Archive for the ‘French wine’ Category

Savennières: an overview

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Savennières is a difficult wine to understand. Its enigmatic quality may explain why writers often lapse into hyperbole when attempting to describe its properties. For Jacqueline Freidrich, Savennières’ elusive nature conjures up images of ballet dancers defying gravity. Remarking on a Baumard Clos du Papillon, Freidrich waxes: “It was Balanchine, Petipa…Les Sylphides in a glass.”

church in the Épiré villageThe problem begins at the beginning, when Savennières is released. Young Savennières is unyielding, offering a whiff of beeswax or lemon and a mouthful of structure that satisfies the intellect more than the palette. As an expression of Chenin, it is astonishingly different from the wines directly across the river. In the Coteaux du Layon, you reflect upon the wine’s “generousity” of the mouth-feel; in Savennières, you take note of the wine’s “attack”. The uninitiated may want to ease into Savennières by way of a demi-sec. Made only in the ripest vintages, demi-sec is hard to locate, but worth the effort. Chateau d’Epiré’s demi-sec, for example, is lovely; tasting it would provide a worthy introduction to the region.

In all likelihood, a sec will be your first encounter, and it is liable to be an austere one. The soil of Savennières is a hodgepodge of schists, volcanic veins (notably present in Clos de Coulée de Serrant), sandstone and clay; it makes for tough, age-worthy wines. Savennières can be unappealing to those acccustomed to more accessible whites like Chardonnay. It takes perspective to be convinced about Savennières, and a vertical tasting of older vintages can go a long way towards altering any misconceptions. After five or six years, the forbidding structure of a classic Savennières melts into the middleground, and ripe Chenin emerges. Older vintages can be profound, displaying characteristic orange marmalade scents and complex layers of minerals and quince. Given its scarcity, how can an American enthusiast experience the pleasures of mature Savennières? I advise purchasing and cellaring a case or two of the wonderful 2005’s that are coming on the market, waiting six years, then inviting us to dinner.

Better yet, go to Savennières yourself. It is charming , poised perfectly on the Loire; the towns are rich with stone architecture. Just under the bridge that connects the Coteaux with Savennières is the island of Béhuard which, we must, to our chagrin, label “enchanting”. No matter where or how well you live, you will fantasize about moving to Béhuard. While fantasizing, have lunch at Les Tonnelles, either on the terrace overlooking the Loire, or in the simple and charming room where we enjoyed a fine meal. Many vignerons recommend Les Tonnelles and count themselves among the “regulars”. The affection of the winemaking community is reciprocated – the wine list is superb and features fine examples of older Savennières, some by less well-known producers. Try a Clos du Papillon by Soulez, a penetrating, intense example of a demi-sec, with tiers of tangy fruit, lemon, and a long, long finish spiked with minerals.

Savennières, like most Loire regions, harbors its share of eccentric vignerons. One of them, Nicolas Joly, presides over the seven-hectare Clos de la Coulée de Serrant (which is actually a separate appellation) and Savennières parcels in Roche-aux-Moines. For better or worse Joly is the most famous winemaker in the Valley and displays a hernia of press clippings to prove it. Joly’s application of Rudolf Steiner’s bio-dynamic agriculture is controversial in all of France. Joly took over Clos de la Coulée de Serrant in 1976 and by 1985 he had purged the soil of all chemical additives and pesticides, entrusting only a rare breed of Nantais cow to create the fully organic compost. This is considered a positive thing (although most producers find it extreme). But, did I forget to mention that Joly weeds the fields when the Earth’s position is under the influence of the constellation Leo? Being a “fire” sign, Leo promotes growth in bio-dynamic soil. And what is that we hear about a Stonehenge-sized rune Joly had dragged onto his land to strategically reflect “energy” over the vineyards?

Read another report on Nicolas Joly at Bertrand Celce’s.

Ms de Lessey’s Closel vineyard also makes an excellent example; her Cuvée Spéciale from Clos du Papillon exhibits supple fruit and crisp, lemony acids.

Pierre Soulez’s line-up is quite fine; his “Cuvée d’Avant” Moelleux coats the mouth with delicate flavors of almonds, minerals and honey. Alas, there are only about 4000 bottles made with no US distribution in sight.

2007 vintage would be bad in Europe

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

In a nutshell: buy 2007 wines only from reliable producers.

Obviously a vintage is a concept: it cannot taste bad. The point here is to indicate that vine growers have had more problems this year than previous years. The quality of the wines very much depends on the vine growing — every year but this year even more so. This is the year when the serious, talented winemaker makes a big difference.

Vineyards near Gamlitz, Austria, by HalehRThe Austrian wine marketing board have published their official summary of the vintage so far, calling it ‘the winemaker’s year’. In the words of Jancis Robinson this means that ‘there have been quite a few hurdles for them to overcome – in the vineyard perhaps even more than in the winery’.

In France, the cool summer of 2007 affected everyone and the September weather saved some grapes. Micro-climates came into play and the savvy vigneron had to carefully determine the date of harvest. Rot and mildew was widespread. Keeping the grapes on the vines was a gamble many winemakers did not make.

Côte d’Or, Burgundy

Reports Bill Nanson: ‘The vintage will be as heterogeneous as the approaches and the quality of grapes and sorting’. ‘Grapes from Latricières-Chambertin needed quite some work (just like in 2004)’.
Said Louis-Michel Liger-Belair: ‘we made a hard triage’.
Reports Martine Saunier, California importer of some growers in Burgundy and the Rhône Valley: ‘beginning 25 August, the weather warmed up and the sun finally came out. Temperatures rose to 25°-30° C. The grapes started turning red immediately’.

More reports

I have made complementary overviews:

Wine harvest is over worldwide

Friday, October 26th, 2007

In the Northern Hemisphere most of the last wine grapes were picked by the 20th of October. I already reported on how the harvest started early. So the harvest period is about two months long.

Todd uses a PulseAir system to aerate a two ton fermenter of estate pinot noir, by Anne Amie Vineyards, OregonInside reports on the 2007 harvest season come from:

Go have a look at pictures of the impressive harvesting machine at Château Lacayot (with French captions).

Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac excellently explained how grapes are turned into wine a year ago.

It is a little early to assess the quality of the vintage. Bear in mind that vintage quality is a complex concept. Nevertheless it is possible that the quality will go down for many French wines made in 2007. (I feel this while reading a few French ‘vignerons’ report on their ‘vendanges’.)

We already know that the volumes produced will be low in many places. This is a problem for the revenues of the producers. This is not a question on the quality of the wines. The reports of low volume come from Oregon, California, France (the article is in French), Italy.

Regions which produce as much wine this year as the previous year include Bordeaux.

It is urgent that you consider making your own wine from bought grapes. Or wait for next year!

Anjou wines: an overview

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Anjou is a sprawling region that begins near Chinon and rambles west along the southern bank of the Loire for over fifty miles. Angers, the area’s major city, is a worthy place for an afternoon visit. The main attraction is a remarkable artwork dating from the 1300’s called the Apocalypse Tapestry. It has been recently installed in a stunning exhibition hall at the Chateau d’Angers – a formidable medieval structure that dominates the city’s center. Your Michelin Guide will give you the details, but let us state: for anyone even vaguely interested in the arts, the Apocalypse Tapestry is mandatory.

Skeleton with arms of René d'Anjou, by pantuflaThe wines of Anjou are the most diverse and satisfying of the Loire. Anjou is a godsend for afficionados of sweet white wine, there are numerous small producers making delicious, balanced and potentially long-lived Grains Nobles Chenin Blancs. I visited farmers with holdings of four or five oak barrels of richly sweet Coteaux du Layon mulling away in the backshed. Some of these vignerons, like Jo Pithon and Patrick Baudouin, and Philippe Delesvaux quickly sell out their wines.

The ‘95 and ‘96 vintages at well-known domaines such as Domaine des Baumard produced brilliant sweet and demi-sec wines – in copious amounts. Baumard’s most important vineyard, in the microclimate called Quarts-de-Chaume, produces an exotic sweet Chenin that has to be tasted to be believed. In relation to its counterparts in Alsace and Sauternes, Quarts-de-Chaume is both underrated and underpriced.

By way of contrast, we found a manifestation of the eccentric and grand side of the wine industry at Chateau des Fesles; this vast property was owned by the highly regarded Boivin family and was sold in 1991 to the legendary (in France, anyway) Gaston Lenôtre. Lenôtre, a renowned pastry chef and restaurant entrepreneur, attempted to create a wine merchandising empire. He amassed a wonderful portfolio of vineyards – but four years and a gazillion francs later, he ditched them. The sugary remnants of Lenôtre’s pastry museum were still scattered throughout the winery’s main building and tasting rooms when we first visited there in 1996. Now, it has been magnificently restored by the Bordeaux-based Germain group, who have effectively rejuvenated Chateau des Fesles’ venerable status.

This estate has holdings in the appellation of Bonnezeaux, another tiny and undervalued source of delicious, earthy, sweet Layon; along with Quarts-de-Chaume, it is of cru status; to qualify as Bonnezeaux, wines are required to reach 230 grams of natural sugar. In other parts of the Layon, recent law allows for any vigneron in the Layon to use the designation Selections de Grains Nobles (S.G.N.) provided they declare their intent before the harvest and the wines are judged to be of natural sugar equalling or exceeding 298 grams of sugar per liter. The application of this label is becoming popular, but some producers still print vin liquoreux (critics of this style of densely sweet wine discuss the “Selections de Grains Nobles” designation disparagingly. As one producer of the nervier Bonnezeaux put it: “With alcohol and sugars levels so high, they should just call liquor, liquor”).

Vendange tardive devotees will discover a rich cache in the Anjou, but fans of dry whites should visit Savennières, a small appellation to the north of the Loire river – just across from the Coteaux du Layon.

Anyway, there is much to discover in Anjou and here at I try to describe a few of the highlights. Please read my article on Loire sweet wines and subscribe to the site feed to be noticed of the upcoming article on Savennières.
For details on the classification and the geography The Wine Doctor is a good resource.