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Bill’s Best Bets – August 2016

Praise to chenin
by Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

I get asked all the time about my favourite grape varieties. I make no bones about it, I am predominately a white wine drinker. But asking me my favourite grape is like asking me which of my kids I prefer. I guess it depends on the day.

If it’s not at the top, than very close to the top, is chenin blanc. I love its versatility and ability to make wines in a plethora of styles, which is why it can be confusing for the consumer. But be it sparkling wine, completely dry, or sweet, they are some of the most interesting white wines out there, and with an ability to age with the best of them.

Part of the reason why chenin blanc is not as well known as other white grapes has to do with its history. Even for many winemakers, it was a rather marginalized grape. That was never an identity problem in its home in France’s Anjou/Touraine region of the Loire Valley. But in South Africa, where at one time it made up a third of all planted vines, it was used primarily for distillation for the country’s excellent brandies.

During my last trip to South Africa back in 2012, I was amazed by how many winemakers were indifferent to chenin blanc. One, when asked why more high quality chenin blanc wasn’t being produced – considering they have so many old vines scattered around the country – responded that “if you grew up hating peas, then it’s hard to like them when you get older.”

By 2009, chenin blanc plantings had dropped to under 20%. When growing grapes destined to be made into booze, one need not take the same care as in making table wine, so it’s understandable that the quality was middling. Thankfully the carnage is over and chenin has stabilized at 18% of South Africa’s total vineyard and we are seeing more and more fantastic chenin coming out of South Africa.

California once was one of the world’s biggest growers of chenin blanc, but it was consistently used to make bulk wine or cheap sparkling wines. Over the last 30 years, chenin plantings have been decimated to the point that there is barely any left. But since 2010, more is being planted.

Chenin blanc growing in Vouvray

Chenin blanc growing in Vouvray

Chenin never had these problems in the Loire Valley. Here, chenin blanc reaches levels of greatness that put it on par with the great white wines of the world. You might know some of the appellation names like Vouvray, Jasnières, Savannières, or Anjou.

So why don’t we see the same greatness from other places around the world? Much like merlot, chenin blanc can grow pretty well anywhere and produce large quantities of grapes. But to get quality, the vine requires a very particular mix of climate and soils.

Wine maker Thierry Puzelat explained to me that “too much to the west it is too humid (so they grow Muscadet) and too far to the east, it simply won’t ripen (so they grow sauvignon blanc). It works best halfway between and Oceanic and continental climates. And all these factors, he says, “explains why it has never become an international grape like chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.”

Swartland's Adi Badenhorst walking his old vines

Swartland’s Adi Badenhorst walking his old vines

Puzelat compares chenin blanc to riesling in that it is a “terroir pump.” Chenin can generate truffle notes when grown in the limestone of Touraine and more petrol notes on the shales of Anjou. I love it because of this mystery. Chenin truly is an adventure to drink.

Even within the Anjou-Touraine, chenin comes in a number of different styles, which makes it a hard grape to communicate. The easiest style to understand is the sparkling. The region is second in France in terms of sparkling wine production, and is made in seven different appellations including Vouvray, and Cremant de Loire. These are made using the “méthode traditionelle,” or a secondary fermentation in bottle as in Champagne.

Sparkling wine is always a good idea and one of my favourites is the Vouvray from Vincent Carême. And if you can’t find that one, one of the better value sparkling wines at the SAQ is the Cuvée Prédiliction from Château Montcontour.

Domaine Vincent Carême Vouvray Brut 2013Château Moncontour Cuvée Prédilection Vouvray Mousseux Secateurs Badenhorst Chenin Blanc 2015 Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2015

If you want a still wine, the options are many. Some wines play the acid/sugar balance, much like German or Niagara riesling, while others are technically dry. You will often find aromas of quince, apple, apricot, pear and peach in the wines. For older wines – even after one or two years in bottle – aromas of honey, olive and mushroom start to appear.

If you want “bone dry” wines, look to either Loire’s Savannières, Saumur, or try a wine from South Africa or from around the world. One of the top chenins from South Africa is from Ari Badenhorst, both subtle and finessed. From Ken Forrester, the 2015 old vines has a touch more power, and well worth your $20 investment. And if you want real value wines, few whites at the SAQ match the chenins from Douglas Green and Robertson Winery.

Douglas Green Chenin Blanc 2015 Robertson Winery Chenin Blanc 2015 By Chadsey's Cairns Chenin Blanc 2014 Domaine Patrick Baudouin Anjou Effusion 2014

And while it is not available at the SAQ, just next door in Prince Edward County is a great little chenin from Chadsey’s Cairns. Stop by the winery and pick up a bottle if you are in the region.

From the Loire, you have many choices at a number of different price levels. One of my favourite wines I have tasted recently was the lean and oh-so-interesting 2014 Anjou Effusion, from Patrick Baudoin. A touch richer and with more of an earthier theme of herbs and mineral is the Vouvray 2014 Épaulé Jeté from Catherine and Pierre Breton. You might have to hunt around a bit, but there is still some of the extraordinary Château Yvonne 2013 Saumur in stock. Ready to drink and it garnered a rare 4-star rating from myself.

And if you want some Loire wines under the $20 price tag, try the 2015 Saumur from Domaine Langlois. Great both as an aperitif or with spicy seafood. If you want a wine with a touch more sweetness, an SAQ classic is the Vouvray from Domaine des Aubuisieres.

Catherine Et Pierre Breton Épaulé Jeté 2014 Château Yvonne Saumur 2013 Domaine Langlois Château St. Florent 2015 Domaine Des Aubuisières Cuvée De Silex Vouvray 2015

Enjoy the rest of summer folks,


“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to Chacun son vin see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Beringer Founders' Estate

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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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Victoria – Australia’s New Cool; John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for July 21, 2012

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Victoria – Australia’s New Cool; A Loire Valley Quartet; Ten Top Summer Whites.

July 21st will be a cool release. There are plenty of thirst-quenching antidotes to summer heat recommended in this report, from no fewer than ten different countries. The main feature is “Hot New Wines from Cool Climate Victoria”. The WineAlign crew sat down in late May to taste through a couple of dozen wines from across the state of Victoria (capital city: Melbourne), many of which will hit the shelves on July 21st. It was a perfect opportunity to dig deeply into Australia’s new image as a producer of more than just shiraz and cute labels. Regional distinction is the new focus, alongside cool climate expressions and an expansion of the varietal repertoire. Read on to rediscover the breadth and depth of what’s coming up from down under.

The mini feature of this release covers the Loire Valley, long a source of extreme values, and more importantly, of wines those in the business love to drink (and are secretly glad they’ve stayed out of the mainstream and consequent price inflation). Get the inside track on the top four in this release. And to supplement all this refreshment, I have added a list of brilliantly crunchy and crackling whites from Spain to South Africa and New Zealand to Niagara, all yours to discover on July 21st.

Victoria: Oz’s New Cool Spot

Victoria Wine Regions - Wine Australia

Wine Regions of Victoria

Grampians, Nagambie Lakes, Heathcote, Bendigo… These may not be household names yet, but they are just a few of the regions in the Australian state of Victoria that are emerging as sources of more refined elegant wines, what many believe is the future for Oz. Victoria is Australia’s smallest mainland state, but also the most densely populated, a demographic remnant of the discovery of gold in 1851, which led to the largest gold rush in history. When the rivers of gold dried up, people stayed on; some planted grapes. Most moved to the state capital of Melbourne, where nearly three-quarters of the population reside today. Victoria is in the southeast corner of the country, bordered by South Australia to the west, New South Wales to the north and the Bass Straight to the south, opposite Tasmania.

Victoria is Australia’s coolest and wettest mainland state, second only to Tasmania in annual rainfall. Cool air from the Southern Ocean heavily moderates the coastal zones, thought Victoria’s coldest regions are found in the Victorian Alps, part of the Great Dividing Range (what the Aussies call “The Big Crinkle”), which runs east-west through the centre of the state. Wine regions with names like Alpine Valleys, Strathbogie Ranges and Pyrenees give you an idea of the topography. The temperature hit nearly -12ºC in June 1970, damned cold by Aussie standards, and a cool day even for Canadians.

Yarra Valley - Wine Australia

Yarra Valley Vineyards
Victoria, Australia

Victoria is certainly not the only Australian state with cool climate regions (parts of Western Australia, Coonawarra, the Adelaide Hills and Clare and Eden Valleys in South Australia come to mind), but it is, along with Tasmania, the only state that is able to hang its hat predominantly on cooler climate style wine – where the majority of regions could rightly be classified as relatively cool – which is a real marketing bonus. With time, Victoria and cool may well become closely linked in consumers minds, something the folks at Wine Australia are keen to see happen.

Innocent Bystander ChardonnayFor me, many of Victoria’s wines are indeed dramatic departures from the typically broad, super ripe styles commonly encountered in better-known regions like the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia. The WineAlign tasting of nearly 30 wines from Victoria in May clearly underscored this regional difference. And while I’m still some ways off from being able to distinguish between shiraz from the Pyrenees and the Grampians, for example, various combinations of variety and region are increasingly well articulated. Among the already established expressions out of Victoria’s 20 different regions, I’d count chardonnay and pinot noir from the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley as classics. Both of these Ocean-moderated regions are clearly well-suited for pinot and chard built on acidity, freshness and moderate alcohol, as evinced by wines such as the 2011 Innocent Bystander Chardonnay, Yarra Valley ($23.95) and the 2010 Stonier Chardonnay, Mornington Peninsula ($24.95 – Vintages September 29th, 2012 release).

Caledonia Australis Reserve ChardonnayMy top rated Victorian chardonnay, however, comes from the relatively unknown region of Gippsland around the town of Leongatha, further south even than the Mornington Peninsula: 2008 Caledonia Australis Reserve Chardonnay ($39.95). The name of the estate was borrowed from 19th century Scottish explorer Angus McMillan, who upon gazing over eastern Victoria from Mount Macleod was so strongly struck by the landscape’s resemblance to his native Scotland that he named the place “Caledonia”, the Roman name for present-day Scotland, and “Australis”, meaning “southern”. Scotland in Australia? That’s Victoria. In any case the wine is a classy, refined yet substantial example of Australian chardonnay, with uncommon depth and richness on the palate.

Kooyong Massale Pinot NoirDe Bortoli Windy Peak Pinot NoirBut of all the wines presented to the WineAlign panel in May, the pinots stole the show. There’s a terrific range of styles and expressions, all within the cool climate framework of Victoria’s more temperate wine regions. The Yarra Valley is represented in this release by the fine value 2010 De Bortoli Windy Peak Pinot Noir at $17.95, while the Mornington Peninsula is highlighted by the excellent, if a little idiosyncratic, 2011 Kooyong Massale Pinot Noir ($39.95). Kooyong is the sister estate of Port Philip Estate, both owned by the Gjergja family, dedicated to producing pinot noir of the highest order. Expect more on Kooyong in an upcoming Vintages mini-feature in September on Mornington Peninsula pinots.

Tar & Roses TempranilloTahbilk Museum Release MarsanneAside from these classics, Victoria has also proven its suitability for some less mainstream grapes. Worth pointing out is the superb 2011 Tar & Roses Tempranillo ($24.95). A blend of tempranillo from both Heathcote and Alpine Valleys in Central Victoria, this is a dead ringer for excellent Ribera del Duero, one of the most surprising finds at the tasting. And for the intrepid in search of an intriguing experience, don’t miss the 2007 Tahbilk Museum Release Marsanne, Nagambie Lakes ($22.95). It has a fascinatingly complex profile of smoky honeysuckle, wildflower honey, fresh and dried basil, peach crumble, lemon custard and more, plus a balanced, crisp and lean, low alcohol (12.5%) and high acid palate that’s still fleshy, with tremendous length and depth for the price. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a captivating explorer’s selection.

Look for more on Victorian Wine from David Lawrason’s dedicated report, to be published on WineAlign next week.

A Classy Quartet from the Loire Valley

Jean Paul Mollet L'antique Pouilly FuméBernard Reverdy & Fils SancerreI was impressed by several of the Loire selections in the July 21st release, each a regional archetype. The 2010 Bernard Reverdy & Fils Sancerre ($22.95) is a top notch, classy and classically proportioned example of Sancerre, with great poise, balance and tension and a marked terroir component. Across the river, the 2010 Jean-Paul Mollet l’Antique Pouilly-Fumé ($25.95) likewise offers the typically smoky/flinty character of sauvignon blanc Pouilly, though decant this before serving for best results.

Vincent Raimbault Les Terrages Demi Sec VouvrayChâteau De Chasseloir Cuvée Des Ceps CentenairesIf there’s aged goat cheese, rillets, lobster or crayfish on the menu, reach for the 2010 Vincent Raimbault Les Terrages Demi Sec Vouvray ($17.95). It has immediately recognizable chenin blanc character, with honey, citrus, green apple, wet hay and beeswax on the nose, not to mention riveting acids that more or less cancel the pinch of residual sugar. Perhaps the one exception to the archetypal angle to the Loire offerings is the 2007 Château de Chasseloir Cuvée des Ceps Centenaires ($18.95). It’s unusual to see a 2007 muscadet just hitting the shelves now, but those on the inside know just how well these wines can age. This example is excellent, starting to deliver some creamy, lightly oxidative notes, but a long way from tired to be sure. The palate is held together by tight acids and stony-mineral flavours, while the palate lingers on and on with lightly honeyed nuances – a terrific wine.

Ten Top Summer Whites

And if all of the above refreshments are yet still not enough, click on the link below for a shopping list of 10 exceptionally crisp, dry, characterful whites for summer drinking, with all but one under $25. There’s representation from South Africa, France, Austria, Greece, Spain, Italy, Niagara, California and New Zealand. I’m pretty sure there’s something there for you.  And for Chardonnay lovers, join David Lawrason and I on July 21st to celebrate the I4C with an exclusive Cool Chardonnay Boot Camp for WineAlign members.

Victorian Top Ten
Ten Top Summer Whites
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier


 Penfolds Thomas Hyland Chardonnay

International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration

The Wine Establishment

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Vintages Preview May 29th – Sultry Argentinean Malbec and Loire’s Dangerously Drinkable Sauvignon Blanc – by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

A quick glance at the most recent sales statistics at the LCBO that I could find (2008) tells a remarkable story. Australia was down by 5.3% by volume, while France slid by 8.8%. Italy gained 1%, and Ontario sales were up 2.6%. The US, driven mainly by California, was up an impressive 11.9%, and Argentina, well, wait for this: 69.6%! It’s no secret that this incredible gain in market share by volume was driven by one singular phenomenon called Fuzion, the wine that took everyone by surprise, including Alex Patinios, Ontario’s importer of Familia Zuccardi (the producer of Fuzion) and the LCBO supply chain management team, who could not even remotely keep up with demand. Fuzion is the single most successful brand ever imported into Ontario, and it’s a wine from Argentina.

The details of Fuzion’s success will be the stuff of marketing courses for years to come, but the reality behind the explosive hit in my view is simply the combination of unfathomable factors that come together unexpectedly to create a perfect storm of success. Among these you must consider that Argentina is a relative newcomer to the export scene and therefore the latest ‘hot’ thing. The Argentine peso is low, labour inexpensive, economies of scale well in place, and therefore the wines arrive in our market at very attractive prices. Image plays an important role: Argentina as a country has a rather exotic, mysterious air, at once remote yet familiar, with the image of gauchos roasting sides of beef on the pampas with an Astor Piazzola tango provocatively filling in the background sound track. Or maybe it’s the image of Maradona hoisting the FIFA world Cup (probably that’s just me). And then there’s the wine. It’s pretty good. It responds in bespoke fashion to the modern wine drinkers’ demands for ripe, rich, luscious reds with generous alcohol and an affinity for oak flavours. And Argentina’s flagship variety is not the same old cabernet or merlot, it’s malbec, another stroke in the exotic column.

But drinkers mature and the market evolves, and the world of Ontario wine is no longer just a bottle of con-Fuzion. Argentina has been able to ‘expand the offering’ to use marketing parlance, and has shipped to our shores a range of premium and ultra-premium malbecs that have an annoying habit (to other producing nations) of over-delivering on the price-pleasure scale even at the upper end of pricing. And it’s not just about malbec exclusive any longer. 6 out of the top 13 wines that I reviewed are made from malbec to be sure, but you’ll also discover the exotically aromatic white torrontés (a cross between the obscure listán grape from the Canary Islands and Muscat), that tastes like a dry muscat jacked up on Red Bull, as well as classy chardonnay and well balanced and flavourful cabernets.

Luigi Bosca Reserva Malbec 2007Sadly absent from this feature are some of the other intriguing grapes that give a nod back to the Italian origins of many of Argentina’s citizens and winemakers like northern Italy’s bonarda, or other nations’ contributions such as excellent syrah, tempranillo and some nifty pinot noirs, especially from the cooler area of Patagonia in southern Argentina. And we haven’t even touched on blends, another areFlechas De Los Andes Gran Corte 2006a of increasing excitement. So use this release as your stepping stone beyond the madding crowd of Fuzion into the forum of premium Argentine wine. Start with this week’s number one smart buy, the 2007 LUIGI BOSCA RESERVA MALBEC Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza 91pts $17.95 ***. Then perhaps check out the very decent 2006 ZUCCARDI Q CABERNET SAUVIGNON Mendoza 88pts $18.95 ** from the makers of Fuzion, or start the night with a very refined, high altitude, almost Chablis-like 2008 CATENA CHARDONNAY Mendoza  88pts $19.95 **. If you’re still romanced by Argentina, step up to the top notch blend 2006 FLECHAS DE LOS ANDES GRAN CORTE Mendoza 92pts $38.95 *** for a real treat.

At the other end of the spectrum, the partner for the Argentine tango in this release is France’s Loire valley. Stylistically (and even geographically) these two vine growing areas couldn’t be further apart – a safe bet by the LCBO to divvy up the thematic spotlight. In contrast to Argentina’s richness and ripeness, the Loire, whether at the western end in Muscadet country or 800 kilometers inland in the Central Loire vineyards, where sauvignon blanc reigns supreme in AOCs like Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, is all about leanness, delicacy, and vibrancy. It’s the incongruous violin solo in the sultry tango. Both reds and whites share a common affinity for the table, making fine companions for a wide range of foods from rabbit rilletes to oysters to crayfish in beurre blanc to a plate of charcuterie.

I find these wines, Domaine Sylvain Gaudron Vouvray Demi Sec 2006when well made, to be infinitely, even dangerously drinkable, with saliva-inducing acidity that keeps you reaching for another sip in a virtuous circle of refreshment. My top pick goes to the 2008 DOMAINE LECOMTE QUINCY AC 90pts $18.95 ***, a classic old world style sauvignon blanc with ample wet stone-minerality to keep the purists smiling. An oft-overlooked style but incredibly versatile is the off-dry 2006 DOMAINE SYLVAIN GAUDRON VOUVRAY DEMI-SEC AC Vouvray 88pts $15.95 ***; there’s enough riveting acidity to make this finish almost dry, yet make a perfect pairing with sweet-tender lobster flesh or seared scallops. Also worth a look is the bright 2008 JEAN-MICHEL SORBE REUILLY AC 88pts $17.95 **1/2, another sauvignon blanc from the lesser known, ‘satellite’ AOC of Reuilly.

Outside of the features, you’ll find my usual top ten smart buys. Worth a special mention is the2005 MORGADO DE SILGUEIROS DOC Dão 87pts $11.95 ***. Despite the modest price tag, this example from the mountainous Dão region of central Portugal offers all that one could hope for in entry-level red. It’s juicy, firm, fruity, flavourful and sheer fun to drink – a perfect summer BBQ/house wine to buy by the case.

Click on the following to see my:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Feature Wines at a Glance: Argentina
Feature Wines at a Glance: Loire Valley
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008