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.”
The 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.