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The Successful Collector – Value at the premium end in France

Where to Find Value in Top French wines
by Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

When venturing into the potentially prohibitive arena of premium French wine buying in VINTAGES, enthusiasts may have to dodge a few landmines to score the best finds. Even then, what is ‘premium’ by French standards? Subliminally speaking, $40-50 is often the starting point, which is still quite a lot of money to spend on any single bottle of wine, to say nothing of those costing a great deal more. What vinous liquids from the world’s most illustrious winegrowing nation could possibly be worth the extra cash?

The answer is largely subjective, though commentators and sommeliers over the years have reached some form of consensus. In each case, overall quality and aging potential are among the two most important factors.

Logo UGCC JEPGFor whites, Grand Cru Chablis is routinely at the top of the list, with prices ranging between $50-100. Compare this to a single bottle of Corton-Charlemagne, which usually fetches at least $200. In the words of UK-based expert Hugh Johnson: “Parity would be closer to justice.” Regrettably, the same cannot be said of most other white Burgundies.

Further north, outlays for the best dry whites of Alsace have long remained remarkably reasonable. Of special interest are the finest examples of riesling and gewürztraminer, usually hailing from specific parcels within the region’s many Grand Cru vineyards. In VINTAGES, the best examples typically fetch around $30-85. Such wines are not only intensely flavoured and downright delectable, but are usually just as ageworthy as their counterparts in Burgundy or Bordeaux. Why the best dry whites of Alsace continue to fetch such comparatively low prices is beyond me.

On the red side of the spectrum, there are an even larger number of choices. The only catch is that Bordeaux and Burgundy really aren’t the best places to be looking for them. Instead, buyers should arguably be on the lookout for the greatest offerings of the Rhône (particularly the southern appellations) and Midi, where both overall quality and ageability have skyrocketed over the past fifteen years.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in picturesque Gigondas, where wines mainly consist of grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre. About a half-hour’s drive northeast of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (the most famous appellation in the region), the greatest producers nowadays manage to coax astounding concentration, character, and ageing potential out of their wines. On VINTAGES shelves, most Gigondas costs between $30-70, the best representing astounding value for money when compared to the costliest Châteauneufs, the latter easily surpassing $125. Southwest of here, the finest wines of Vacqueyras are also turning heads.


Picturesque Gigondas

The same can also be said of the Midi (Languedoc-Roussillon), the crescent-shaped portion of Mediterranean France that was mostly recognized for its bulk wine in the past. Not anymore. Nowhere in the country has quality leapt so high in such a short period of time as this gorgeously rugged set of winegrowing areas. In most places, the same grapes as the Southern Rhône dominate the best bottlings, though old-vine carignan is also highly prized. While specific appellations are too varied to list, prices in VINTAGES often begin as low as $30 for some truly exemplary offerings, rising to $60 or more on a few occasions. Compared, once again, to Bordeaux or Burgundy, such wines are a proverbial steal.

Switching to sparklings, every French wine lover understands that Champagne is the most celebrated of its type in the world, though value at the premium end is oftentimes viewed as a contradiction in terms. After all, even the most basic, non-vintage offerings begin at $40 or more in Ontario. As a result, many enthusiasts tend to overlook the more costly vintage-stated versions. But these are precisely the wines to watch out for, especially those from $60-100. Though admittedly not of the same quality as a super-extravagant cuvée like Cristal (nearly $300), such wines are nonetheless almost always profoundly superior to their non-vintage counterparts, capable of cellaring for at least several years.

Then there are the innumerable sweet wines of France. Believe it or not, this is where Bordeaux shines brighter than most of its counterparts, for the likes of Sauternes and Barsac are among the most truly inimitable types of botrytis-affected dessert wines around. Despite the amount of skilled labour and material costs involved, wondrous examples may be had in the range of $40-75, most in 375-mL bottles. Though much cheaper versions are available elsewhere, the quality is oftentimes simply not the same. Hence, along with the fantastic chenin blanc-based dessert wines of the Loire (these simply cannot be omitted), this is arguably the one instance where the most famous examples truly represent the best buys.

Of course, there are many other premium wines throughout France that have not been listed here. From the most prized reds of Madiran and Cahors in the Southwest to the spellbinding Vouvrays (plus a few from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé) in the Loire, the number of choices at the luxury level are unimaginable. But this is a column about the truly best of the best, combining both colossal quality and long-term ageability (hence my need to append a few names just a moment ago, along with mourvèdre-based Bandol in Provence and top single-cru Beaujolais). In the end, there will always be an astounding number of tolerably priced premium French wines to choose from, as well as plenty that, in true draconian style, will have to be left out.

My top choices:

Domaine William Fèvre 2011 Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Grand Cru ($90.00) is sourced from a 2.11-ha parcel of old vines at the foot of the vineyard. Showcasing fantastic harmony, character, and charm, it’s wines like these that get me so excited about Grand Cru Chablis. Drink now or hold for six years or more.

Domaine Christian Moreau 2011 Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru ($65.00) is a perfect illustration of how underpriced Grand Cru Chablis currently stands. For the record: I wrote up this wine in glowing terms in a previous column, yet there are still a few bottles left. Such elegance and harmony! Not to be missed. Drink now or hold for up to nine years.

Trimbach 2010 Réserve Riesling ($27.95) has been selected not just because of its price (nor because pickings at the moment in VINTAGES are rather slim), but mainly on account of its remarkable quality. From one of the greatest producers in Alsace, this has all the elements of a premium wine, minus the cost. Drink now or hold for five years or more.

E. Guigal 2009 Gigondas ($31.95) is a wine of great power, focus, and clarity of fruit. From one of the most famous producers in the Rhône, this surpasses a whole horde of basic Châteauneufs we wine commentators routinely examine every year. Drink now or hold for ten years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Montirius 2011 Les Clos Vacqueyras ($32.00) delivers both excellent freshness and focus for a wine of its type. As a whole, this producer has consistently delivered both high quality and value over the past several years, making for some very worthy recommendations. Drink now or hold for five years or more. Decanting is recommended.

Domaine William Fèvre Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Grand Cru 2011Christian Moreau Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru 2011Trimbach Réserve Riesling 2010 E. Guigal Gigondas 2009Montirius Le Clos Vacqueyras 2011

Château Puech-Haut 2011 Prestige St-Drézéery ($29.95) encapsulates virtually everything I’ve said about the remarkable value of Midi-based wines, particularly from a standpoint of both quality and ageability. From an especially well-regarded establishment, I have yet to taste a non-overachiever from here. Drink now or hold for up to eight years. Decanting is recommended.

Moët & Chandon 2004 Grand Vintage Brut Champagne ($83.95) is well less than half the price of Dom Pérignon and yet of truly wonderful quality. Retaining tremendous precision and harmony (not to mention exemplary fruit expression and style), sparkling lovers will not want to miss out on this exemplary vintage champagne. Drink now or hold for up to twelve years.

Larmandier-Bernier 2007 Terres de Vertus Vintage Brut Champagne ($75.00) packs a great deal of firepower for such a young vintage. Boasting considerable intensity and harmony, I’m amazed VINTAGES hasn’t made greater efforts to source more champagnes from this particular house. Drink now or hold for up to ten years.

Château de Myrat 2009 Barsac ($28.00) is not just ridiculously underpriced, but is also likely the best wine ever produced at this estate. Combining resolute harmony with acute deliciousness, this 375-mL bottle serves as a liquid testament to how undervalued great Barsac (along with Sauternes) continues to be. Drink now or hold for up to twenty years.

Château Puech Haut Prestige Saint Drézéry 2011Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Champagne 2004Larmandier Bernier Terres De Vertus Vintage Brut Champagne 2007Château De Myrat 2009

Readers may want to take note that there are many other exemplary wines currently available in VINTAGES that have not been listed as recommendations. This is because I either do not have evaluations for them, or because they are wines from alternate vintages that are no longer available in stores. All price ranges have been researched so as to reflect current availability.


Julian Hitner

Editors Note: You can find Julian’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

All Julian Hitner Reviews

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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES May 24 – Part Two

Spring Pinks and Great Red Values from France, Spain, Portugal
by David Lawrason with John Szabo and Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The finest whites of VINTAGES May 24 offering were unveiled last week in Part One of our ongoing double-barreled reports on each and every VINTAGES release. You can also check out the best of the southern Rhônes, which I felt was a strong group value-wise overall, even if a couple of higher end 2011 Châteauneufs were disappointing. But as always happens, the Rhône overshadows the wines of the neighbouring appellations in Languedoc-Roussillon, two of which make my highlight reel this week along with a lovely pinkie from the inlandish (not outlandish) Fronton appellation. Big reds from Spain and Portugal also figure very strongly on the menu between John Szabo and I, including an exhilarating, ridiculously inexpensive Madeira. Sara’s selections range farther and wider, with whites, pinks and somewhat lighter reds, including a pleasant home-grown surprise.

The Stars Align

Les YeusesQuinta Do Vale Meao 2011 Meandro Do ValeMeandro Do Vale Meão 2011, Douro, Portugal ($24.95). Although this label does not have a long history, its excellent vineyards do – at one point contributing to Portugal’s legendary red called Barca Velha. There are several indigenous grape varieties involved, as well as soil types within the vineyard. The fruit complexity and concentration are front and centre in the cellar-worthy red. David Lawrason.  This has been a regular feature on my best buys list, and the 2011 vintage was outstanding in the region to be sure. I suspect that perhaps the best grapes from Vale Meão were mostly directed to make vintage port (understandably), or their top dry Douro red cuvée; but in any case the 2nd wine “Meandro” shows a nice measure of freshness and vibrancy, balanced tannins and decent length and depth – an infinitely drinkable wine with solid regional character and class. John Szabo

Domaine Les Yeuses 2011 Les Épices Syrah, IGP Pays d’Oc, Languedoc, France ($14.95). Here’s another fine value syrah from Les Yeuses, which has been on my best buys lists every time it has been released. Although the price has crept up slightly, this delivers pure syrah character in the form of cold cream, black pepper, wood smoke, espresso bean and more. How that much flavour is stuffed into a $15 bottle is a happy mystery. John Szabo.  I have hit on this great syrah value before. Can’t believe the price/quality ratio! It’s old vine syrah grown on 70 hectares of calcareous soils very near the Mediterranean. Very good weight, density, a real garrigue based Mediterranean red. (Keen eyed label gazers will note this now uses the new EuroUnion IGP designation instead of the former French term IGT.)  David Lawrason.

Lawrason’s Take

Château Bellevue La Forêt 2013 Rosé, Fronton, Southwest France ($14.95). I continue to be impressed by the value emanating from this 112 ha estate that lies west of Toulouse, midway between the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Several varieties grow well in this middle zone, with this rosé being composed of negrette (a deeply coloured red thought to be the same as mavro from Crete), gamay and cabernet franc. The combo creates an intriguing aromatic collage, nicely delivered in a very fresh style. Since 2008 this property has been owned by Philip Grant, a businessman who earned his WSET diploma while flitting around the globe.

Domaine De Bila-Haut 2011 Occultum Lapidem, Côtes de Roussillon-Villages ($25.95). Michel Chapoutier is the world’s leading producer of organic reds made from syrah, grenache and carignan, with vineyards in the Australia, the Rhône Valley and Roussillon, a hot corner of southern France famous for its tough, terraced terrain. This is a behemoth – very powerful, highly structured and complex. Not advised for summer sipping. If you want to dial down a notch try little brother M. Chapoutier Les Vignes De Bila-Haut Côtes Du Roussillon Villages that is also on this release. Or buy both and compare.

Bodega San Roque De Le Encina 2010 Monte Pinadillo, Crianza, Ribera del Duero, Spain ($19.95). I am generally not a huge fan of heavily oaked reds. There needs to be enough fruit stuffing and richness to carry the load, which this 100% tempranillo provides. I was surprised by the depth actually especially at the price, and even more surprised to discover later that it is from a co-operative winery that claims to be one of the first in what is now one of the “hottest” regions of Spain. This could work around the BBQ this summer, later in the evening.

Château Bellevue La Forêt Rosé 2013 Domaine De Bila Haut Occultum Lapidem 2011  Monte Pinadillo Crianza 2010Altocedro Año Cero Malbec 2011Broadbent Rainwater Medium Dry Madeira

Altocedro 2011 Año Cero Malbec La Consulta, Mendoza, Argentina ($21.95). Founded by an Argentine family in 1989, this single vineyard estate in the higher La Consulta region, with its cool nights and rocky soils has caught my attention before. They use an artisan, vineyard driven approach which delivers bushels of fruit within a quite streamlined framework. Many Argentine malbecs can be powerful, but coarse. This has some poise.  There were other good value Argentine and Chilean wines on this release as well.

Broadbent Rainwater Medium-Dry Madeira, Portugal ($20.95). Madeira is considered by some to be one of the planet’s great wines, although in this day and age it is considered an antique. I can only suggest that if you are a lover of flavour rather than style that you give Madeira a try before it becomes extinct. The famous British wine writing Broadbent family have made it their mission to preserve this natural treasure. This is scintillating and delicious with outstanding length. And the price is ridiculously cheap.

Szabo’s Smart Buys

Telmo Rodriguez Lz 2012Castro Ventosa 2010 El Castro De ValtuilleCastro Ventosa El Castro De Valtuille 2010, Bierzo, Spain ($27.95). Regular readers will already know of my fondness for the wines of Bierzo. The predominance of old bush-trained vines, the moderate, fresh climate, and the quality of the mencía variety itself are all contributing factors; then add in one of the regions top winegrowers, Raúl Pérez of Castro Ventosa to the mix, and the results are irresistible. I was first introduced to the wines of this estate by the sommelier from El Bulli during a conference in Spain a few years ago, and have sought out them out ever since. This is a really cracking value, for fans of finesse and elegance with genuine substance and depth. Best 2014-2022.

Telmo Rodriguez 2012 LZ, Rioja, Spain ($15.95). What a fine and delicious value from Telmo Rodriguez, lively and juicy, balanced and fresh, not to mention infinitely drinkable, especially with a gentle chill. (Psst, I like it too – DL)

Sara’s Selections

Bernard Massard Cuvée De l’Écusson Brut Rosé, Luxembourg ($21.95). Bernard Massard is the largest producer of traditional method sparkling wines in Luxemburg and exports a great deal of their wine to Canada, most notably to Quebec. The winery and vineyards are located along the banks of the Moselle river that forms part of the German-Luxembourg border. The soil is made up of limestone in the north of the valley which is ideal for sparkling wine production. This is not the first time I’ve recommended a bubbly from this Luxemburg house that seems to consistently over-deliver. Pleasant, succulent and boasts above average quality for the price.

Mission Hill Family Estate 2012 Reserve Pinot Gris, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, ($14.75). Here is yet another selection that I find consistently appealing and of terrific value. The style is dry and weighty, reminiscent of Alsace but the palate is clean, neat and rather generous giving the wine a unique B.C. character.

St. Supéry 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California ($22.95). The patriarch of the Skalli family, owner of St. Supéry, come from a long line of Southern French wine producers. He fell in love with Napa in the 1970s around the time of the legendary “Judgement of Paris” – the catalyst for the rise of US wine. The winery now owns an astounding 1,500 acres of which they primarily focus on cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc. This example is uniquely expressive of Napa’s propensity to produce sauvignon of great depth and character, especially when planted in cooler, more elevated areas.

Bernard Massard Cuvée De L'écusson Brut RoséMission Hill Family Reserve Pinot Gris 2012St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc 2012Henry Of Pelham Family Tree Red 2012Château Saransot Dupré Cru Bourgeois 2010

Henry Of Pelham 2012 Family Tree Red, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($18.95). The 2012 Family Tree Red is half Rhône and half Bordeaux (48% syrah and the rest traditional Bordelaise varietals). What caught me off-guard was the wonderfully wild and complex nose of dried herbs, pepper, earth and dark fruit. It is very approachable, and intentionally so, but offers a little unexpected challenge that will please the more discerning wine drinker of the house.

Château Saransot Dupré 2010, Listrac, Bordeaux, France ($28.95). It is worth taking note of this wonderfully distinctive and harmonious Bordeaux. The blend offers great concentration with a solid core of fruit and expertly ripened tannins. Wood is seamlessly integrated in a fashion mastered by the Bordelaise and the wine is full of pepper, black fruit and musk. A touch of carmenere may go unnoticed but it surely adds to the complexity of the whole.

Château D'aquéria Tavel Rosé 2013Château Camp De La Hire 2010Château Camp De La Hire 2010, Castillon Côtes De Bordeaux, France ($16.95). This malbec dominant Bordeaux from the lesser-known right bank appellation of Castillon is both classic and compelling but still quite tightly wound. If you’re looking for an affordable addition to your cellar that will come to maturity in the next 3-4 years, look no further – but be sure to decant if immediate enjoyment is your goal.

Château d’Aquéria 2013 Tavel Rosé, Rhône Valley, France ($21.95). A perennial favourite, Château D’Aquéria’s 2013 is a classic example of the dry, powerful, complex and nervy roses that can only come from Tavel. Despite the increase in price, the wine delivers both the charming garrigue of the Southern Rhône and the touch of austerity that are distinctive of the house.

And that is a wrap for this edition. If you have not yet done so please check out Steve Thurlow’s new report on new releases and promotions from the LCBOs General List, and stay tuned next week for John Szabo’s look at VINTAGES’ Australian feature in the June 7 release. At that time I will also be publishing a WineAlign feature on Ten New Perceptions of Australia following a visit earlier this year. Until then: They say “money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy wine, and that’s pretty much the same thing”.

Until next time,

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From VINTAGES May 24 Release:

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Selections
All Reviews
May 24 – Part 1

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Is France the Birthplace of Terroir? by John Szabo, MS

The following piece roughly outlines a presentation I delivered at the 2014 Vancouver Wine Festival. The Title of the seminar was: France: The Birthplace of Terroir. Please leave your comments.

John Szabo, MSLet’s bring this gathering to order. I’m John Szabo and I’ll be leading and moderating this tasting. In the interest of time, I’ll save the introductions of the panelists we have with us today for when their respective wines come up for discussion. We’ve a great deal to cover and there’s never enough time. We’ll be tackling the very essence of fine wine and the rich concept of “terroir”.

Which brings me to the title of the seminar: France: the Birthplace of Terroir: Admittedly, it’s a controversial title, and I’m sure many looked at this and thought: “ahh, here we go again, another instance of Gallic arrogance”.

But let me assure you that this is not a seminar designed to prove that France is the only country with terroir. Nor is it to show that France makes the world’s best wines.

Though while I didn’t come up with the theme – I was simply asked to moderate – by way of introduction, allow me to suggest a defense of the fact that France is indeed the birthplace of terroir.  (And note that this is my take, and not that of Wines of France, or Sopexa’s or of any of the panelists here). And while it may not be airtight, I hope it’s at least controversial, and that it causes some arguments before the end of the day.

So bear with me for a few minutes as I make my case.

Let’s start with a definition of terroir:

“Vitivinicultural ‘terroir’ is a concept that refers to an area where the collective knowledge amassed from, on the one hand, the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment, and on the other hand, applied vitivinicultural practices, imparts distinctive characteristics on the products originating from that area.”

This is the definition of terroir as agreed upon by the OIV (International Office of Vines and Wines) in Georgia in 2010.

Master Class TastingIn other words, terroir is not just about the dirt, or the weather patterns over time that become climate, or the particular wildflowers and bugs flitting about in the vineyards. If such were the limited definition of terroir than it would have no birthplace, or rather the birthplace would be the entire earth at its very beginnings.

But if we admit that terroir is also about “collective knowledge” amassed over time, and the resulting “applied practices” that lead to something distinctive and recognizable, then the human element becomes a critical part of the concept of terroir. In other words, it takes both place and people. And I tend to agree with this.

To fully understand any terroir, it has to be observed and studied deeply. And those observations must be recorded accurately so that they can be transmitted over time. Knowledge must be amassed and shared, and passed down so that a picture of something unique, consistent and recognizable can come into focus.

And in order for this careful observation and sharing to happen, I’d say it’s also critical not be hamstrung along the way by commercial needs or basic survival, as perhaps some of the winemakers in the room might agree.

If your actions as a winegrower are driven solely by the need to get a product out the door to keep the business afloat, or to get rich, or in order to have something more drinkable than a medieval water source for the year, you’re not very likely to do what it takes to unlock the secrets, and therefore potential, of your particular patch of dirt.

And even if you hit upon some of these secrets, you’re not likely motivated to share them with the neighbors, who are also competitors. And as the average farmer in the Middle ages, nor are you likely to have the critical skills, or time, to observe, record and pass on for posterity. Most of the people actually working the land were illiterate, landless serfs.

Gerard Bertrand La ForgeSo it takes the right people under the right circumstances to develop the concept of terroir. It’s not just green-thumbed men and women of the land, but also those with time, lots of time on their hands, with a safe and secure roof over their heads, with assured food on their table, and the ability to record what happened and what was done each season. It’s even more likely to happen when you have a community of like-minded individuals all working towards the same goal, and not in competition with one another.

And above all, to discover terroir, it takes supreme humility. The process should be ego-less, with the realization that you can’t pre-impose your ideal of what the product should taste like, or what you believe the market wants to buy, lest what the land has to say fall on deaf ears.

And finally, in the case of vitivinicultural terroir, this utopian community has to be in the right part of the planet where the climate and soils are suitable for growing grapes, and you must have the right grapes available.

And so that’s why it can be said that concept of terroir has a birthplace: it took an extraordinarily unique set of circumstances to converge in time and space for the concept to form.

So why is France the birthplace of terroir? One simple reason: religion.

Chateau de BeaucastelNow, France is hardly the birthplace of religion. But it is the birthplace of a particular aspect of Christianity that would make the unencumbered study of terroir possible: monastic life.

That’s right: monks (much less so nuns). Monasticism is the devotional practice of individuals who live ascetic, cloistered lives dedicated to worship, with ideals that are largely at variance with those pursued by most of us. And in all aspects of life, monastics are guided by Jesus’ urging to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Monks, therefore, with no worldly goals, with ample time to devote to their labours, their safe, cloistered surroundings, their ability to read and write and share information, their comfort at the knowledge of living within a community devoted to its mutual upkeep and well-being, were the perfect candidates to give birth to the concept of terroir.

And making wine, since wine is a critical component of the Eucharist, was naturally one of the products Christian monks sought to produce.

Now, of course, the Greeks and the Romans and certainly the Georgians long before them recognized that different vineyards made better or less good wine, more ageworthy and less ageworthy. And we know that they made attempts to improve upon their products.

But it wasn’t a complete understanding of terroir as defined by the OIV. The time, and the systematic methodology, and all of the others circumstances mentioned here above (especially the humility and the need to be free from commercial constraints), wouldn’t come together until quite some time later, and it would happen in France.

Simonnet - Febvre ChablisChristian Monasticism was introduced in Western Europe by Saint Martin of Tours, who founded the first monastery in what is France today, the Abbey of Marmoutier just outside the city of Tours in the Loire Valley, around 372 AD.

Martin of Tours is still remembered on November 22nd each year as the patron saint of wine growers (and beggars). But Saint Martin is far from the whole story, and we’re not quite at the birth of terroir just yet.

The story shifts briefly to Italy, and to the Benedictines, who were the biggest monastic deal of the middle ages. Saint Benedict founded the Benedictine Order around 529AD with a monastery at Subiaco in Lazio. But Italy would miss its chance to fully claim the birthplace of terroir for a couple of reasons (although they did a lot for winegrowing to be sure).

Firstly, Benedictine monasteries were not centralized; each house operated more or less in isolation and information wasn’t shared between houses. And secondly, and more importantly, by the 11th century, many of the Benedictine orders had gone commercial, you might say.

The Cluny Abbey, for example, was the largest in Europe, and had become wealthy from rents, tithes, feudal rights and pilgrims who passed through Cluniac houses on the Way of St. James. The massive endowments, powers and responsibilities of the Cluniac abbots had drawn them into the affairs of the secular world, and their monks had abandoned manual labour to serfs. In other words, they had lost their connection to the land, without which no concept of terroir can be born.

Then in 1098, a Benedictine abbot, Robert of Molesme, left his monastery in Burgundy with a handful of supporters, who felt that the Cluniac communities had abandoned the rigours and simplicity of the original Rule of St. Benedict. He founded the first Cistercian monastery in the village of Cîteaux, near Dijon, close to Nuits-St-Georges. The term Cistercian derives in fact from Cistercium, the Latin name for the village of Cîteaux.

The Cistercians took to a pure and acetic life with counter-culture zealousness, and in various points went well beyond the austerity of the original rule of Benedict. The emphasis of Cistercian life was on manual labour and self-sufficiency, supporting themselves especially through agriculture and other activities like hydraulic engineering and metallurgy, and also notably, brewing ales. We owe those fine Trappist ales to the Cistercians.

The Cistercians quickly became the main diffusers of technological innovation in the medieval world. The order spread all over western Europe, into Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Croatia, Italy, Sicily, Kingdom of Poland, Kingdom of Hungary, Norway, Sweden, Spain and Portugal. At the order’s height in the 15th century, it would have nearly 750 houses.

It was a monk named Alberic, successor to the founder Robert, who would become a critical figure in the birth of terroir. He forged an alliance with the Dukes of Burgundy, and engineered the donation of the monastery’s first vineyard in Meursault. Then an Anglo-Saxon Abbot named Stephen Harding, who had in turn succeeded Alberic, began to acquire farms for the abbey to ensure both the survival of its brothers and of their work ethic, the first of which was the Clos Vougeot.

So, with all of the terroir-favorable benefits of monastic life, farming what was then, as now, some of the most suitable vineyard land in the known world, with a handful of excellent quality grapes, these monks set about making wine in the image of God: perfect. And perfection in this sense didn’t mean plentiful, nor commercially attractive. Perfection was as humble and accurate a picture of their God-given patch of land as possible.

Over centuries, the monks devoted themselves to deferentially studying their vineyards, observing a lifetime’s worth of vintages with heavenly patience, and amassing through the years a wealth of collective knowledge of “the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment, and applied vitivinicultural practices that came to impart distinctive characteristics on the products originating from that area.” The concept of terroir as we know it today came into sharp relief, and, one could say, was born.

Romain Duvernay HermitageToday, of course, France has no monopoly on terroir. The Cistercians shared knowledge between all of their houses throughout Europe, and the concept has since spread to every corner of the winemaking planet. But the land that is in France today, and the monks who devoted their lives to it, do make a strong case for having evolved the concept of terroir. It’s something to consider in any case.

Following are some general terroir themes and over arching questions to be considered during the tasting.

Matt Kramer ranted recently about our obsession with precision brought about by technology and things like GPS. He writes:

 “We live in a world of pinpoint precision. We now expect total certainty when identifying what taste the land will yield. The boundaries of Burgundy’s vineyards that were sanctified by the French government no doubt always suggested “precision and certainty.” But in an earlier era, it was understood that such boundaries, like stone walls separating land parcels, charted force fields of flavor more than anything that could be calibrated absolutely.”

So then, how precise is terroir? Does it chart, as Kramer suggests, more of a range of possible flavours rather than an exact and predictable expression? Or does greater precision mean greater terroir?

What are the viticultural and winemaking techniques that best reveal terroir, and which mask it?

There are surely some great and unique terroirs that struggle to sell their wines. So what is the relationship between selling price and terroir?

More obliquely, since science doesn’t have all of the answers, and we can’t measure, for example, minerality, or even less quantify “terroir” in a wine, I wonder then, can atheists make wines of “terroir”, or can atheists truly appreciate wines of terroir? In other words, does making, or appreciating vin de terroir require a leap of faith of sorts, a belief in something that can’t really be proved?

If you have any thoughts on these issues or on terroir in general  – leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for February 15th 2014

France in the Spotlight and the Benefits of Doing Nothing

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In order to give our readers more comprehensive coverage of new releases, we’ve tweaked the newsletter format slightly to combine forces. Each month you’ll receive two reports focused on the bi-weekly/monthly themes from both VINTAGES and LCBO listings, with recommendations from several WineAlign critics, as well as two reports highlighting the best of the rest, with multiple critics weighing in. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

France is the theme for this week’s newsletter, focused on the VINTAGES February 15th release and the LCBO February thematic. I’ve selected ten recommended wines in the bubbles, and under and over $25 categories, red and white, from VINTAGES, and David Lawrason has added his list of smart buys from the LCBO. Next week we’ll cover the rest of the release. Read more.

The February 15th release sees a solid collection of wines from across France arriving in Ontario, with a stereotypical north-south price divide. As often seems the case in Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy and France, household income, cost of living and wine prices increase as one travels north. The flip-side is that the best wine values (and weather, and olive oil) are often in the south. The model holds mostly true in this release.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

It was inevitable that quality French wines would come back into fashion after several years of slumping sales, posting positive growth in Ontario last year that looks set to continue. The reason is that all truly great and unique wines will eventually find their market. This is not comforting news to corporations who live and die by their quarterly returns, but for generational family-owned operations it’s a fact of life. As a wine grower in the 21st century, sometimes you just have to stay true to your course and what your terroir can offer, and wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

Among the many challenges in the wine business is that while fashions change overnight, wine styles cannot. Producers are usually doomed to failure trying to follow market trends, since by the time they’ve managed to shift their wine style to meet current market demand for what’s “hot” (re-planted or re-grafted vineyards to new varieties or sourced different fruit, re-tooled the cellar with new equipment, barrels, changed grape growing and winemaking protocols, etc.), the market has usually moved on.

A case in point is the aptly named 2010 Château De Gaudou Renaissance Cahors Cuvée Boisée ($22.95). This is a wine, which, from my perspective, has missed the beat on the market. It’s a pure oak infusion, exceedingly boisée, with over ripe fruit that has little or nothing to do with Cahors, or France for that matter, and would be much more at home in a large Mendozan co-op. What’s more, the same style can be had for much less from Argentina, and it’d probably be better, too.

Despite the popularity of malbec, Cahors (which is made from mainly malbec) remains a relatively little-known appellation in southwest France, so I can see the temptation of trying to emulate a commercially popular style. But over oaked, over ripe malbecs from Argentina are already out of their short-lived moment in the spotlight. So why would I want to buy one from France at a premium? I’d be much more interested in an authentically rustic, flavoursome, typically old world style example, the kind that neither Argentina nor any other country can produce. Château de Gaudou has been at it for generations so no doubt they know what traditional Cahors tastes like. Eighteen months in 100% new oak be damned.

But enough about what not to drink. Here are the highlights, the French wines that taste like they come from France.


Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Brut ChampagneLouis Bouillot Perle D'aurore Brut Rosé Crémant De BourgogneFor inexpensive bubbles, consider the much improved Louis Bouillot Perle d’Aurore Brut Rosé Crémant De Bourgogne ($19.95). Relative to the last shipment, which was tired and oxidized, this bottling (no lot number listed, unfortunately – if only producers would give consumers a clue of what they’re buying) is much fresher and livelier, with a fine mouthful of bright red berry fruit and impressive complexity for the money. Be sure to check with your product consultant that what you’re buying is indeed the latest shipment and not the previous one that’s been sitting on the shelves for months and months.

On the premium side, the number of grower champagnes arriving in the market continues to grow, which is terrific news for drinkers in search of more original cuveés. One to seek out is the attractively priced Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Brut Champagne ($49.95). Pierre Paillard (not to be confused with Bruno Paillard) is a family operation now in its eighth generation, farming 22 hectares of grand cru vineyards in the village of Bouzy. This is an assemblage of 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay from 22 separate plots, aged 3.5 years on the lees, greater than the minimum required for vintage champagne. Just seven grams of dosage puts this on the drier side, while the palate balances power and finesse to great effect.

Whites Under $25

Terres Blanches Muscat Sec 2012 labelPaul Zinck Portrait Gewürztraminer 2011Domaine Gautheron Chablis 2012I challenge you to find a more genuine and authentic Muscat for less than the 2012 Terres Blanches Muscat Sec ($13.95). Made by the Cave des Vignerons de Frontignan from vineyards bordering the Mediterranean, this delivers all of the pungent, floral, grapey aromatics one could hope for from the variety. It would make a fine afternoon aperitif, or base for spritzers.

Another reliable aromatic white is the 2011 Paul Zinck Portrait Gewürztraminer ($19.95 ). “Portrait” is Zinck’s entry-level range, designed to highlight the characteristics of each grape (rather than a specific terroir), and this 2011 does precisely that. Wondering what a textbook, slightly off-dry Alsatian gewürztraminer tastes like? Try this.

Vincent Girardin Vieilles Vignes Chassagne Montrachet 2011In a similar vein of textbook regionality, Chablis drinkers will find familiarity and comfort in the 2012 Domaine Gautheron Chablis ($24.95). Seven generations in and not much has changed here; this is simply made, solid Chablis.

Whites Over $25

Head to Burgundy for a more premium French white: 2011 Vincent Girardin Vieilles Vignes Chassagne-Montrachet ($55.95). It’s a little tight and sharp at this stage, a touch leaner than the average for the appellation though true to vintage, but it also has a significant dose of wet chalky minerality and well-measured lees influence, plus a long finish, to indicate a very positive future. Try after 2015.

Spirited Reds Under $25

Domaine Lambrusques Esprit Sauvage 2011Domaine De Grangeneuve Esprit De Grenache Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2011Southern France delivers two attractive red values: 2011 Domaine Lambrusques Esprit Sauvage Pic Saint-Loup ($17.95) and 2011 Domaine De Grangeneuve Esprit De Grenache Côtes Du Rhône Villages ($20.95). Pic St-Loup is one of the top communal crus of the Languedoc in my estimation, and the Esprit Sauvage nicely captures the savage spirit of this craggy, rugged scrubland that sits under the Montagne de l’Hortus and the Pic St. Loup itself. It’s fleshy, ripe and mineral, with the freshness associated with this cooler sub-zone.

The appropriately named Esprit de Grenache is likewise a spirited essence of southern Rhône Grenache, full of warm strawberry pie flavours and the beguilingly soft, voluptuous texture of the grape.

Reds Over $25

Champy Les Champs Pimont Beaune 1er Cru 2010Daniel Rion & Fils Vieilles Vignes Nuits Saint Georges 2011It’s back north to Burgundy for a pair of premium reds: 2011 Daniel Rion & Fils Vieilles Vignes Nuits-Saint-Georges ($53.95) and 2010 Champy Les Champs Pimont Beaune 1er Cru ($58.95). While neither is at the pinnacle of what Burgundy has to offer – you have to pay a lot more than $60 for that – both are representative of their respective appellations. Rion’s Nuits St. Georges has the classic firmness and pleasant rusticity of the appellation and is another 2-4 years away from prime enjoyment, while the continually-improving Maison Champy’s Beaune 1er Cru is a fine and elegant, succulent and firm wine from a classic vintage with all of the finesse one hopes for from the appellation. Earlier maturing, this should be drinking nicely by 2015.

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle. Below, David Lawrason highlights more French wines from the LCBO regular listings – consider these attractively priced suggestions when value and satisfaction are the orders of the day.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the February 15, 2014 Vintages release:

John’s Top French Picks
All Reviews

New French Wines on the General List
David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The LCBO’s general list is also turning the spotlight onto French wines this month and has unveiled an impressive 35 new wines in recent weeks and month. Some of them are very good, authentic well-priced examples of the various regions and appellations. Here my six top picks, but all others are now reviewed on WineAlign as well.

L’Arjolle 2012 Sauvignon Blanc-Viognier ($11.95) is a clever and effective blend of sauvignon and viognier. Great value; think ahead to summer.

Jean Geiler Muscat Reserve Particuliere 2012 ($14.00) is a terrific example of Alsace’s most underrated variety. Great value; bring on a plate of mussels.

Chateau de Vaugelas 2011 Le Prieure Corbieres ($13.95) begins to fill a huge LCBO void in affordable, rustic and intriguing estate grown syrah-based blends from the south of France.

Mas des Montagnes Cotes du Roussillon Villages 2010 ($12.95) is very good value in authentic plummy, peppery red from the sunniest corner of France.

Joseph Drouhin Cote De Beaune-Villages 2010 ($23.75) is a light-weight but classic basic Burgundy with added stature and structure thanks to the excellent 2010 vintage.

Chateau Des Arroucats Sainte Croix Du Mont 2010 ($16.95) is a delicious Sauternes-style dessert wine from a neighbouring appellation. At this price you can’t afford not to test drive one of the world’s great wine styles.

L'arjolle Sauvignon Blanc Viognier 2012Jean Geiler Muscat Reserve Particuliere 2012Château De Vaugelas Le Prieuré Corbières 2011Mas De Montagnes 2010Joseph Drouhin Côte De Beaune Villages 2010Château Des Arroucats 2010

Editors Note: You can find our critics complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


Saltram Winemaker's Selection Shiraz Tempranillo 2010

Fortessa Canada Inc.

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages April 27 Release

Passing on Appassimento, France’s 2010s and Ten WOIs (Wines of Interest)

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

This is a large, rambling release with only one stylistic/regional theme – Italy’s appassimento wines. I will explain why I am lukewarm on appassimento wines, wherever they are made, then move on to more compelling topics. There are a handful of excellent 2010s from France, a vintage very much deserving to be on your radar. Then from there it’s a potpourri of ten WOIs – or Wines of Interest. They may be new, or rare, or surprising for any number of reasons, but all have made the list because their quality is high.

Why I Pass on Appassimento

Last week John Szabo penned a superb WineAlign essay on wines made by the appassimento technique of drying grapes toward raisin-hood in order to concentrate sugars and flavours. It leaves me nothing to do except explain, on a fairly subjective level, why I am not all that interested in the genre.

Appassimento particularly benefits reds made in cooler climates, so if all the world’s reds were made in Veneto or Ontario, I might be tempted to buy more appassimento. And when the world of Italian wine was much more narrow than it is today, amarone was indeed greeted as something magically rich and wonderful. But there are now simply far more choices in rich, buxom reds made elsewhere, particularly rich syrah/shiraz from Australia, South Africa, California, even B.C. And there are also many fully ripened reds from southern Italy and Spain that actually have similar flavour profiles to amarone. So, pass – especially when considering the next points.

The number two reason is price. By drying the grapes the yield per berry is lower and the price is justifiably higher. But increased weight and concentration does not always equate to higher quality to justify the price. I have had some great Italian amarones – and there are a couple of excellent ones on this release – but I have had far more not great Italian amarones that cost $30 to $60. Likewise, many of Ontario’s new appassimentos are quite expensive as well. Pass.

Le Arche Atesio Appassimento Rosso 2010Le Ragose Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2005The third reason is inconsistent quality. As John Szabo explains, the finished appassimento wine is only as good as the quality of the grapes going in. The process doesn’t manufacture quality; only weight and flavour concentration. And if the drying is not done carefully the grapes can develop volatile/acetic character which I find frequently in appassimento wines. So one has to be careful to choose the best producers, and nowadays in Veneto there are hundreds of producers of amarone and ripasso wines. And in Ontario the technique is sufficiently new and varied that a strong quality track record is not yet established.

Having said all that, here two recommended wines on this release. Le Ragose 2005 Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico is certainly not cheap at $62.95 but it is classic, mature, complex and compelling amarone that gets to the heart of the reason that the genre endures. And for those unwilling or unable to consider that price I also recommend Le Arche Atesio 2010 Appassimento Rosso at only $16.95. This is a wine that doesn’t try too hard to be an amarone; it is simply charming, youthful and well made.

France’s 2010 Vintage

In recent weeks and months we have begun to see the whites and reds of France’s excellent 2010 vintage arrive in some volume. No matter the region or grape variety any well-made 2010s have a certain energy, structure, purity and depth. I first noticed it a year ago when I spent a week in Alsace and tasted the new releases. There were dozens of scintillating whites. I moved on to Burgundy and the south of France directly after Alsace and found the same kind of tension and focus in the early releases there as well. Since then we have begun to see the first “minor” Bordeaux, the first premier cru Burgundy, and the bigger Chateauneuf-du-Papes. The winemakers of the Rhone are particularly excited.

Clos Du Roy 2010Domaine De Saint Siffrein Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010Delas Domaine Des Grands Chemins Crozes Hermitage 2010The weather was not uniform throughout all the French regions but there are some commonalities that begin to account for the quality. One is the lower than normal yield across the country thanks to a cold winter; with commensurate increase in flavour concentration (length of finish). The spring tended to be cool with a later start to the growing season, which was warm and balanced, with good warmth if not as sensationally hot and news-grabbing as 2009. With the later start, good fall weather was essential and Mother Nature delivered. So overall the grapes enjoyed a long, even ripening with natural acidity maintained, and tannin levels being in balance as well. And that’s what I really like about 2010 – the sense of balance and tension and evenness – not overripe, not underripe, not flabby, nor shrill. Here are some examples on this release.

Clos Du Roy 2010 Fronsac ($22.95) is a thoroughly impressive, solid yet forgiving and quite elegant young merlot-based red from the right bank of Bordeaux. Domaine De Saint Siffrein 2010 Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($41.95) is another in a string of solid 2010 southern Rhones that are reserved now, but will bloom in the cellar over the next five years, and could last for over a decade. Delas Domaine Des Grands Chemins 2010 Crozes-Hermitage ($31.95) is a 100% syrah from the northern Rhone that is also showing classic, age-worthy structure. (This is an In-Store Discovery found only in the largest Vintages stores).

Five White Wines of Interest

Mount Riley Chardonnay 2011La Cappuccina Soave 2012Loan Wines Unwooded Special Reserve Semillon 2004Loan Wines 2004 Unwooded Special Reserve Semillon from the Barossa Valley of South Australia is jaw-droppingly stunning. And amazing value at $15.95. For years I have extolled the virtues and value of Australian semillon, but this organically grown, fully mature example is the exclamation point. If you are at all a wine explorer you cannot afford to not buy a bottle.

La Cappuccina 2012 Soave ($14.95) is an organically grown garganega that points to a real renaissance in quality within this once boring, industrialized category. The Tessari family has been making wine in the region since 1890, but in 1985 they began the conversion to “slow wine” and organic grape growing. The resulting energy, balance and refinement is palpable, and remarkable for $15.

Mount Riley 2011 Chardonnay ($17.95) from New Zealand is of interest not just due its price, but due to its tight, Chablis-like cool climate structure. New Zealand in general and Marlborough in particular tends to be over-looked as a chardonnay producer – largely due to the omni-presence of its sauvignons. But this is a very good buy, partially fermented in new oak, but not the least oaky.

Lammershoek Roulette Blanc 2010Lunae Colli Di Luni Vermentino 2011Lammershoek 2010 Roulette Blanc from the Swartland region of South Africa ($21.95) is one of the most intriguing and best white blends of the Cape – from naturally farmed bush vines growing chenin blanc, chardonnay, viognier and clairette. It is barrel fermented but the oaking is very well handled. It’s complex, age-worthy and performs well above its price.

Lunae 2011 Colli Di Luni Vermentino ($20.95) is one of the best examples of vermentino that I have ever encountered. Colli di Luni is an appellation in eastern Liguria on Italy’s north Mediterranean coast. Cantina Lunae is a widely heralded producer with 65 ha planted on sand and gravel slopes overlooking the Mediterranean. Great vitality, finesse and exotic flavours here.

Five Red Wines of Interest

Maycas Del Limarí Reserva Especial Syrah 2009Hidden Bench Terroir Caché Meritage 2009Hidden Bench 2009 Terroir Caché Meritage ($32.95) from the Beamsville Bench of Niagara Peninsula is a dramatic statement for pressing on with Bordeaux varieties in Niagara, if winemakers are prepared to commit to quality and consumers are willing to pay for it. This is a surprisingly fine and ripe example from “a lighter, cooler vintage”, and from a sub-region of Niagara that is much better known for riesling, chardonnay and pinot. And I would put it up against any $35 Bordeaux you could name.

Maycas Del Limarí 2009 Reserva Especial Syrah ($19.95) is very good value, and a peek at the evolving quality and styling of Chilean syrah. The grape is relatively new in the long thin land, so still in the process of finding itself. Many still smell and taste more like cabernet or carmenere than syrah, but the northern, Pacific-cooled regions of Limari (with some limestone) and Elqui are showing more typical syrah character.

Quartz Reef 2010 Pinot Noir ($44.95) is from the Bendigo sub-region of Central Otago, New Zealand. It is of interest to me on many levels, including the fact it represents a specific sub-appellation of Central Otago. After spending five days there I came to appreciate that Otago is indeed more than one region. It is also of interest because it is biodynamically produced and because it is a very refined pinot noir.

Quartz Reef Pinot Noir 2010Morgenster Lourens River Valley 2005Torrevento Vigna Pedale Riserva 2008Morgenster 2005 Lourens River Valley ($25.95) is a mature example of a very serious, cabernet focused, Bordeaux-inspired house with vineyards in the slightly cooler Helderberg sub district of Stellenbosch near Somerset West. Pierre Lurton of Bordeaux is the winemaking consultant. You may not be a fan of Stellenbosch reds with their distinctive rubber band/tarry character – and you will find it here – but there are so many other attributes on display, for a shockingly low price.

Torrevento 2008 Vigna Pedale Riserva ($20.95) is from the Castel del Monte appellation of Puglia on the heel of Italy – an appellation that has been on my value radar for years. This red is from a low-yielding local grape called uva di troia, but it becomes a Wine of Interest largely due to its unique, exotic spiciness. And by the way, I would easily buy three bottles of this over one bottle of fine amarone.

That’s it for this edition. See you back here before the May 11 release. May warm weather wine drinking be with us all soon.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the April 27, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews


Stags' Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

New Zealand Wine Fair - Toronto May 9

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John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part III

Part III – Chinon-Saumur

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In this series, follow John Szabo and his terroir-hunting partner, Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Zacharkiw on an excellent adventure through the Loire Valley. If you are just tuning in, here are the links for the background piece, and then Part I and Part II of the travelogue.

Wednesday September 12th

We leave Jasnières and Domaine de Bellivière behind and head southwest back towards the river on winding country roads. To work or sleep is the question; I’m drowsy after the satisfying lunch and the couple of glasses of wine that weren’t spit, but overwhelmed by the dread of being a full week behind on articles and reviews when I get back to Toronto. Dread wins. I pull out the laptop and open my latest WineAlign tasting file and start editing Vintages release tasting notes. But soon, bumpy roads, sharp curves and fatigue take their toll. I shut the laptop and my eyelids.

Chinon Castle

Forteresse Royale de Chinon

When I wake up, I see buildings racing past. Bill tells me we’re just getting into Chinon, an ancient settlement of some 8,000 people on the banks of the Vienne River, about 10km from where the Vienne joins the Loire. I’ve been here a few times before; it’s a quaint town, famous for its largely intact, medieval fortress perched atop the limestone escarpment overlooking the town and the river. But this was no mere military outpost. Chinon’s castle once served as the royal residence for both the kings of France and England. Chinon is also the birthplace of François Rabelais, a major figure in French renaissance literature, who’s most famous work, Gargantua et Pantagruel, a satirical chronicle of father and son giants, gave us the English word “gargantuan”.

But Rabelais is most remembered in wine circles for his comforting quote: “Beuvez toujours, vous ne mourrez jamais”, meaning: “drink always and you’ll never die”. Rabelais, apparently, had a gargantuan appetite for food and drink. Though the fact that he’s dead now is not so comforting. There’s a large statue of Rabelais at the end of the main square on the bank of the Vienne, a subtle reminder to visitors and citizens that Chinon is also a wine-producing town, known world wide for its cabernet franc-based wines.

05:30 pm Check in at All Seasons Hotel, Chinon

We’re running about half an hour late, and there’s barely time to check into the hotel, hit send on emails and wash the French country road dust from my face before our next appointment. It doesn’t help that the hotel we’re supposed to check in to no longer exists, at least not under the name “All Seasons”. It’s been bought out by the large chain of IBIS hotels; Edith is thoroughly perplexed as we roll up to the address indicated on the itinerary only to find another hotel there. Loud sucking noises. She goes in to find out what’s up, and returns triumphantly two minutes later to let us know that we have indeed arrived.

05:45 Domaine Bernard Baudry – Chinon

Matthieu Baudry, Looking up to Coteaux

Matthieu Baudry, Looking up to Coteaux

Fifteen minutes later and we’re back on the road on the north side of the river, heading about five kilometers east to the small commune of Cravant-les-Coteaux, still within the Chinon appellation, to Domaine Bernard Baudry. Prosperity is evident as we cruise along the D21, passing estate after estate, with large, well-maintained buildings blending into the escarpment behind; after all, they’re carved out of the same stone. We pull into the gated courtyard of Domaine Baudry. Matthieu, Bernard’s son, is outside waiting for us in the late afternoon sun, looking casual in a t-shirt emblazoned with the Wine Aroma Wheel. He’s young, or at least my age, with a wide grin that’s just beginning to show the wrinkles that come from time spent working outdoors. We hit it off immediately. Matthieu is guileless and open, and I sense that it’s going to be another great visit.

Matthieu took over from his father ten years ago, though he chuckles as he tells us this since he can hardly call his father retired. There’s the loud, telltale clicking sound of a bottling line emanating from the adjacent building, and in fact, Bernard is in the next building bottling some 2011 wines throughout the time we’re at the domaine. We ask Matthieu for a tour of the vines, which he readily agrees to.

Chinon is an appellation of about 2500 hectares in total, divided into two very distinct areas. You’ll often hear producers refer to the wines from the graviers, the soils in the flatter part of the appellation north and south on the banks of the Vienne. As with the Gironde in Bordeaux or the Rhône in southern France, the current course of the Vienne is not the only one it has had. Over millennia, the river has meandered this way and that; each time the course changed, banks of gravel and sandy-clay alluvial deposits were left behind and exposed. These are the graviers, source of the lighter, more perfumed style of red Chinon. Matthieu shows us his parcel called Les Grézeaux, a vineyard planted in 1945, planted on the graviers. It’s flat and certainly gravelly, and almost within site of the Vienne itself. The adjacent plot of land just to the south closer to the river is grazing pastureland, outside of the AOC; such is the undemocratic nature of the appellation of origin system. There’s no equality when it comes to terroir; it’s a purely aristocratic-hierarchical system.

The vine trunks in Baudry’s Grézeaux parcel are thick and sturdy, and the bunches look healthy and taste ripe, almost ready to harvest, despite the challenging vintage conditions experienced here as in pretty much all of the Loire Valley in 2012. Matthieu credits the vines’ health and maturity to organic farming, the conversion to which he started almost from the day he took over (Baudry will be certified organic by Ecocert next year). Though he’s quick to point out that his father always had a qualitative approach. His work will be to continue to build on what his father had already started – there’s no need for a revolution here – just fine-tuning.

Bill asks Matthieu whether he’s interested in biodynamics. He replies that he is interested, but that he’s not ready yet to make the conversion. He’s still learning about the most effective ways to apply organics and doesn’t understand enough about biodynamics, even if he has a great deal of respect for those who follow the principles. He displays the sort of patience that anyone from North America has difficulty understanding. We want everything, and we want it now, and we rush headlong into projects. The perspective of multigenerational enterprise is largely lost on us. “One day, perhaps”, he says.


Hillside vs Plains

We jump back in the car and head up to another one of Baudry’s parcels called La Croix Boissée, this one located on the second main type of terroir in the appellation, the limestone hillsides. These coteaux vineyards sit above the sandy gravel plains on occasionally quite steep, south-facing slopes. You can see the pieces of fractured limestone mixed in with some clay on the surface, and the limestone bedrock, the one out of which buildings in this part of the Loire are constructed, is only a few dozen centimeters below. This is the origin of the more structured, and ultimately more age worthy versions of Chinon, tough in their youth, but marvelously concentrated and complex, with marked minerality.

There’s also some chenin blanc planted in La Croix Boissée to make the much more rare white version of AOC Chinon. Chenin is far less planted than cabernet franc because for one, it doesn’t yield interesting results on the graviers, and two, because most of the fine coteaux parcels on limestone soils on which it does produce excellent results are reserved for cabernet franc. Yet there’s some renewed interest in white Chinon, and Matthieu has planted several top coteaux parcels within the last decade with chenin.

Bill and I are fanatics of good Loire cabernet franc and he can’t resist asking the burning question, also running through my mind: “what’s the difference between the four main Loire Valley appellations for cabernet franc – Chinon, Bourgeuil, St-Nicholas de Bourgeuil and Saumur Champigny?” Matthieu smiles in that wry French vigneron sort of way and chuckles. Do you want the official answer or my answer? He asks. Yours, of course, we say in unison with no hesitation – it’s the sort of question that needn’t be asked nor answered, but the formalities are done with.

Limestone in Chinon

Limestone in Chinon

“To be honest”, continues Matthieu, there are graviers and limestone coteaux in all of the appellations, so to tell the wines apart is not easy. Bill quips in: “yet in Québec, consumers have the general impression that Saumur Champigny produces the most serious cabernet franc, while the others are a bit lighter”. Matthieu smiles again and says “and if you ask anyone in Paris what they think of Saumur Champigny they’ll tell you it’s the lightest vin de soif of the Loire appellations, served in bistros with a chill”. Ahh, the wonderfully precise world of wine, full of truths and absolutes.

Bill’s, and Quebéc’s impression of sturdy Saumur may well be based on the strength of a couple of producers, namely Château Yvonne, a wine that we’ll taste a little further down the river which is indeed stellar, and the legendary Clos Rougeard (at least in cabernet franc/Loire wine drinking circles). In the end, the differences between wines emerge more from producer and specific terroir than from any somewhat arbitrary appellation boundaries. I’m suddenly transported back to a tasting of the four main red wine appellations of Saumur-Touraine back in Paris in 1997 when I was studying my first wine course. I vividly recall the instructor, Alain Ségelle, saying precisely the same thing – that the producer is easier to identify than the appellation – which I found hard to believe at the time. I was still under the naïve impression that an AOC was an absolute, a guarantee of style, and that the producer was just the person in the middle between me and the dirt.

Matthieu does offer one little personal piece of opinion, which he sheepishly prefaces as such. “I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but in my experience, the wines of St. Nicolas de Bourgeuil are the lightest, softest and earliest maturing of the four AOCs. That’s because they have less limestone there. Most of the vineyards are planted on sandy gravels that give more delicate wines. Bourgeuil, on the other hand, is mostly limestone, so as an appellation it tends to produce the most structured wines on the whole. But, bien sûre, there are exceptions. And as for the rest, good luck”. I’m thankful for that little tidbit of information, feeling that at least now I’ll have something useful to write and teach about when I get back home. It’s so (justifiably) unsatisfying to students or readers to make a statement like: “just get to know your producers”. It always sounds as if you’re trying to dodge the question, even if it is often the truth.

We arrive back at the estate. The clanging of the bottling line can still be heard through the open door of the adjacent cellar. We enter the tasting room, and I spy several glass boxes filled with dirt to one side. It’s always comforting to see containers of dirt in a tasting room. Matthieu sees my interest and points over to the seven rectangular glass cases on one wall, each one a unique mosaic of shades ranging from near white (limestone) to deep brown (clay-earth), with varying proportions of gravel, sand and other chunks of fractured limestone mixed in. On top of each case is a representative bottle of the wine made from these different soil types. The bottles bear names like “Grézeaux”, “La Croix Boissée” or “Le Clos Guillot”. Sometimes, these names refer to the specific vineyard site, as in the latter two, other times it’s a reference to the soil type, as in the former one, “Grézeaux”, referring to Baudry’s parcel in the graviers soils. All of these cuvée names must seem like more mysterious, arcane information for consumers to attempt to grasp in the already overwhelming world of wine, since there’s no universal consistency in naming/labeling practices and much fantasy is involved. But it’s like car models. You just have to learn the difference between a Chevy Nova and a Corvette before you buy.

Matthieu Baudry and his dirt

Matthieu Baudry and his dirt

Displays of dirt are common practice at estates aiming to make wines that reflect their origins. It also draws a closer connection between the taster and the origin of each different cuvée. Obviously looking at a tube filled with stones and earth and sand dug from the vineyard site where the wine comes from doesn’t tell you anything about how it will taste. That is, at least not until you’ve had the opportunity to compare wines from different sites side-by-side. The wine world is nothing if not purely relative, and relativity takes a whole lot of context to establish. Bill and I are in the process of developing context – that’s the purpose of these travels through wine country; after all, I can taste a bunch of wines in my living room. But walking through the vineyards and scratching the dirt, then extending the connection between place and taste with yet more visual reference while tasting with the winemaker is about as deeply into context as you can go without actually making the wines yourself. Slowly but surely you can begin to unravel the mysterious connection between terroir and wine profile. It’s quite amazing.

We start the tasting with a couple of white Chinons made from chenin blanc. The first is the 2011 “domaine” bottling, made from young, eight year-old vines planted in what Matthieu believes is a great terroir. But he doesn’t deem the wine yet worthy of a vineyard designation so for now it will remain a simple estate wine. It’s generous and mouth filling on the palate with an almost sweet impression, but finishes quite short – depth and length often come from more established vines. The second white is from the vineyard we walked through, the coteaux site called La Croix Boissée, with its intensely limestone-rich soils. The vines are 15 years old and starting to come into their own. The wine is much more chalky textured and mineral-flavoured with a riveting stream of acidity. The flavour lingers for much longer than the first wine.

We move on to the reds. The first is Baudry’s basic Chinon called “Les Granges” from 2011, bottled just the day before, always a tough period in which to taste a wine. It’s a little muddled on the nose, but true to origins – graviers soils – with its simple, juicy, easy drinking style. The 2011 “Domaine” Chinon from mostly sandy-limestone soils offers a little more depth and structure, relatively speaking. With the next cuvée, Les Grézeaux, we move back to the 2010 vintage. This is from the 60 year-old vines that we walked through, on graviers soils down by the river. Although arguably not a top terroir, the age of the vines compensate. The wine is pure and elegant, very floral, with ripe dark berry fruit and structured tannins, quite powerful and muscular, again, in a relative way.

We then compare two of the top terroirs: Le Clos Guillot, a limestone-rich clay vineyard near the town of Chinon itself, and La Croix Boissée, both from the 2010 vintage. The first is tight on the nose, but not more obviously structured than the Grézeaux as I expected. Instead, there’s more volume in the mouth; the wine just seems to have an extra dimension that the previous didn’t and it fills every nook and cranny in my mouth, as though someone just turned up the stereo and the room was suddenly filled with music. It’s very Burgundian in fact, where elegance and femininity doesn’t mean light and frivolous.

At this point, Bill, inspired by Matthieu’s descriptions of his own wines and his descent into such controversial tasting terms as “feminine”, starts to relate each cuvée to a different type of woman. He likens Le Clos Guillot to a ballerina, balanced, graceful, and delicate yet strong. Ok, I’m not reporting exactly what Bill said, in fact not remotely, but I’d like to keep this story wine-focused. I’ve never taken to female analogies, but what Bill says actually makes sense, and conjures up some interesting images. Matthieu chuckles and plays along.

Next is La Croix Boissée. It, on the other hand, is effusively aromatic, very floral as great cabernet franc can be, with darker, earthier fruit. I suspect a slightly later harvest contributed to the riper, darker fruit character, but Matthieu explains that La Croix Boissée is in fact usually the first parcel to be harvested. “It’s the site that pushes maturity quickly”, he says. I think back to the perfectly angled, south facing slope and it makes sense. Matthieu quickly follows that up with a declaration of his visceral dislike of surmaturité, the common practice of waiting until grapes are overripe before harvesting, which yields wines with more alcohol, more body, lower acidity and darker, raisined fruit flavours. Bill and I vigorously nod in agreement. I’ll take fresh fruit over baked fruit any day. But in any case, this is the firmest, chalkiest, most mineral wine we taste on the day. Bill describes it as an Argentine tango dancer (female, of course), among other potent visuals.

I leave images of Argentina behind, guessing this wine will age extremely well given the concentrated, grippy mouthfeel. And as if Matthieu had been reading my thoughts on ageability, he offers to bring out some older wines from the cellar. Bill and I feign the demureness of not being worthy of the special treat of tasting old bottles, but we do a terrible job of it. After dismissing our pathetically weak protestation, he disappears into the cellar and returns moments later with three bottles, the labels of which he keeps hidden. We’re entering another round of name that wine and vintage, it seems.

As it turns out, he’s brought a 2007 Clos Guillot, which I mistake for the Grézeaux, a 2005 Grézeaux which I mistake for La Croix Boissée, and the last, a 1999 La Croix Boissée which I manage to figure out, if only by process of elimination. But I’m off by several years on the vintage, thinking it was a few years younger, closer to 2002. Bill, on the other hand, gets the vintage right – he’s having a good day, or he’s just lucky.

This mini tasting highlights one additional complicating factor in the terroir equation: vintage variation. In a marginal climate like the Loire, weather patterns vary considerably from year to year. So without this additional piece of context, it’s tough to put the puzzle together. A cool year like 2007, a sunny and warm year like 2005, or a rainy year like 1999 shifts the expression of a terroir. This is why a great vintage Grézeaux can taste like the usually more powerful and structured Croix Boissée, or a cool vintage Clos Guillot can resemble the elegant, floral side of a Grézeaux. At least that’s my story. Maddening, but fascinating nonetheless. It would be boring to figure everything out.

We’re late again, so we bid adieu to Matthieu, who’s still smiling. We too, are smiling. That was a great tasting. We jump back in the car with Edith who has been patiently waiting in the courtyard as we sipped away. It’s time to meet Philippe Alliet, another well-respected Chinon producer, at least in Québec – his wines are not imported into Ontario and I’ve never tried them, but Bill assures me they’re worth the coup.

08:00 pm Diner at « Au Chapeau rouge » with Philippe Alliet

We’re dropped off in front of the place du Général De Gaulle, the very centre of town, a few hundred meters north of the river. We stroll up to the Au Chapeau Rouge restaurant on the east side of the square, one of the more chic restaurants in Chinon. There’s a man skulking about on his cell phone outside who doesn’t look at us. We enter and are shown to our table; Alliet has not yet arrived, at least not in the restaurant. We’ve never met him and don’t know what he looks like. Usually this is not a problem: a glance, a nod, a feeling that someone is looking for somebody is often enough to make the connection – wine trips are full of encounters with strangers.

Au Chapeau Rouge

Au Chapeau Rouge

There’s nobody in the restaurant who gives off the right vibe. After a few minutes of waiting, we turn to look through the window. The man who was on his phone is still there, sort of loitering in front of the restaurant. Although he didn’t seem intent on finding anyone, we get the feeling this might be Alliet. We walk outside. “Mr. Alliet?” “Ah, oui”, he answers, looking a little embarrassed. “I didn’t know where I was supposed to meet you”. Well, in the restaurant under the reservation made by Interloire would have been my logical first choice. But winegrowers are not always socially inclined. They spend a lot of alone time in their vines, you know.

I also notice that he doesn’t have any bottles with him. Apparently he has arrived to meet two wine journalists from Canada on a tour of the Loire and has nothing to show. His wines are not even listed on the restaurant wine list. Awkward.

“I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bring wines to the restaurant” says Alliet. It’s hard to believe this little directive wasn’t communicated to him by Interloire when the schedule was set up. But I also suspect it was so obvious that the point was to meet and taste wines that Interloire may well not have specifically mentioned to Alliet to bring along samples. The effervescent restaurant hostess also seems perplexed when she finds out that he has no wine with him; she’s presided over dozens of such winemaker-journalist dinners, since Au Chapon Rouge is Interloire’s standard go-to restaurant in Chinon.

A little embarrassed now, Alliet half triumphantly, half sheepishly reveals that he does indeed have a bottle in his car, and proposes to go and grab it. “S’il vous plait”, Bill and I say, bemusedly. Yes, that would please us. He’s back shortly and leaves the bottle with the hostess. By now we need something to drink to break the ice, so we order a white Chinon to start, on Alliet’s recommendation.

Alliet is a man of few words. It’s clear he feels well out of his element here. He tells us that such meetings are very rare in fact for him. He spends all of his time in his vineyards and cellar. He rarely travels. Although Québec is one of his biggest export markets, he’s never been. Getting him to speak about his vineyards, wines, or anything for that matter is like trying to get your high school boyfriend to talk about his feelings. Even Bill and I, never short on questions and observations, are stymied by Alliet, as though he’s sucked all of the words out of us. We stare a lot at each other and around the room. Uncomfortable.

The food finally arrives, and by the time we’ve had a glass of his red, the conversation is flowing a little more easily, but it’s no torrent. Yet despite my disappointment at not being able to fully get to know these wines that Bill spoke so highly about, I nevertheless respect Alliet’s shyness and humility. It’s such a change from the aggressive marketing of so many wineries and the relentless commercial onslaught of their export directors. Alliet has no press kit or USB key with label images, no tech sheets listing the precise percentage of new oak used. Here’s a man who just makes wine, without hard commercial aspirations, an increasingly rare creature. He just makes good wine, at least the best he can make. “Here it is”, he says silently, without words. “Take it or leave it”. You get the impression that he would be infinitely happier if he didn’t actually have to sell the stuff. He’d probably just give it away, or trade it for chickens and beef and vegetables and tractor fuel from time to time.

But sustainability requires sales, and the next generation – Alliet’s son – needs something to inherit. He graciously offers to drop a few samples at our hotel in the morning so that we can taste his range later on, an offer we kindly accept. In fact that suits us perfectly, since we know the wine would be doing the talking anyway.

We say good night to M. Alliet, and start walking back to the hotel formerly known as the All Seasons across the river. We pass a bar that’s still open just off the main square, with a handful of die-hard young revelers. I check my watch: 11pm. Still early. Bill and I glance at each other – there’s definitely a twinkle in his eye, as there is in mine. But no. Not tonight. Tonight we’ll be responsible and get some sleep. We skirt the statue of Rabelais on our way back to avoid his disapproving stare.

John and Bill’s Excellent Loire adventure wraps up in Anjou and Muscadet. The final chapter will be posted shortly.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

John’s Loire Valley Picks
John Szabo’s Loire Valley – Intro
John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part I
John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part II

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John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part II

Part II – Vouvray-Jasnières-Coteaux du Loir

In this series, follow John Szabo and his terroir-hunting partner, Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Zacharkiw on an excellent adventure through the Loire Valley. If you are just tuning in, you can read the background piece here, and then Part I of the travelogue here.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Tuesday September 11th

A Tour of Tours

6:00 pm: We arrive at the “Grand Hotel” in downtown Tours, a stone’s throw from the Train Station. It’s loud and bustling, a big change from the rural tranquility of Sancerre. I’m almost run over by a city bus as we’re pulling our gear out of the back of the van. We’ll be staying in Tours just for the night to meet with René-Louis David of InterLoire for dinner in a local seafood restaurant, but for travelers to the region, the city makes a great base camp for wine touring. Vouvray, Montlouis, Chinon and Bourgeuil are all within easy striking distance, not to mention many of the Loire’s famous chateaux: Chambord, Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau, and Ussé, among others.

“La Chope” 25 bis, Avenue de Grammont, Tours

8:00 pm: René-Louis picks us up at the hotel and drives us the short distance to our dinner restaurant. Bill, Ian and I are all famished, and the sight of lobsters, oysters and crayfish are enough to make one faint. We sit and the menus and wine list are passed about. I spot a couple of interesting bottles, including a very fine dry Montlouis from Jacky Blot’s Domaine de la Taille aux Loup that I once imported into Ontario with Vinifera. We agree, and the bottle is ordered.

Train Station in Tours

Train Station in Tours – my hotel view

The discussion with René-Louis soon turns to exports and commercial strategy – he is, after all, head of InterLoire. He brings up Sam Harrop, a British master of wine who had been engaged by InterLoire to help “fix” the more generic sauvignons of Touraine and create more export traction. I had heard of this project before, and my initial reaction to it, as towards the idea of flying winemakers in general, was one of horror. No doubt that the overall basic quality level can be raised by the applications of more rigorous standardized winemaking techniques, with fewer outright disasters. But the flipside of standardized techniques is standardized wine. At a time of hyper-competitive wine markets worldwide, when everyone is fleeing sameness in order to find their “unique selling proposition”, it seemed a bad idea to turn the Loire’s sauvignons into one homogenous mass of squeaky-clean, techno wines with no stories to tell other than what type of yeast had been selected to ferment the must. I ask René-Louis how the project was going. “Pas très bien”, was the response.

After dinner we stroll down to the Old Quarter of town, a medieval square lined with timbered buildings that now house pubs and restaurants, to finish the night with a glass of eau-de-vie. The local university students are out in numbers and we’re treated to several choruses of French drinking songs and a rugby scrum or two. Tours is considered the epicenter of the French language, where students from all over the world come to study and learn French without any accent. It’s nonsense, of course, as everyone has an accent, but we don’t argue. It’s 1:30 am by the time we get back to the hotel and it’s time for bed.

Wednesday September 12th

9:00 am: After a half hour’s drive from Tours, heading back east along the north bank of the Loire, we arrive in the town of Vouvray. Along the way I spot dozens of caves carved right into the sides of the steep tufa stone escarpment that follows the river. These are the famous troglodyte caves; the ancient homes of cave dwellers found throughout the region. Today, some have been converted into stylish modern homes, others into hotels or restaurants. Some sit empty, reminders of a different time. The soft, chalky tufa-limestone is easy to excavate, in fact, most of the other buildings in the region are made from the white stones carved from the caves. The caves also make for excellent wine cellars as they stay a constant 12ºC year round, with high humidity that’s perfect for barrel ageing – higher humidity means less evaporation, and less of a share for the angels (though a little less comfortable for living).

Domaine Huet, Vouvray

Our driver Edith, who’s from Saumur further downriver, is not familiar with either Vouvray or Domaine Huet so in short order we’re lost, and decide to use the force to find our way. Of course, there are no signs. After driving through town, up the escarpment and back down, I spot a sign for Le Haut Lieu, a name I recognize from Domaine Huet labels. We follow the road up to the plateau above the river; there are vines all around and an old farmhouse, but no Huet. At a fork in the road, Edith finally gives up and calls the estate. The trouble is, she can’t explain where we are (“…ah, next to the vineyards and the stone building…”). I can just make out the voice on the other end of the line, which is becoming increasingly frustrated (…mais il y a des vines partout…”). There’s lots of air sucking sounds; more signs of annoyance. We’re eventually re-directed back down through town, and told to take the 2nd left from the main road, past the supermarket, another left beyond the school, up a stone wall-lined road. For the love of wine, let’s invest in some signage. Bill is typing away on his laptop in the back and doesn’t care; I’m getting annoyed. It’s already 9:15 and I haven’t tasted any wine yet today. Fifteen minutes later we finally find Domaine Huet, which, as it turns out, is only about 200 yards away from the place we had stopped to call for directions. Reminder to self: get the data plan next time and use iPhone GPS.

Domaine Huet

Arrival at Domaine Huet!

We’re greeted a little coldly at first by winemaker Benjamin Joliveau, who has recently taken over as head winemaker from Nöel Pinguet, the original Gaston Huet’s nephew and well-respected winemaker for the three decades prior. But Ben had worked several vintages with Pinguet, and the same viticulturalist, also chez Huet for the last three decades, is still in charge of the vineyards, so no major changes are expected. Benjamin warms up as he realizes we’re not a couple of old, red nosed wine hacks. He had planned a cellar tour and tasting, which we quickly modify to a vineyard tour and tasting. It’s into the pick-up truck and we head back up to Le Haut Lieu to get a handle on the appellation.

The Vouvray AOC sits on a more or less flat plateau with some gentle slopes a few hundred feet above the Loire River on the north bank. The bedrock is obviously the chalky limestone tufa that we had seen during the drive along the river, along with some silex mixed in some spots, with a clay-based topsoil. The further away from the river you travel, heading north along the plateau, the deeper the clay topsoil becomes, and the less interesting the wines, explains Benjamin. There’s about a 1km strip of high quality potential vineyard land between the escarpment edge and where the vines give way to cereal crops; the heavier clays beyond cause too much vigorous vegetative growth in grapevines. This fact was already known and understood as early as the 4th century, when St. Martin de Tours established a monastery in nearby Marmoutier and planted the region’s first vineyards. St. Martin remains one of the most important patron saints of winemakers around the world today.

We’re at the point along the Loire where you start to feel the Atlantic influence; the fully continental climate of the Centre Loire gives way to a semi-continental-maritime mix that’s just about right for the late ripening Chenin Blanc, a grape which is harvested on average a couple of weeks later than the sauvignon of Sancerre. I pick a few grapes off the vines in Huet’s Clos du Bourg vineyard, our first stop, and they’re indeed still shrill and green, at least 3 weeks away from optimum ripeness.

From our vantage point we look across the river to the south shore and the appellation of Montlouis, which used to be considered part of Vouvray in the 19th century, though split in the early 20th C to gain its own appellation in 1938. Montlouis is snuggled between the River Cher and the Loire itself, which means more humidity, rain, and harder frosts than in Vouvray. Though also based exclusively on Chenin Blanc and stylistically similar, there’s often a little more botrytis in Montlouis, which results in off-dry wines. There are some superb examples, like Jacky Blot’s and François Chidaine’s, but Montlouis has never achieved the same degree of fame as Vouvray.

There are some 2,200 hectares of vines planted in Vouvray, of which 70% is dedicated to sparkling wine, a much higher percentage than I imagined. Benjamin laments that the majority is of moderate quality or worse, destined for sale in one of France’s many hypermarchés in the “value” category. There are nonetheless still a handful of quality-focused producers, such as Domaine du Clos Naudin (Philiipe Foreau), Domaine des Aubuisières, Château Gaudrelle, Domaine Champalou and Domaine Huet.

Aside from sparkling, Vouvray comes in still versions ranging from sec (dry), through sec-tendre (barely-off dry), to demi-sec and moelleux. The best expression depends naturally on what you like best, but I find that the sec-tendre or even demi-sec versions offer the best balance, similar to top Mosel rieslings that invariably show better when there’s a pinch of residual sugar to balance the searing acids frequently encountered.

Chenin, especially when the secondary malolactic fermentation doesn’t happen (it has been traditionally suppressed in Vouvray even if many producers now allow it to happen), can have a biting green, harsh acidic edge that benefits from the softening of a touch of residual sugar. The moelleux wines, harvested late when the grapes have shriveled, or in some years (though certainly not all) been affected by noble rot, can be glorious; honeyed, mysterious orchard fruit-scented, with waxy, wet hay and bruised apple flavours. The top examples are timeless and can live on for decades. It’s usually nearly impossible to identify the vintage when tasted blind. A favorite trick of sommeliers is to pull out a 30 year-old bottle of Vouvray moelleux, then watch and snicker as the tasters all guess closer to ten years of age.

Benjamin Joliveau

Benjamin Joliveau in Le Haut Lieu

We leave the attractive walled-in Clos du Bourg vineyard and travel a short distance to Le Haut Lieu and Le Mont, two adjacent vineyards, though dramatically different in terms of soil composition. Le Haut Lieu lies on heavier clays, while Le Mont has a considerable proportion of silex mixed into the clay. The difference in the glass, as we soon find out, is equally dramatic.

The vines look battered; it’s been a bloody tough vintage all throughout the Loire, with excessive rain and lots of disease pressure followed by drought. The life of the vigneron is fraught with events well beyond one’s control. Domaine Huet has been farmed biodynamically for over a decade now, perhaps the first Vouvray estate to do so, but the cost of biodynamics in a year like 2012 is plain to see: yields are down significantly; there’s little fruit left hanging on the vines.

We arrive back at the domaine and take a quick walk through the cellars. In the end, they’re certainly worth a look: dark, humid, black mold-covered caves with high humidity and a distinctive smell that I liken to the scent of fresh white button mushrooms: clean yet earthy and deep. I’m struck by how much these cellars remind me of the cellars in Tokaj, Hungary, and then further struck by the resemblance between chenin blanc and Tokaj’s great white grape, furmint, which also comes in a range of styles from sparkling, to dry still wines, and all the way up to lusciously sweet, botrytis affected elixirs. It’s no wonder that Domaine Huet’s current owner, US-based financier Anthony Hwang, was drawn to both Vouvray and Tokaj (Hwang also owns the highly regarded Királyudvar estate in Tokaj), they are kindred spirits.

We start the tasting with Huet’s excellent 2007 pétillant. It’s not fully sparkling like champagne, but rather gently effervescent. It’s made in the ancestral method, meaning that the still-fermenting wine is bottled and sealed when there’s still about a couple dozen grams of sugar left. Yeasts continue working in the bottle and the carbon dioxide produced remains trapped inside, resulting in a wine that has about half (3 bars) the pressure of fully sparkling wine. Huet’s pétillant spent another 4 years in bottle before the dead yeast cells were expelled in the standard way, called disgorging. The wine is delicate, slightly salty/mineral, refined. There’s that characteristic chenin blanc bitterness on the finish, too, though a very pleasant bitterness, like sucking the skin of an apple or a nectarine. What a great breakfast wine. I’m dreaming of a piece of chalky goat’s cheese.

Benjamin then lines up the three dry cuvées from 2011, which I ask to taste side by side: Le Haut Lieu, Clos du Bourg, and Le Mont. They’re all 100% chenin blanc, made in the same, non-interventionalist fashion, with wild yeast ferment, and aged in neutral 500l demi-muid barrels. Le Haut lieu is quite open and fruity, the fruitiest of the three – this is from the heavier clay soils. Minerality is not the main feature, and the finish is short. Although the wine is still very good to be sure, it’s clear that this site will never produce the domaine’s top wines.

Le Clos du Bourg, a 6 hectare plot sitting almost directly on the limestone tufa, delivers a softer, fleshier, more voluptuous style of chenin. It has what Benjamin describes as sucrosité, an implicit sweetness even though it contains virtually the same level of residual sugar as Le Haut Lieu (8 vs 7 grams/liter; anything under 9 grams is considered “sec” under appellation regulations). Then I inhale deeply over the glass of Le Mont. A chalky minerality subtly emerges. I jot down “the most mineral aromatics” in my notebook. The palate is likewise flinty and stony, with terrific tension and an almost saline finish. There’s that silex again, delivering the same wicked minerality we observed in Sancerre and Pouilly.

We repeat the site-specific tastings up the scale from demi-sec to moelleux, then moelleux première trie, the first selection made in the vineyards to harvest the best, most concentrated bunches. I’m stuck by the differences imparted by the vineyards, and by the variation from year to year; this is truly a region where vintage matters. Benjamin has Bill and I guessing residual sugar levels in the sweet wines, another favorite game of winemakers and wine tasters. On the first one, we’re way off, guessing mid-twenties for a wine with over 50 grams of sugar. That’s the beauty of great sweet wine – chenin, riesling, tokaji – they’re sweet without tasting too sweet or cloying. Acids swoop in on the finish to clean things up and leave your mouth cringing with saliva, so that the wines almost taste dry.

On the second round, not to be fooled again, I guess twice as much sugar as I was actually thinking, figuring at least I’d go over this time. Wrong again. I’m still at only half the actual level. Maddening. Bill, who had disappeared into the washroom, comes back and guesses exactly what I had guessed. We’re both humbled.

Time’s slipping away and we’re quickly sliding into our usual routine of being half an hour behind, so we say au revoir to Benjamin and climb into the van with Edith for another back-country driving adventure. We’re heading north overland to the obscure, tiny appellations of Jasnières and Coteaux du Loir, and more chenin blanc.

Domaine de Bellivière, Jasnières, Coteaux du Loir

12:00 pm: We’ve driven through the French countryside for an hour and a half, for a journey that was supposed to take under an hour. We pass fields of wheat and corn, drooping sunflowers that have lost their shine and look dejectedly toward the ground awaiting the coming winter, small villages, and rows of poplars and plane trees. Strangely, no vines. This is now northern France according to most textbooks; once you’re north of the Loire, away from its moderating influence, vineyards vanish and other crops take their place. Just a bit further north still and you’re in apple country, which to a sommelier means cider and calvados.

Coteaux du Loir vineyard

Coteaux du Loir vineyard

Edith is lost again. She’s sweet, but ill prepared to ferry two terroir hunters to the furthest reaches within the Loire’s viticultural embrace. Down what seems like a semi-abandoned cart path we finally spot an old wooden sign with an arrow pointing up the hill to Domaine de Bellivière, our destination. We follow the narrow road up and over the crest of a hill and across a field of wheat, and then down the other side to a hamlet of about 6 houses. There’s a fork in the road. No signs. Sucking noises from Edith. We turn right and follow a twisting road into the next village. No vines, no tanks, no old barrels used for planters lining the street. Not looking promising. We turn around and travel back to our only point of hope and certainty, the Bellivière sign at the bottom of the hill. Edith throws up her arms, sucks some more air in noisily, and pulls out her cell phone to call the domaine. There’s more difficulty describing our location (“…by a fork in the road at the bottom of a hill…”).

When she finally gets her bearings, she turns the van around with a little more self-assurance and heads back up the hill and across the field of wheat again. This time at the fork we turn left.Domaine de Bellivière does have a tiny sign at the end of their driveway, leading into the courtyard of what appears to be the largest house in this modest hamlet. We’ve arrived, though a little more than half an hour late. We’re greeted by Madame Nicolas who informs us that her husband and son are out working in the vines – there’s been little down time this vintage, one of the most difficult in recent memory.

Eric Nicolas is the man behind Domaine de Bellivière, a former oil industry executive who traded in his comfortable but unsatisfying life to study winemaking in Montpellier. Nicolas, after all, is a poet and a thinker at heart, and was suffering in the world of big oil. After completing the course, he and his wife began to look for a property to purchase in Provence. They scoured the region but found nothing suitable. The prices were impossibly high, driven more by property speculation than winegrowing potential. And besides, the vibe wasn’t right. “We didn’t like the frenetic energy of the area”, recalls Nicolas.

Then some friends shared a bottle of Jasnières, a tiny, chenin blanc-based appellation in the northern Loire that’s obscure even for locals. But the Nicolas’ were intrigued by the wine: it was crisp, stony, firm, authentic. They investigated. Since Eric was born in northern France, Jasnières seemed a little closer to home. The style of the region’s wines also appealed, and land was affordable. The Nicolas’ purchased their estate and moved in. The year was 1995.

By the following year they already had wine to sell – in fact I just drank my last bottle of 1996 Bellivière Jasnière “Les Rosiers” this past summer, a bottle that had been sitting in my cellar for nearly a decade and a half. It was beautiful. It seemed surreal to meet the man who had made this mysterious wine, purchased in the very early days of my wine career, so many years later.

It didn’t happen overnight, but Nicolas slowly began converting the vineyards to organic and then biodynamic farming. It was a reasoned process, driven by constant questioning and searching for answers. Nicolas recalls the fiercely hot 2003 vintage in France. Malolactic fermentations went through spontaneously for the first time, unexpectedly, and left the wines unbalanced, with too little acid. But as a natural winemaker at heart, Nicolas didn’t want to have to play around with chemical adjustments. So the following year he set about finding a way to build acid structure in the vineyards, in the grapes, so that if malolactic fermentation were to happen again, the wines would remain balanced. He hit upon biodynamic viticulture as the solution to producing grapes with an ideal natural balance of components, and hasn’t looked back since.

Madame Nicolas and Bill

Madame Nicolas and Bill

We arrive up in an estate parcel of Coteaux du Loir vineyards and park under a large old oak tree. There’s a beautiful view of the vineyards and valley below where the Loir River runs; that’s Loir without the “e”, a tributary of the larger Loire, which gives its name to Jasnière’s sister appellation, the Coteaux du Loir. Both AOCs consist of about 120 hectares planted to vines, though likely no more than half of the annual production actually gets bottled under either appellation. Many families here still farm vineyards and make wine for home consumption; there’s no need to involve the appellation authorities in their business, even if the vineyard sites and grapes would qualify them for AOC designation. It’s interesting to note that before phylloxera there were closer to 3000ha in the Coteaux du Loir; the zone never fully recovered.

I spot Eric’s son first rolling up a row of vines on a tractor at the far end of the slope. He’s a solid boy in his mid-teens with a ruddy, outdoors sort of complexion. His father Eric then comes into view behind, tall, blue-eyed, with wild, white hair that makes him look more a mad scientist than typical French vigneron. He’s quiet but not at all awkward, just confident and content, with the almost fatalistic nature that any farmer must develop in order to survive.

Talk quickly turns to soils, of which there are 17 different types across both appellations. Like other parts of the Loire, it’s mainly variations on the theme of clay, with more or less chalk and silex.

The son parks the tractor under the tree and we all pile into Madame Nicolas’ blue station wagon and head back down to the farmhouse. They’ve planned a classic French country lunch of charcuterie followed by a rustic blanquette de veau, all of which sounds magical to my rumbling stomach. The farmhouse itself is straight out of French Country Living magazine. It must be ancient, since nobody today builds such spacious and airy rooms with high ceilings held in place by massively thick wooden beams. The fireplace would be large enough to roast Bill, a thought that fleets across my mind. I get an immediately comfortable and welcoming feeling, as though we were old friends invited over for Sunday lunch. And as though cued by my thought, Nicolas’ young daughter comes into the living-dining room and kisses Bill and I both on the cheeks, like uncles she might have seen just last week.

Bill - Nicolas' farmhouse

Nicolas’ farmhouse fireplace

Before the food is brought to the table Nicolas steps into the room carrying a metal basket holding a half dozen bottles, some opened with the corks stuck in halfway, others that have yet to be uncorked. We sit down at the heavy wooden table in front of the fireplace to taste through the bottles, beginning with the cuvee made from the youngest vines, the 2011 Jasnières Les Rosiers.

Nicolas separates his parcels according to vine age. To him, “old vines” means vineyards planted before 1945; there was little planting between the post-war period up until the 1970s, the dark days of Jasnières and Coteaux du Loir. Yet there has been renewed interest in the region since the end of the 1990s, and plantings are once again on the rise. Nicolas himself has planted several new parcels since moving into the region, and since 1999, all plantings have been made the old fashioned way, by selection massale, selecting bud wood from old vineyards and propagating it, rather than purchasing clones from nurseries, a labour-intensive process that he believes will ultimately confer more disease resistance (since the mother vines are fully accustomed to local conditions), as well as greater complexity from the genetic diversity passed on from old vines. He’s also experimented with super high-density plantings, up to 11,200 vines per acre, as well as own-rooted vines, without the American rootstocks that have been customary since the end of the 19th century to combat phylloxera. His latest experiment will be to grow vines directly from seed. “The results, however”, he says with his customary, comfortable resignation, “will take some time to observe”.

The Rosiers is austere and mineral, seemingly bone dry (it’s the cuvée that I had in my cellar, so I can attest to it’s age-worthiness). Next up is the 2011 Coteaux du Loir “L’Effraie”, made from 35 year old vines grown on silex soils. It has a pinch of residual sugar, but it’s noticeable only in the riper, rounder, fleshier texture. The grapes seem to be riper, and the finish lingers on beautifully. Then comes the 2009 Coteaux du Loir Vieilles Vignes Eparse, made from 70-90 year old vines also grown in predominantly silex soils. This is gorgeous on the nose: very ripe, subtly but unmistakably mineral, with an intriguing hint of anise. The palate is densely packed with well-knit flavours of white flowers and honey, fresh quince and more sweet green herbs.

The next wine, 2009 Jasnières Calligramme, is named for the visual poetry of Apollinaire written for his sweetheart in the trenches of the Great War, another nod to Nicolas’ poetic leanings. This is also from the old vines, now beginning to show a touch of bottle maturity: waxy, honeyed, floral, with the characteristic chenin blanc touch of bitterness on the finish.

By now the food has arrived. The blanquette hits the table in a heavy cast iron casserole and the steaming vapors fill the room with savoury, earthy smells. We eat and talk and drink some more. We taste the 2010 versions of Calligramme and Vieilles Vignes Eparse side by side. The former is tight and unyielding, the latter, looser, more open, but chalk-full of mineral silex flavour on the finish. Bill uses some inappropriate analogies to describe the difference between the two wines, which draws some nervous laughter from the family.

We finish the meal with a rare light red made from Pineau d’Aunis, once a popular variety in the Loire that originates from around the town of Saumur further west. It’s light and peppery and tart red fruit-flavoured, in other words, delicious. I look over at Bill and he’s smiling too. Reluctantly we check the time and realize that we’re half an hour behind schedule. After some warm good-byes, we’re back in the van with crazy Edith, en route to Rabelais’ hometown and source of some of the world’s best cabernet franc, Chinon.

Stay tuned. Part III of John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure will be published soon. In the meantime, you can access the earlier blogs and a list of recommended Loire Valley wines below.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

John’s Loire Valley Picks
John Szabo’s Loire Valley Adventure – Intro
John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part I

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John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part I

Part I: Paris-Sancerre

In this series, follow John Szabo and his terroir-hunting partner, Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Zacharkiw on an excellent adventure through the Loire Valley. If you missed reading the background piece, you can jump to it here.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Sunday September 9th:

11:00am: I arrive at Charles de Gaulle and take the RER to Bercy train station to catch the train to Sancerre. Bill got his schedule mixed up and had to delay by a day – he arrives tomorrow – so I’m traveling solo. There’s time for a quick lunch in nearby Bercy village, a quaint little cobblestone district lined with restaurants and wine bars. I stop at Chai 33, recommendation courtesy of Sara d’Amato, for tuna tartar, frites and a glass of muscadet. Nice start.

2:00pm: I make the train, and get so deeply engrossed in work that I very nearly miss my stop, a tiny, slightly dilapidated building identifiable as a train station only by the small “Tracy-Sancerre” signpost. I step off flustered, leave a shirt behind, but I have my laptop, bag and knapsack. There’s not a soul in sight. Tired and bewildered and wishing I had at least 2 Euros to scratch together – not a bank machine in sight – I wait in the parking lot, which is more of a crushed gravel clearing in front of the station surrounded by woods. Three minutes later, Benoît Roumet, head of the BIVC (Interprofessional Bureau for Wines of the Centre Loire) careens in, and we’re off up the hill to Sancerre.

5:00 pm: Check in to the Hôtel Panoramic in Sancerre. True to its name, my room gives out onto a stunning vista of the vine-covered hillsides surrounding the town of Sancerre, which is perched on top of a hill.

Domaine Vacheron, Sancerre

6:00 pm: A two minute car ride through the streets of Sancerre and we reach Domaine Vacheron. I’m greeted by Jean-Dominique Vacheron, who’s joined by his cousin Jean-Laurent Vacheron shortly after. It’s too late to visit the vineyards, so they pull out a detailed relief map of the region and I’m taken on a virtual tour. The estate has been certified biodynamic since 2004, from a conversion that started in 1997, and for the Vacherons, “winemaking is of no interest”. What’s meant is that the real work is done in the vineyards, and intervention in the winery is kept to the absolute minimum. I listen to their views; each angle of their approach is reasoned and thoughtful.

Hotel Panoramic

Panoramic view of Sancerre

The Vacheron estate covers 47 hectares, large by Sancerre standards, with 11ha of pinot noir, also exceptional, considering that only about 15% of the nearly 3000ha of Sancerre AOC is planted to red grapes. Vacheron is indeed considered a reference for Sancerre Rouge. I’m familiar with some of the wines as they are widely distributed in Canada, but we taste through many single parcel wines rarely seen here. Overall, starting with the Sancerre “classique” white, the wines are pure, crisp, well delineated, with a transparent reflection of place.

I start to get a handle on the different soil types, mainly calcaire (limestone) versus silex. The former, represented by a parcel called Chambrate, is a cooler terroir with a wider window for nailing the harvest date – a critical decision that greatly affects wine style in an otherwise transparent winemaking process. The wine is light and linear with crunchy, mouth-watering acids. Grapes on silex soils, on the other hand, go from just ripe to overripe in a matter of a day or two, making the harvest date harder to hit. But the wines from silex, as observed in the Les Romains cuvee, are generally aromatically subtle yet more powerful and mineral-tinged than calcaire wines. They need time to reveal their character, and they age magnificently. The Vacherons speak of “vibrations” in the glass, a unique mineral tension that’s hard to find in other terroirs, and nervousness. “The goal is to be more Sancerre, less sauvignon blanc”. Mission accomplished.

Sancerre has a history with pinot noir. It was far more planted than sauvignon blanc in the region before phylloxera, but lost ground after. Did sauvignon graft onto American rootstock more successfully? Or was their higher demand for white wines in Parisian wine bars than reds in the early part of the 20th century? Benoit and the Vacherons speculate, but no one has the answer as to why Sancerre rouge very nearly disappeared.

But back to the future: the 2008 Belle Dame pinot noir from silex soils is easily the finest Sancerre Rouge I’ve tasted: powerful, well structured, with terrific length. It’s not Burgundy, but that’s not the goal in any case. The idea is freshness, accessibility, perhaps more vibrant fruit than Burgundy. Jean-Dominique recalls a customer who once came into the cellar to buy wine, saying, “I like Sancerre Rouge because I don’t like red wine”. True enough, pinot noir was historically always picked first, even before it was fully ripe, to avoid regular harvest-time rains and rot, which resulted in pale, easy-quaffing wines. But red Sancerre is being redefined; the serious producers like Vacheron harvest pinot well after sauvignon now, and plantings are increasing. It’s not just for white wine drinkers anymore.

We finish the tasting with some old bottles, poured blind. With a few small clues I’m able to guess the vintage of the garnet coloured red – a pinot noir from 1983, and a white from 2004. I’m off by a couple of years on the 1984 white, which is still so lively it seems younger. It’s fascinating to see how winemaking has evolved from the parents’ generation to the sons’. I believe the current vintages are far superior, and I wonder how they’ll fair in a quarter of a century.

8:00 pm: Dinner at Benoit’s place. We eat delicious Japanese food prepared by his (Japanese) wife and a Japanese apprentice-chef working in the top local restaurant – it’s a nice treat for a weary traveler to have a family meal at home. We finish off the old bottles of Vacheron, and end the night with an excellent 1997 Chavet Menetou-Salon white with some local Crottin de Chavignol, the region’s famous goat cheese, and the first of many cheese tastings to come.

I get to bed by midnight, a reasonable hour.

Monday September 10th:

8:00 am: Hélène from the BIVC meets me at the hotel and we’re off to the other side of the river for visits in Pouilly, chez Régis Minet and Tinel-Blondelet. We get lost, thanks to the maddening French fashion of signposting domaines just off the main highways, but once you’re drawn deep into the French countryside, the signs slowly but surely stop appearing at forks in the road. This is not the Napa Valley; many estates don’t even have a sign outside the cellar door. We pass the only man on the street in the tiny hamlet of Le Bouchot, who looks bemusedly at the tourists whizzing by. Then by process of elimination, we end up back in front of the only plausible building that might house tanks and a press. There’s the same man standing there, now smiling, Monsieur Minet.

Domaine Régis Minet, Puilly-sur-Loire

9:00 am: Domaine Régis Minet is a small two-man operation that produces about 60,000 bottles annually. Régis’ son is preparing to take over the estate in a couple of years, but for the moment he’s selling Champagne in Africa. Régis’ assistant is trimming the cedar hedge in the courtyard; no job is too menial in a two-man business. Hélène and I jump in his station wagon to go tour the vines. AOC Pouilly-Fumé is roughly half the size of Sancerre at 1,300ha total, with about half the number of producers, too. We’re truly in the centre of the Loire Valley here; we pass the bridge that marks exactly the halfway point from the Loire’s source in the Massive Central to where the river reaches the Atlantic Ocean, another 496km downstream.

La Loire

The Middle of the Loire

Soils vary here as they do in Sancerre between clay-limestone and clay-silex variations, visible on the vineyards’ surface with changes in texture and colour. Across the sweeping landscape, more gently undulating than the steeper hills of Sancerre, it’s easy to spot the conventionally farmed vineyards with their immaculately clean, sterile soils and their deep, luminescent green leaves. By this point in mid-September, organically farmed vines without chemical stimulation are already starting to shut down, and their leaves are beginning to yellow – exactly what should be happening in a normal growth cycle. I also see several dead vines amongst the living, and learn that a scourge worse than phylloxera is attacking vineyards across the country. It’s called esca, or grapevine decline, a wood disease caused by fungi that attack roots and pruning wounds. It’s slow and insidious, and it’s estimated that approximately 10% of France’s vineyards are affected and die each year. This means that in the worse case scenario, in ten years all of France’s vineyards will have been, or will need to be replanted. There’s no known remedy.

Back at the domaine, Minet shows us the old, small cellar out of which his father used to sell wine and his mother goat cheese to passers-by in the ‘60s. It’s interesting to note that living exclusively from vineyards and wine even here in a high-profile appellation like Pouilly-Fumé is a recent phenomenon. As in many traditional winegrowing regions of the old world, polyculture was standard practice. In the Loire Valley that meant other crops, fruits, vegetables and of course tending to a few goats in order to produce the region’s now famous goat cheeses.

Goat Cheese and Wine Breakfast with Régis Minet

Contrary to the current, single vineyard fashion, Minet makes only 3 wines, despite farming 11 different parcels. We see the very fine Pouilly-Fumé Vieilles Vignes here in Canada, his flagship wine and the one that legendary US Francophile importer Kermit Lynch has been importing into the US for 25 years. The 2011 has a tight, shy, highly mineral nose, though the palate shows unexpected fleshiness, fruitiness and ripeness. This is one of the particularities of top Loire sauvignon: the ability to make fully ripe wines (no green pepper or jalapeño flavors), yet still come in light and lean, with low alcohol (12.5-13%), high acid and palpable chalky-mineral texture. We do the tasting in informal fashion down at what Minet calls his “Canadian House”, a kit log cabin he was inspired to build on the banks of the Loire after a trip to Québec some years ago. It’s a perfect way to sample the wines of the region, while overlooking the river that defines it. Naturally, there’s a big chuck of firm, farmhouse goat’s cheese on the table and a fresh, crusty baguette.  Along with a cool glass of Pouilly-Fumé, that’s breakfast, Loire-style.

Domaine Tinel-Blondelet, Pouilly-sur-Loire

11:30 am: The cheese was so good and the view so pleasant, we arrive half an hour late for the next appointment. Annick Tinel has been called away on some urgent business, but we’re left in the capable hands of her cellar manager. This is a six-generation family operation that was divided by Annick’s father. Annick’s sister now runs Masson-Blondelet, while she runs Tinel-Blondelet, a pattern of confusing names that’s repeated across France thanks to the Napoleonic code of heritance which states that property must be equally divided among all children (but in this case you’re safe in choosing either – they’re both very solid producers).

I spot a rare bottle of Pouilly-sur-Loire that I am keen to try, an appellation for the chasselas grape that has all but disappeared; there are only a few dozen hectares of chasselas left in the region. It’s one of those wines that you read about and memorize for some sommelier examination, but that you never actually see. Annick, however, is dedicated to keeping the tradition alive (“faire honneur aux anciens”), but it’s a funny tradition. Pouilly used to be a major supplier of table grapes for Paris, being just a day’s cart ride away, and in the late 1800s, chasselas was the most planted variety for this purpose. But then along came the railways, which enabled grape growers in the south of France to ship their cheaper and earlier-ripening grapes to Paris weeks ahead of Pouilly’s. The market collapsed and local growers were left with a glut of chasselas; there was no other remedy other than to make wine. And thus, the tradition of Pouilly-sur-Loire chasselas-based wine was born. I taste the 2011. It’s pleasant, supple, with an apple-like flavor. But it’s time to move on the Pouilly-Fumé.

Of Tinel-Blondelet’s two cuvees, Genetin from limestone soils, and L’Arrêt Buffatte from Kimmeridgian-marne soils (which are more or less identical to what you’d find in Chablis just 45m away by car), I prefer the latter. It’s just that much more mineral, refined and classy, like comparing a VW Passat and an Audi Quattro – the Audi has more or less the same engine, but with a few more elegant finishing touches. Although in this case there’s little price difference.

12:45 pm: I get a text message from Bill. He’s finally arrived and is waiting for us on the terrace of the Restaurant Le P’tit Berry in Saint Satur, drinking espressos in the warm September sunshine. We join shortly thereafter for a simple prix fix lunch. I have the typical French salad composed of more protein and fat (confited duck gizzards) than greens, followed by roast duck leg. It’s all washed down by some additional samples of Régis Minet and Tinel Blondelet that Bill missed, plus a perfectly chilled bottle of Daniel Chotard Sancerre Rouge, a brilliant match with the duck.

Domaine Pascal Jolivet, Sancerre

2:30 pm: We’re back across the river in Sancerre, still running half an hour behind. We’re met by estate viticulturalist Yanick Cadiou for a tour of the vineyards, and tell him we have only about 45 minutes. He shakes his head and noisily draws air into his mouth with a sucking sound, the French way of saying that that will be tough. Once in his car we immediately begin a deep discussion on organic farming. It turns out that Cadiou spent 27 years as vineyard manager at Domaine Laroche in Chablis, and has been hired on at Jolivet to aid in the conversion of his 42ha of vines to organic farming, following the success of a small trial on Jolivet’s Chêne Marchand parcel. Jolivet makes an impressive range of wines from the entry-level “Attitude” sauvignon blanc under the Vin de Pays de Loire appellation, up to a series of single parcel wines from both Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Although a sizable and successful commercial operation, Jolivet’s wine maker Jean-Luc Soty is willing to take risks in order to let the terroirs speak as crisply as possible. Natural yeasts are allowed to ferment must, most famously in the cuvee called “Indigène”, in reference to indigenous (wild) yeasts present on the grapes and in the winery.

Playing in the dirt with Yanick Cadiou

Considering the low-intervention winemaking and the wealth of different parcels in both Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé appellations, it seemed an opportune time to ask the question most frequently on a sommeliers’ minds when considering the Central Loire: What’s the difference between Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé? Well, the short answer is, not much. Jean-Luc and Yanick pause and look at each other when the question is posed, neither really wanting to answer first. In reality, most winemakers in the region would be hard pressed to identify one from the other in blind tastings. You’d stand a better chance of identifying soil types: limestone, kimmeridgian marne, silex, and clay, all of which are found in both appellations. Certain vineyards in Sancerre might achieve higher degrees of ripeness given steeper, south-facing slopes, but you’d have to be pretty sharp to pick them apart.

I enjoy the tight and minerally 2011 Sancerre Chêne Marchand and 2010 Sancerre Sauvage, both from limestone, as well as the ripe and powerful Pouilly-Fumé Les Griottes (limestone). But it’s the Pouilly-Fumé Indigène, an unfined, unfiltered cuvee from silex soils that steals the show on the day. I’m glad I didn’t have to figure out which was which. We’re late.

Domaine Alphonse Mellot, Sancerre

4:30 pm: It’s back to the village of Sancerre for a visit with local legend Alphonse Mellot. I’ve been here once before about 10 years ago, back in the days I was importing French wines with Vinifera Wine Services. At the time we were treated to an epic tasting of just about every tank and barrel in Mellot’s cellar, which is considerable, plus bottles. I could see history repeating itself: a friend from Ottawa, Ian Martin, who was on the tour 10 years ago, happened by sheer astronomical coincidence to be in Sancerre that afternoon. He joined us just as we entered Mellot’s cellar.

Our discussion with Mellot centered on harvest timing and the use of barrels to make Sancerre blanc, a somewhat contentious issue. He farms biodynamically with his son, who is slowly taking over the reigns of the operation, and believes, as most serious vignerons do, that all of the work is done in the vines. Mellot is a strong believer in “phenolic ripeness”, technical talk for picking grapes at optimum maturity. Bill was struggling with the acidity in some of the Sancerres we had been tasting, complaining of a hard, green, malic bite, like biting into a tart green apple. As grapes ripen, the balance of tartaric and malic acid (the two main types of acids found in grapes) starts to shift.  The riper the grapes, the less malic acid and therefore the less of a harsh, acidic crunch you’ll have. Mellot’s wines were clearly ripe; he reiterates what we have heard elsewhere: choosing the right harvest time is one of the most important decisions on the winemaker’s calendar.

Then there’s the issue of wood. Mellot uses wood for most of his cuvees, which some would decry as a denaturing of terroir, obscuring the nuances of soil with the taste of wood. Mellot argues that it’s a question of time, that wood will integrate, and that the extra aeration permitted by wood as opposed to stainless steel allows a better expression of the terroir to emerge over time. It’s an ongoing debate in the world of wine, and while I believe in the use of wood as a natural, porous, breathable container for ageing wine, the flavor of new wood, when too much is used, obscures nuances of terroir.

Street Party outside Domaine Mellot

The debate raged on for a few hours, finishing on the street outside of Mellot’s cellar door, where we continued to taste wines. Other savvy locals who know to wander by his cellars during aperitif hour slowly joined in, then a group of Austrian tourists rolled up for a tasting. A local sommelier named Nadine on her day off eventually joined. Soon, it was a street party. First older bottles came out (and more guessing games – Bill was en form for this round and nailed a couple), then back to the dark corners of the cellar for extra innings, culminating in a tasting of Mellot’s solera-style Sancerre, a wine that had been in barrel for 24 years, topped up each year by some fresh wine. Not surprisingly it tasted like sherry. Very good sherry, mind you.

By this point Bill had escaped to the hotel for a quick shower and change before dinner, while Ian and I carried on the tasting/debate. We were rescued by Hélène and Bill shortly before 8pm, just as the beers were about to hit the table, and it was off to dinner.

Dinner at Restaurant La Pomme d’Or, Sancerre

8:00 pm: We meet Sophie, from Domaine Eric Louis, in the stylish Pomme d’Or restaurant that specializes in local cuisine with a modern twist. It’s a convivial night; Ian and Nadine join for dinner as well. We taste several bottles from Louis: they’re clean, pure, floral, classic examples of the region. Hélène decides to order a bottle of Châteaumeillant, an obscure appellation up-river from Sancerre that’s technically part of the Centre Loire and thus under her commercial purview. It’s a gamay-pinot noir blend grown on granite soils, and it’s delicious, the sort of wine you chill lightly and quaff back with a plate of charcuterie. The bottle doesn’t last long. Then I insist on ordering a bottle of François Cotat’s Sancerre Les Monts Damnés, the top wine from one of the legendary producers of the region, who had been on our wish list of visits but could not accommodate. When it arrives, it pours thick and viscous. I check the label: 15.3% alcohol. It’s hard to drink after all the lovely, crisp, fresh Sancerres and Pouillys we’d been enjoying thus far. It was like an aberration of the region. I understand now why Cotat has been denied appellation declaration on some of his wines in the past – they’re definitely not typical.

The night ends late, finishing up with a sip of champagne at the only bar that’s open for miles around, the Hotel des Remparts. The hotel is slightly downhill.

Tuesday September 11th:

It’s a bleak and grey morning for reasons extending beyond the weather. But sufficient coffee and a quick sandwich are enough to regain faculties and prepare for the day ahead. Two more visits are planned in Sancerre this morning, both in the small village of Verdigny.

Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy Verdigny, Sancerre

Bill and Hippolyte Reverdy

Bill with Hippolyte Reverdy

9:30 am: We’re 30 minutes late, but at least we’re consistent. Hippolyte himself greets us as we roll into the courtyard and park. He too has been selling to Kermit Lynch for nearly 30 years, though a short period in the family’s history, which has been in the region since the 1500s. Like his ancestors, M. Reverdy was born here and will surely pass here. He’s the model of the humble French vigneron: a man of few words, somewhere in his mid-fifties and single, with no one yet designated to take over the family estate. After the mandatory trip up to the vineyards, we’re back down in the tasting room.

There’s nothing special going on here, no luxury cuvees nor vineyard selections nor extraordinary winemaking techniques, just three wines: white, red and rosé. With the right grapes in the right place, there’s not much else one need do. He fills our glasses and sits back in silence. Clearly his wines will do the talking for him. If I had one word to describe them, it would be textbook. Again they showed the marvelous combination of tight, mineral character bolstered by fleshy, ripe fruit on the palate and framed by riveting acidity that Sancerre does so well. The rouge, too, is excellent, full of exuberant tart red fruit, floral tones and juicy acidity, the way Sancerre rouge was meant to be. We bid adieu to M. Reverdy and make our way to the next appointment.

Domaine Roger et Didier Raimbault Verdigny, Sancerre

10:30 am: Thanks to the short tasting at Reverdy, we’re almost on time for the rendez-vous at Domaine Raimbault. We meet Didier, the 39 year old, 10th generation of the Raimbault family to grow grapes in Verdigny. Roots run deep here. His father Roger was the first in the family to live exclusively from the vine. Like most other domaines in the region, mixed agriculture was the way of life, a much smarter hedge than monoculture considering the vagaries of the weather and the shortage of supermarkets. But times have changed. Roger started with two hectares and thirty goats; Didier now farms 17 hectares, and buys excellent goat’s cheese from the neighbors.

Pierre à fusil with Raimbault

Connecting with the terroir at Raimbault

He shows us a few parcels of vines, some on so-called terres blanches, limestone-rich soils also known as griottes, and other parcels on caillotes, similar in origin yet filled with small white pebbles that crumble and make their way to the base of the slopes. These different parcels are usually blended to make the regular estate Sancerre as well as the vieilles vignes cuvee, but we have a chance to taste the 2011s still in tank, with the different terroirs unblended. The caillotes has a fine, zesty mineral attack and marked freshness, though finishes rather short. The griottes is much firmer, harder, less giving up front but much longer on the finish. It’s fascinating yet again to see such marked differences arise from nothing other than soil type, and also easy to see why the two terroirs are blended to make a more complete estate wine.

We move on to taste some bottles of finished wine, including a 2008 Vieilles Vignes, which is just starting to show some bottle age, and it’s showing nicely. Most people consider Sancerre a wine for drinking as young as possible, but in reality, the top wines age beautifully, as we also saw at Vacheron and Alphonse Mellot. As Didier puts it while we’re marveling at the wine, “il faut laisser le temps au temps”, a wonderfully cryptic French expression that means literally, “you must leave time to time”, but whose essence translates to something more like “one must leave time to do time’s work”. Time can’t be rushed. I contemplate this as I sip and nibble on some extraordinarily good goat’s cheese, from a local farmer, of course.

Domaine Fouassier, Sancerre

1:30 pm: After a classic French country picnic lunch, including goat’s cheese, and comprehensive tasting back in the cellars of Vacheron (Bill didn’t want to miss out, so lunch at the bistro was canceled and arrangements were made), we say goodbye once and for all to Jean-Lo and Jean-Do, and arrive at our last appointment in Sancerre, Domaine Fouassier.

The Fouassiers are another local family with ten generations of grape growing and winemaking history. Today they farm 57 hectares of vineyards organically/biodynamically, of which 10ha is pinot noir. Somewhat unique for the region is that Domaine Fouassier has been bottling different terroirs separately since the 1980s, long before single vineyards were all the rage and the word terroir was bandied about with marketing gravitas. The labels on Fouassier wines are conveniently colour-coded to convey the soil type, roughly equivalent to the actual colour of the soils in each terroir. I fall for the silex cuvees again: Les Chailloux, Les Romains and Le Clos de Bannon, the most intensely mineral of the range of 16 wines (we taste 11). Les Vallons, grown on limestone, is also very fine, delicate, nervous, an accurate reflection of its origins from what I’ve learned over the last three days.

Departure for the city of Tours

3:00 pm: By this point, I’m utterly shattered, and I sleep most of the way to Tours. The next part of the adventure will take us from Vouvray to Muscadet through Anjou-Touraine and the Pays Nantais. We leave sauvignon and pinot noir behind and look ahead to cabernet franc, chenin blanc and melon.

Stay tuned. Parts II and III of John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure will be published over the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can access a list of recommended Loire Valley wines here.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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John Szabo’s Loire Valley Adventure

A Visit To The Valley of the Vigneron in Search of Typicity and Drinkability

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Six days and a dozen and a half wineries later, and we had yet to meet a single export director or brand ambassador. This is the Loire Valley, after all, land of the small, family-run estate. And so much the better. My terroir-hunting partner, Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Zacharkiw and I were eager to go straight to the source, to absorb information directly from the individual who’s out pruning the vines, sitting on a tractor, picking the grapes, stomping on them, carefully raising the resulting wine, bottling it and then looking to find somewhere to sell it. This is often the same person in such small operations. No time for commercial spin or marketing mumbo jumbo. A journalist can’t ask for anything more – zero degrees of separation.

Chateau du Nozet

Chateau du Nozet in Pouilly

Two interprofessional organizations came together to facilitate the trip: the BIVC (representing appellations of the Centre Loire (including Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé), and InterLoire, representing the rest of the region. Our directives were clear and respected: no bottling line tours, no massive tastings, no dozen wineries a day. We wanted to see vineyards, speak to key figures in each appellation, and taste a few representative samples that connect the dots from dirt to glass. Zarcharkiw and I pre-selected the majority of the producers we were to visit so expectations were high, though there were also a few surprises. In the end, we had not one single disappointing visit. Every stop along the way immersed us as profoundly in the wines of the area as possible in such a short time. It was a week-long master class in terroir; the only time we entered into cellars was to taste recent vintages from tank or barrel. I came home with a pocket full of rocks, too.

Curiously enough, as it wasn’t a conscious goal, but virtually everyone on our wish list and whom we ended up visiting practiced either organic or biodynamic viticulture, or some other form of reasoned farming. Now, I’m not an apostle for organics/biodynamics (BD), and indeed I’ve heard some very cogent arguments against the blind application of, say, BD principles without reason – sort of an agricultural determinism that doesn’t sit well philosophically. (Perhaps the most prescient related comment of the week came from Mathieu Baudry in Chinon, who hopes that the mention of organic or biodynamic on wine labels will disappear within the next decade. Why, he asks, “is it up to us [organic producers] to prove that we’re natural by some kind of certification? In the wine world it’s a case of being guilty before proven innocent. Why not force conventional winemakers instead to disclose the products they use in farming and winemaking on their labels?” Now there’s a thought.)

Vineyards in Verdigny Looking at Sancerre

Vineyards in Verdigny Looking at Sancerre

In any case, the coincidence between a natural approach and quality wine was once again too startling to ignore. People who spend more time in their vines (necessary for organic/BD) tend to make more interesting wines. For me it represents the most effective way of producing wines that adhere to the original principles of France’s Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) system. The goal of the AOC system was to guarantee that wines were, to quote, “franc, loyaux et constant”, that is, “frank” (honest, unmanipulated – a crucial distinction in the days post-phylloxera when counterfeit wines were rampant), “faithful” (a genuine reflection of the region), and “consistent” (similar, recognizable, typical profile from year to year). The Loire Valley is one of the world’s leading regions when it comes to organic/BD viticulture, and the result is a lot of typicity. And it’s not because the climate is so clement either – it’s not. It’s a difficult choice here.

But speaking of typicity (see my thoughts on the importance and usefulness of typicity from last week here), The Loire Valley is the source of world archetypes of all four of the principal grape varieties grown here: sauvignon blanc (Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé), cabernet franc (Chinon, Bourgueil, St. Nicholas de Bourgueil, Saumur Champigny), chenin blanc (Vouvray and Savennières, and Coteaux du Layon for sweet versions), and melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet). These regions have been, and in many cases still are, the yardsticks against which the rest of the world measures their iterations of these varieties.

The net result is that the Loire is fertile hunting ground for wine lovers and sommeliers. The best wines are certainly distinctive, and what’s more, the generally cool climate results in overwhelmingly vibrant, fresh, crisply acidic, eminently food friendly styles, red, white or rosé. And finally, the wines are also relatively inexpensive. Under $25 gets you a classic version of any of the archetype appellations mentioned above, often even less, and under $15 for Muscadet is a comfortable budget.

Yet for myriad reasons, excluding inexpensiveness but including, paradoxically, the reasons given above that make Loire wines an insider’s choice (namely the distinctive wine styles and lean structure), sales of Loire wines remain flat in parts of the country. Ontario posted just a 1.3% increase by value in 2011 vs 2010 ($4.1m CAD). Québec, on the other hand, a bastion of support for the Loire, clocked in a 15% gain by value in the same period, up from a significantly larger base, too, to $30.6m CAD. The Loire is not terribly fashionable, at least in Ontario. But considering its strengths, already figured out in Québec, I suspect that will change here.

If you’re interested in the details, here’s a link to Part I of John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure. (Parts II and III will be published over the coming weeks). I’ve included some recommended producers and wines – so you may just find yourself inspired to drink Loire tonight.


John Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

John’s Loire Valley Picks

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Rediscovering Provence with Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

My yearly pilgrimage to this beloved region of the South of France is always too fleeting, as there is more to discover than one ever has time for. Even after 30 years of traveling to the same destination of the village of Avignon (though admittedly, for a number of those I was a little young for wine appreciation, even by French standards) it amazes me that I am still discovering new regions, sites and villages surrounding the area. (My father – a professor of English and drama – had a research interest in the Marquis de Sade, meaning that I spent most summers, and two full-year sabbaticals, frequenting the Marquis’ homeland with my family). As an adult, I returned to France to complete my winemaking internship and now bring my two toddlers to our homestead as a summer tradition.

Viret Site

During these yearly stays, ambition to explore the region further is sometimes quelled by the relaxing pace of the Southern French and of course, the unrelenting heat that requires afternoon repose; however, despite a desire to stay put at a café, I was determined to revisit some memorable spots and discover new haunts this time around. A casual visit to Tavel, a trek into the mountainous region of the Drôme to see the temple built for wine of Philippe Viret and a memorable tasting at Château Beaucastel with Thomas Perrin were some of the highlights of my month-long stay. With a great deal to pass on, I will here distill what you may not know about Provence.

Before getting to the meat of it, I would like to acknowledge that we have featured heavily the wines of the Southern Rhône here at WineAlign over the past month but this is simply due to the exceptional quality of these wines currently available at the LCBO. This in turn is at least in part due to the remarkable vintages of 2009 and 2010 that showcase the extraordinary power and character of this region but also the surprising elegance that can arise from such vintages. Unfortunately, these vintages are framed by the challenging years of 2008 and 2011. Producers of the south report having to declassify a significant portion of wine from the elevated appellations this past year. We can expect is a great deal of good value Côtes-du-Rhône and a savings in your pocket from this upcoming 2011 vintage release yet to grace our shelves. Without further ado, let’s have a look at the major southern appellations through a tasting with the proprietor of Famille Perrin wines.

An Appellation Education with Thomas Perrin

Although this was not the first time I’ve had the opportunity to visit Château Beaucastel, visits to this prestigious Château always yield new knowledge and insight into the Southern Rhône. It is not a generalization to state that the wines of the Northern Rhône – appellations such as Cote Rotie and Hermitage – have a much greater reverence in our North American minds than the sunny appellations of the south. Many of us are stumped at being able to name more than one appellation and when it comes to telling the differences, most of us are at a loss.  We’re in good company; however, as most of the local French I spoke to had a hard time describing the unique properties of their southern appellations. Names such as Cairanne and Rasteau may sound familiar, and so they should, but knowing that they refer to villages along the Rhône that represent unique features of the terroir may not be in your databank (perhaps they are and you are all the better for it). Therefore, ripe for discovery at prices that the north can’t beat, the appellations of the Southern Rhône can thrill, charm and excite.

Thanks to the newly renamed “Famille Perrin” brand, a full collection of Southern Rhône, appellation-specific wines are now all available in Ontario through Vintages. Using these examples, I’ve outlined some of the unique characters of five of the most revered appellation that often fall in the shadow of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Reviews of these wines and availability can be found here.

I was fortunate to have had to opportunity to sit down with proprietor Thomas Perrin who tasted through the complete portfolio of Perrin (all of which are available at LCBO/Vintages). The insight he imparted was tremendous. Out of respect for the limits of the reader’s attention span, I have outlined what I believe will be of greatest use. The following are descriptions of what you can expect sensorially from wines of these red-focused appellations.


Wines from this region grow on higher elevations on the slopes of the valley. This is where syrah thrives in the Southern Rhône due both to the cooler temperature influences and the rocky, gravely soil, which has a greater affinity to the varietal. Wines here tend to be spicy with great depth and intensity, much more akin to the unblended syrah wines of the Northern Rhône. Although grenache is still planted in large quantities on these slopes, a higher percentage of syrah is planted here in the vineyards of Perrin than other of the appellation series wines.


Vacqueyras is rich with sandy soils and is a region favored with excessive heat. Grenache reigns supreme here and makes up 80% of the blend. The wines of Vacqueyras tend to be more muscular and require more substantial food pairings. Although the wines of Vacqueyras lack some of the elegance and prestige of Gigondas, falling in the shadow of the latter’s greatness, terrific value can still be found in them, especially for those who appreciate a more powerful style of red.


After Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas is one of the most distinguished appellations of the Southern Rhône. Prices are generally just slightly less than those of Châteauneuf. Vineyards are located on the slopes of the valley on calcareous and clay-rich terraces and are subject to more significant wind, which temper the wines. Both power and freshness makes this a wine of great depth and finesse.


The vineyards of Cairanne are located on flat, hot ground or low altitude slopes and are made up of a significant amount of clay.  Grenache thrives here and the wines are often bold, approachable and chewy. The wines of Cairanne typically have great character, generosity and are widely appealing.


Rasteau is perhaps the most rustic or wild of the southern appellations and often features a touch of volatility along with good levels of natural acidity but also very ripe flavours. Made almost entirely from grenache grown on clay and limestone rich hillsides, this appellation has only recently been elevated from village status to an AOC in its own right.

An Afternoon in Tavel


The region of Tavel, a 20 minute drive northwest of Avignon (that is if you make all the correct turns at the dizzying rond-points), is home to the world’s most famous rosés. And rosés are all you will find. This highly specialized appellation, almost directly across the Rhône from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, turns grenache, cinsault, syrah and mourvèdre into fragrant, dry and often ageworthy styles of rosé. Not only was Tavel preferred by the likes of Louis XIV and Balzac, but it is the beverage of choice for men and women of the region all summer long. Refreshing, revered and versatile with food, it is a tough beverage to compete with. However, don’t expect anything too cutting edge from Tavel. It stands quite heavily on its reputation, and its traditional style reigns supreme. That being said, it is a worthy trip and generally fairly open to tourists without necessitating appointments.

If you would like to try a sampling of Tavels from organic to award-winning as well as distinctive wines of the surrounding region of Lirac, the local cooperative that pools together the resources of 60 growers, produces a range of highly satisfying wines that will give you a great starting point. Also, if you’re travelling with kids who are surely not as passionate about the tasting bar as you, there is an indoor play area that is sure to occupy the little tikes long enough for a thorough dégustation. Unfortunately, we do not see these reasonably-priced example that often in the LCBO, but a couple of noteworthy examples currently available include:

Château D’aquéria Tavel Rosé 2011, Ac, Rhone, France, 319368, $18.95
One of the prettiest estates in the small region, Chateau d’Aqueria resides just on the village outskirts and is fortunately well marked and welcoming to visitors.

Famille Perrin Tavel Rosé 2011, Ac, Rhone, France, 680801, $19.95 In good supply this summer through Vintages, the Famille Perrin Tavel is a terrific and consistent example of this traditional and respected rosé.

The Fascinating Cosmos of Domaine Viret

Fascinated by the complex and seemingly mysterious wines of biodynamic culture? Then get ready for the latest viticultural and winemaking movement, that of ‘Cosmoculture’. A practice created and currently used exclusively by the wines of Domaine Viret, is located in the mountainous upper regions of the Southern Rhône.  These wines are unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before.

Intrigued by an earlier report by my colleague, John Szabo, I set up an appointment with owner Philippe Viret (whose father began charting the course of Cosmoculture decades ago) and his export director, Christophe Mingeaud. Admittedly, I thought the guy would be, well, somewhat distracted from reality, but what I discovered was one of the most reasonable people I’d ever met.

The winery is located in what is known as the Drôme, the region surrounding and including the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains (they are the foothills of the highest, picturesque peak of Mont Ventoux), about an hour north of Avignon near the town of Vaison-la-Romaine. Although the vineyards have been in the family for several generations now, the winery was built in the mid-90’s and its location very carefully chosen, directly above a natural water source on the property. Philippe’s father was a water wizard by trade and became fascinated by the knots of energy created by water pressure in the ground. Much of the viticultural practices are based on the counterbalance of these pressure points.

After spending the better part of the day with Viret I was able to comprehend merely the tip of the iceberg of the philosophy and practices of Cosmoculture. I was therefore elated to find that Viret believes it takes about 10 years to develop a full comprehension of Cosmoculture as it relates to a particular site.  I will attempt to provide a basic overview of these principles, as described by the winery.

Philippe and his father Alain have developed a theory based on ancient energetic fields existing on their property. While merging organic and biodynamic principles, Cosmoculture allows for the inclusion of bio-energetic principles in an attempt to balance, re-engergize and preserve existing ecosystems. Water is at the heart of these principles as it is the life sustaining force behind all organisms and living cells. The individual, or man, is a fundamental element in the sphere of Cosmoculture. Fields of telluric and cosmic energy link man, vegetation, and animals.

Sounds a little fanciful? If the careful attention to scientific method and the resulting wines of Domaine Viret are any indication, this practice is much more grounded, meticulous, perceptive and reasonable than its lofty description would have you believe.

Very well versed in the practices of biodynamic winemaking, the winery was certified for many years. Although Viret still has tremendous respect for the practice, several issues that were not addressed by biodynamic practices led him away from this strict application of preparations. Specifically, the Virets wanted to engage more rigorously with the scientific method, experimenting and studying to ensure that the preparations made sense for the needs of a particular site. Furthermore, biodynamic practices did not quite take into account the Viret’s particular interest in what they believe are the various fields of energy and internal pressure points of the vineyard. Although the Virets have trademarked the practice of Cosmoculture, it is not their intention to commercialize the practice. They are heavily involved in training local grape growers (as they buy from them for their entry level wines) and hope that those who come to train will benefit in some way from their strategies.

Viret Ancient Amphora Vessel

Instead of oak barrels, the mighty and ancient amphora vessel has long been used by Viret to age wine. Inspired by Sicilian tradition, Viret decided that these vessels would be well worth experimenting with in his winery, but was determined to do clay his way. The amphorae are now crafted by a local artisan in the nearby village and incorporate a small amount of local earth to make local, focal. However, due to the fact that the clay in the area doesn’t quite strike the right consistency or degree of porousness, (and much experimentation has been done), a large component of the clay comes from Burgundy. Viret has also played with the shape, enhancing the egg-shaped property of the vessel to adhere to the Golden Mean, a mathematically ‘divine’ proportion found naturally in the egg shape as well as the womb and some seeds. The value of this shape, from a wine-aging perspective anyway, is that the wine cools faster in the narrower top portion than in the wider bottom portion. The clay-cooled, denser wine sinks to the bottom, forcing the warmer liquid to rise through the center, achieving a continual cycle of energy, eliminating stagnation. This ‘golden’ shape is used throughout the winery strategically. These unique vessels are now in high demand throughout Europe, a side-effect of which is that Viret has become an amphora dealer of sorts.

Viret Amphora with Sara

Not all the wines are amphorae aged – some are aged and fermented in large oak containers called foudres, that are lined with cement. Cement tanks are preferred due to the naturally mineral content they impart. Mineral character and freshness are the driving forces behind the strikingly intense verve and energy in these wines and truly sets them apart from traditionally styled wines. Because natural acidity is limited in the grapes of this hot climate, heightened minerality is coaxed out the varietals in order to boost the acid levels and add freshness. The resulting wines have an ethereal electricity about them that is quite surprising and unusual.

The complex practices are too great to outline but have been carefully described by Philippe in a book on the practice that is near completion. But what is most immediately stunning are the visuals of the temple to wine that the Virets have built. I have already mentioned that the location of the winery was specifically chosen, but the materials used and the sheer grandeur of the edifice is quite remarkable. Once again, drawing on ancient tradition from Roman to Egyptian, over a thousand, large 6 tonne stones from the quarry that built the free-standing Roman aqueduct of the Pont du Guard, and cut on premises, make up the walls of this palace. The thick walls make for a naturally cool interior despite the searing heat of the exterior. Chambers for the larger amphora above ground exist already and the chambers for the smaller, buried amphora are currently under construction. A magnificent dining and presentation hall, an ingeniously curved wine cellar for library bottles, a state of the art kitchen, and a stunning terrace with a 360 degree view of the valley are either complete or very shortly on their way to being so.

So, if all you got out of this account is that these wines are, well, different and worth discoveries, then that’s all you need to know.  A complete list of reviews of the wines of Viret, imported by Tannin Fine Wines, can be viewed here.

From celebrated, stalwart traditionalists to the innovative and avant-garde, the Southern Rhône is full of personalities and a terrific range of wines. With more to discover than can be imagined, there is never a dull moment when travelling to this aromatic and sunny part of the world. Luckily, these days, this diversity is in great part, available no further than the LCBO.

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