Loire’s white delights: Vouvray and Montlouis

The Loire valley is definitely one of France’s great spots, and it is no wonder that a large stretch of the valley as a whole has been granted the status of UNESCO world heritage. The number of sites that Michelin’s green guide lists as “worth the trip” (***) is huge; the beautiful landscape is shaped by the majestically meandering river and its tributaries, overlooked by countless châteaux of great historical value.

Having spent some time in Sancerre and Pouilly a few years ago, I now ventured a bit downstream along France’s longest river, and ended up to the east of Tours. There is ample opportunity for winelovers to quench their thirst here: the broader area falls within the AOP Touraine (with some local subzones), and the two closest village appellations are Montlouis and Vouvray. The former is rather small, with a few hundred hectares of vines squeezed between the Cher to the south and the Loire to the north, the latter comprises over 2000 hectares, all located to the north of the Loire. The soils are typically chalky here (tuffeau limestone), although there is a higher proportion of sandy soils on the Montlouis side.

I visited two producers, one in each AOP. In Montlouis, I discovered the wines of the well-established “Domaine de la Taille aux Loups”, founded by Jacky Blot; in Vouvray, I left the beaten track somewhat by visiting “Le Clos de la Meslerie”, where the wine is made with minimal intervention (one could say it is a “natural wine”, although, as readers may know, there is no rigorous definition of the concept – more on that below).

Domaine de la Taille aux Loups – Montlouis

On a glorious summer morning, I drive from the castle of Chenonceaux to Husseau, a hameau of Montlouis. Having turned right from the D40, I soon find myself in the middle of the vineyards. The landscape is softly undulating here. No steep slopes, more like a plateau. It is one of the reasons why the disastrous 2016 spring weather has wreaked havoc here. Little draining of the abundant rainfall, and no evacuation of cold air during spring frost. These two factors combined have caused heavy losses for this year’s harvest, as a quick inspection of some vines confirms: hardly any bunches to be seen.

Jacky Blot has created the estate from scratch a few decades ago. He is a never-tiring entrepreneur, extremely demanding for himself and those who work with him. This uncompromising search for precision and perfection is reflected in the wines. It is early in the morning, but my tasting buds are up for a feast.

We start off with the Brut triple zéro (meaning no enrichment of the must (chaptalisation), no liqueur de tirage, no liqueur de dosage). Clean and precise fruit, hints of vanilla and toast, excellent balance between richness of flavours and bright acidity. The rosé de Touraine, made of Gamay, is the wine that seduces least among the whole flight: typical nose of bonbons anglais, but not very exciting and rather simple.

Next up is the Clos Michet 2014. Received wisdom places Vouvray in a higher league than Montlouis, because of its south-facing vineyards, whereas Montlouis is looking north. Even in Johnson’s and Robinson’s wine atlas, the only vineyards shown for Montlouis are those to the north of the D140, either on the “plateau” mentioned above, or descending towards the Loire. There are however also Montlouis vineyards on slopes facing the Cher, and thus exposed to the South. Clos Michet comes from one of these. The 12 months of oak are quite noticeable on the nose, alongside ripe fruit, with tropical notes (pineapple), but underpinned by a firm acidity and mineral edge. The wine needs some time for the oak to integrate better. Remus Plus 2014, a blend of three small parcels from the same area, has spent even more time on oak barrels, but has digested this better than the Clos Michet. It has more concentration and weight, without ever becoming heavy-handed.

La Bretonnière 2014, which should have been a Vouvray but was denied AOP status because the cellar, contrary to the vineyards, is not within the AOP boundaries, is a very lively, energetic wine, with a lot of tension. I am tempted to use the word “chalky”, be it with all the caveats of the discussion on minerality in wines (which would lead us too far here). We end the tasting with Cuvée des Loups 2009, a sweet wine from botrytised grapes. 100 grammes of residual sugar, yet so incredibly playful and elegant. A great illustration of the recent plea of Jancis Robinson in favour of sweet wines.

La Taille aux Loups has a great set of wines on offer. In their most recent guide of the best wines of France, the journalists of La Revue du vin de France have given this estate one out of three stars, arguing that there is still room for improvement in terroir expression (whatever this may mean precisely) and purity of fruit. I beg to differ, and would put this estate at least on the level of that other Montlouis giant François Chidaine, of whom I also tasted some wines during my stay (tasting notes to follow).

Clos de la Meslerie – Vouvray

Some stories make one dream. The one of Peter Hahn is among those. Formerly active in the financial sector, he decided to switch careers, learnt to make wine at the lycée viticole in Tours, where reputed Vouvray grower Vincent Carême was one of his teachers, and bought a small 4ha estate in Vernou-sur-Brenne, a marvellous zone in the heart of the Vouvray area.

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I arrive at the estate somewhat stressed, running half an hour late due to GPS issues. The warm informal welcome instantly removes the stress. Peter exudes a steady kind of tranquillity, surely an important quality for a vigneron. Soon we are amidst the vines – 4 parcels spread around the house, each with a different exposition. Peter’s wine making philosophy of minimal intervention places him in the natural wine scene (he is mentioned and commended in Isabelle Legeron’s textbook on natural wine), though with a very reasonable and rational approach. He considers himself too “cartesian” to fully apply biodynamic principles, which he thinks of as “faith”. Likewise, no dogmatism on the use of sulphites in the cellar: it is restricted to a minimum, but not banned (none of the oxydized apple cidre you find with some natural wine disciples, to put it bluntly). The vines are biologically farmed, and Peter usually gets by with far less than the authorised amount of cupper. Weed is only removed mechanically. The vines are in great shape indeed.

The cellar is of a stunning simplicity. No high-tech equipment, just the bare essentials: a traditional vertical press, a stainless steel tank to let the must settle, after which it flows by gravity to the barrel cellar below, where the rest of the process takes place: fermentation in the barrels, with lees stirring from time to time. Malolactic fermentation doesn’t take place, presumably because of the very low pH of the wines, which also reduces the need for sulphites.

We taste some 2015 samples of barrels from different parcels and harvesting dates. First surprise: the juice is remarkably limpid. The wine will not need any fining or filtering, and is as good as ready to be racked and bottled. In the glass, it is straight and pure, with noticeable differences, obviously, between the parcels. In general, the warmth and generosity of the 2015 vintage shines through. These barrels will then be blended into the final wine in order to reflect the place and the vintage.

The wines are indeed very different between vintages, as becomes obvious when we taste bottle samples. The edgy, lively and pure style remains constant, but the characteristics of the vintage come to light.

We start off with a sparkling wine, made from grapes which, contrary to standard practice, are not harvested earlier but at full maturity, giving a very vinous, powerful vin de repas.

Only one still wine is made every vintage. The 2009, a warm vintage, has 30 (!) grammes of residual sugar, but its taste is refined and ethereal, the sugar is barely noticeable. A wine of marvellous depth. 2014 is less opulent, but still has a great texture and volume, with the mineralic acidity carrying the wine all the way through a very long finish. 2013 is even dryer, and possibly a touch out of balance at this point. But the acidity will make this wine last for decades, and my guess is it will be fine in a few years.

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One can see that the same drive that made Peter successful in the financial world, will make this wine adventure a success as well. And the final product is so much more appealing… Warmly and wholeheartedly recommended!

 

 

 

Harvest time in the Languedoc-Roussillon

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The Languedoc-Roussillon has many faces. Historically an important source of France’s wine lake, with still a massive 220.000 hectares under vine (it used to be much more), and home to what is by far the most sold IGP (previously “vin de pays”) wine in France, Pays d’Oc, it is also a prime source of sweet fortified wines (vins doux naturels), and since a few decades a pioneering area for ambitious growers who, rather than, as the expression goes, « faire pisser la vigne », want to craft premium wines from the various terroirs that the region can boast.

The landscape here is of a stunning beauty and ruggedness, as a ride through the heart of Corbières reminded us. It offers a huge diversity in climate, soil, exposition, wind and maritime influence, making this one of the most interesting winegrowing areas in France, with a big potential for top quality wines, besides the not always very exciting bulk wines that most of us have tasted. Interestingly, while we tend to think of Languedoc-Roussillon as a Mediterranean area with the corresponding grape varieties, the western outskirts of the region are exposed to Atlantic influences (the westernmost AOC, Cabardès, is close to the water divide between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean bassins) and offer some of the highest altitudes in the region, making it suitable for sparkling wines, Bordeaux varieties and even cool climate grapes like pinot noir.

I recently had the occasion to spend a long weekend in Limoux, one of these “Atlantic” zones, where I stayed in Borde Longue in the company of wine merchant Bruno Desmet-Carlier, amidst the vineyards of Jean-Louis Denois, whose family originates from Champagne. Surely one of the most original (and hard-headed) winegrowers in the region, Denois makes a range of truly excellent sparkling wines (in a blind tasting we did on Saturday, one came out on top of the basic cuvée of Bollinger), as well as a beautiful pinot noir and a chardonnay that have nothing to envy to some of their much more prestigious Burgundian counterparts.

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It was a great time to be in the vineyards and the winery. Only some of the grenache remained to be picked (here as elsewhere, 2015 was quite precocious in comparison to normal years), but the winery was brimming with activity. We got a close view of some of the intricacies of the winemaking process, from semi-carbonic maceration to pumping over and punching down the cap. Tasting wines from different vineyard parcels, different press strengths, or at different phases in the fermentation, and at different times in the barrel ageing process is quite enlightening, and a pure delight for any wine aficionado.

Denois is a restless soul, always looking for innovation and perfection in his range of wines. Some years ago, he planted gewürztraminer (!) in the area, to the outrage of the established bodies of the INAO. In the meanwhile gewürztraminer has effectively been allowed as a grape in IGP Pays d’Oc wines. His most recent enterprises include biological and biodynamic winemaking, as well as the production of wines without adding any sulphites.

In the three days we spent on the domain, we tasted countless wines. It would be somewhat pedantic to list all the tasting notes here, so I limit myself to a few of the most striking moments. First of all, a very enlightening lesson about degrees of dosage in sparkling wines. Minimal differences in dosage gave completely different results in a “blanc de noirs” sparkling syrah (“bulles de syrah” – a curiosity in itself). Without any sugar, the wine was too edgy and sharp. A few grams more transformed it into an ideal partner for, say, oysters. And yet a few more turned it into a delicious and crowd-pleasing festive drink.

A memorable tasting was the line-up of older vintages of pinots noirs from the neighbouring Domaine de l’Aigle, previously owned by Denois and for which he used to make the wines (now taken over by Gérard Bertrand, who joined us for a tasting that weekend). Several vintages of the nineties were still going strong. At one point we compared a Domaine de l’Aigle to the same vintage of a Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er cru. It was a close match, but not if you know the price difference. The furthest back we went was 1985, and the wine, though maybe past its peak, was still more than agreeable. Which Burgundy could claim that? Probably only the ones at premier cru or grand cru level.

In short, it was a useful reminder of what Denois forcefully argues himself: that the French appellation system and the prestigious crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy are more about history, marketing, and protection of commercial interests than about actual wine quality.

But beyond the lessons learnt, the weekend was about passion and emotion. Three days of endless wine talks with like-minded souls, it does not get much better than that. As Jean-Louis said when we parted: “à l’an prochain, Jérusalem”.