The UNESCO World Heritage List is comprised of nearly 1,100 total properties of outstanding universal value. The majority of the UNESCO list, including French wine icon Champagne’s “hillsides, houses and cellars” and The Climats of Burgundy, have received placement due to their cultural value. About a quarter of the properties have achieved recognition due to natural significance, or a mixed status combining both cultural and natural attributes.
UNESCO this week designated 20 new properties, including mainland France’s first-ever natural site. Chaîne des Puys, encompassing the Limagne fault, is a string of 80 dormant volcanoes that crater the surface of central France from the highland region of northern Massif Central to the city of Clermont-Ferrand.
According to UNESCO, the environment is an “exceptional illustration of continental break-up – or rifting – which is one of the five major stages of plate tectonics”. The peak of Puy de Dôme is an iconic site, the youngest of the volcanoes and a touristic draw for hikers and sightseers. The last eruption happened in 4,040 B.C and the lack of activity has encouraged vegetative growth, earning the spot the nickname of France’s Green Volcanoes.
While the property wasn’t selected because of the vineyards (or cellars), the area around the Châine des Puys does indeed produce wine. Côtes d’Auvergne, a wine subregion of the Loire Valley, is notable for the soil which is “limestone-clay from the Pliocene or Oligocene eras, mixed with volcanic debris,” according to Loire Valley Wines.
Extending over 53 villages, Côtes d’Auvergne produces red, white and rosé wines from chardonnay, pinot noir and gamay varieties. Dating back to the 5th century, these wines were popular with nobility when ports along the Allier River made shipment viable. Phylloxera and the world wars caused a depression in wine production, but recent investment from young winemakers with attention to quality earned Côtes d’Auvergne the coveted Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) designation in 2011. Five sub-appellations include Madargues, Chateaugay, Chanturgue, Corent and Boudes.
The region is also remarkable for local cheeses: Saint-Nectaire, Cantal, Salers, Bleu d’Auvergne, and Fourme d’Ambert. And if you’ve purchased bottled water in Europe, chances are you’ve enjoyed Volvic, a mineral water from Clairvic Spring in Auvergne Regional Park. Auvergne farmers produce the Puy green lentil, a dried and nourishing element of local favorite petit salé, a rustic salted pork belly dish. Gentian liqueur, a spirit made from the yellow gentian flower grown wild on the volcanic slopes, contains root components known to be one of the most bitter ingredients in the world. Verveine du Velay liqueur, made of lemon verbena has been distilled in the area for 150 years and high-quality beef is raised in Auvergne, with cured meats a culinary highlight.
The region has attempted to gain UNESCO status in the past, suffering two rejections related to perceived human interference, including the placement of a communication device on the peak. Since then it was decided that the device was instrumental in the preservation of the volcanic forms, illustrating the balance between people and place.