Chaume is situated at the northern edge of the Coteaux du Layon area, right on the Layon river, which gives the appellation its name. Its vineyards are covered by both the Coteaux du Layon Chaume and Quarts de Chaume appellations – two of the region's most prestigious titles and its first Premier Cru and Grand Cru respectively. The Chaume title takes in 160 acres (65ha) of the hamlet, while Quarts de Chaume covers a more exclusive 100 acres (40ha) of the finest terroir.
The quality of Chaume's sweet wines is largely due to the local topography – itself due in no small part to the nearby rivers, the most important of which is the Layon. Over the millennia the river has carved out gentle south-facing slopes to the south of the village, and created sheltered mesoclimates in which the vines can capitalize on all available sunshine. Furthermore, the morning mists that rise from the river in late summer promote the development of botrytis (noble rot) – an essential ingredient in the finest Coteaux du Layon Chaume wines.
The wines are made from Chenin Blanc grapes harvested in tries successives – i.e. multiple passes through the vineyard, with the pickers collecting only the grapes affected by noble rot. This harvesting method is credited to the top chateaux of Sauternes, where it is thought to have been developed in the early part of the 19th century.
The Coteaux du Layon boundaries and its named villages (crus) were officially identified and delineated in February 1950, when the appellation was introduced. Right from the start, Chaume was subjected to more-restrictive production conditions than its neighbors. The maximum yield, for example, stands at 25hL per hectare rather than the 30hL applied to the other named villages (a figure of 35 is used for wines not claiming a cru title).
The minimum vineyard planting density is also lower for Chaume at 4500 vines per hectare rather than 4000, and the differences are even reflected in the minimum required sugar levels of the harvested grapes – 238g/L rather than 272, which translates to an extra degree of potential alcohol (also a legal requirement). These conditions are the same as those imposed on the highly respected Bonnezeaux appellation, which lies just a short distance away to the south-east.
With these extra restrictions it was only to be expected that Chaume's vignerons would eventually demand some form of official recognition in return. After persistent lobbying, the cru was awarded the upgraded title Chaume Premier Cru des Coteaux du Layon in 2003. This promotion was contested by the producers of the more prestigious Quarts de Chaume appellation. As a result, it was revoked in 2005. A year later, the INAO awarded Chaume its own entirely independent appellation, 'Chaume'. This was again contested and revoked.
A final resolution (which will no doubt have a ripple effect through the other named crus) is that Quarts de Chaume now bears Grand Cru status – the first of its kind in the Loire region – while Chaume's Premier Cru title has been reinstated.