—have followed suit. Alas, these wines are made in highly limited quantities, so if you want to try Vin de Cilaos…you’ll need to visit the island (not such a bad idea).

In addition to its fame as (French) wine-producing region, Cirque de Cilaos is a thermal spa retreat area renowned for its lentils, wildflowers, naturally sparkling water, hiking trails, and meticulous white linen embroidery—as carried on by the Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos (Cilaos Embroidery House).

Cirque de Cilaos

Grapes are grown in other parts of La Réunion as well, and a light red wine produced from Isabella grapes (a Vitis labrusca variety) is enjoyed locally. The Isabella grape variety was once-upon-a-time banned from the island, as it was believed that the wine—known as vin qui rend fou (‘wine that sends you mad’) drove people crazy. The ban was lifted in 2004.

Note: Wines from Cilaos were sometimes labeled as “Vin de Pays de Cilaos” up until 2009, when the EU disallowed the use of the title. The wines of Cilaos have never been awarded a French geographical indication, although there are rumors that an application is in process.

The Outer Limits is my series of appreciative posts about small, oddball, obscure, or out-of-the-way wine regions.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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