Part III - Chinon-Saumur
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.
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
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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, Master Sommelier