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Loire 2012: Difficult and Brilliant

Another busy day of tasting at the Salon yesterday. I kept going until the bitter end, so despite starting, tasting glass in hand, at 9am, I was still going at 6:50pm, at which point I decided I had better head out to catch the 7pm shuttle. I had dinner booked in town at 7:30pm, so I was cutting it fine.

Yesterday I focused on Anjou and Touraine, tasting with the likes of Pithon-Paillé in the former, and François Chidaine in the latter. It was fascinating to hear of the difficulties of the vintage, described by one vigneron as “hell”. This was a vintage that threw everything at the Loire heartland, from frost, hail, rain, more rain, false hope with a dry August, and then more rain. Did I mention the rain? François Chidaine told me that during one weekend in early October there was 110 mm dropped on the vineyards. In addition temperatures were way above the norm, and these warm, humid conditions were perfect for rot. And not the good kind of rot.

Jacky Blot

As a consequence of this very destructive vintage, organic and biodynamic estates in these Loire regions have turned in very low yelds, typically 12-15 hl/ha. Jacky Blot (pictured above) declared 12 hl/ha, as did Chidaine. The lowest I recall was Pithon-Paillé, with 10 hl/ha. Despite this, quality is good. Not brilliant, there are no truly ‘great’ wines from this vintage so far, but there is freshness and acidity in most, even if there isn’t the greatest concentration. That’s not surprising when you consider that several vignerons saw alcoholic potentials fall during October (they should of course rise as the grapes ripen and sugar levels climb). The decline in potential was due to the rain, soaked up by the vines and transmitted through to the berries which swelled as a result, diluting the juice dramatically, bursting the fruit in some cases.

Domaine Huet declared 15 hl/ha and quality seems to be good, important not just in the context of the difficult vintage but also because this is Benjamin Joliveau’s first vintage in charge here. Another sign of the difficult vintage is the range of wines. This will not, by and large, be a vintage for moelleux. At Huet, there won’t even be a demi-sec this year; the residual sugars just couldn’t permit it. Pithon-Paillé’s fruit in Quarts de Chaume will be declassified into Anjou Blanc, and I suspect this will be the case with other vignerons, such as Claude Papin and Yves Guégniard. The one exception to the rule is Florent Baumard, who seems to have managed to harvest sufficent to declare a Quarts de Chaume, although when we spoke he couldn’t recall the volume he had declared. He has the juice in his cellars, having – in his words – “selected out” the water using his cryo machine. I am quite certain that, should he go ahead with making this wine, this will be the only Quarts de Chaume produced in this vintage.

That’s it for the “difficult” part. The brilliance comes outside these core regions, down in Muscadet, up in parts of Touraine and the central vineyards, where delicious Muscadets and Sauvignons have been made. Muscadet had a difficult vintage, but picking early meant they avoided the catastrophic rain. Sancerre just didn’t get the weather that Vouvray and Montlouis did; add in the earlier picking of Sauvignon Blanc and you have a recipe for success. I think this week is the first time in a long time (ever?) I have heard buyers raving about Touraine Sauvignon. There’s a first time for everything I guess.

I will be tasting more Muscadet and Sauvignons today. Then, this evening, it’s back to the UK.

So that's how they make Saumur fizz

Yesterday was another long day at the Salon. Or rather it was an evening trip to see the cellars at Bouvet-Ladubay that produced a later finish than anticipated.

Each Salon I try to focus on a particular region or style in a little more detail than is usual, to check I understand the appellation, and that I know who is doing good things but also who isn’t. That way I can get a grip of what the wines are all about, but check I have an appropriate grasp of the hierarchy within the appellation, and hopefully spot any up-and-coming talent. Two years ago it was Savennières, a very instructive set of tastings that really helped me to understand the different styles to be found. Last year I forewent such a program of tastings as I was so short of time, having missed out of the Renaissance and Dive Bouteille tastings.

Yesterday it was the turn of Saumur-Champigny. Saumur-Champigny in particular has a potential for high quality and it is an appellation worth getting to know; Cabernet Franc on tuffeau can produce such elegant purity at times. Sadly I think the Saumur appellations are often skipped over, as they fail to fit neatly into either Anjou or Touraine, and so they sit a little outside the four big regions.

So I tasted from about a dozen top names in the appellation, and it was educational to see who makes good wines, and who doesn’t. Some fairly famous names actually make some fairly dull wines. And there is a strange tendency to over-oak, both white Saumur and red Saumur-Champigny, at other domaines. Up to 30 months in oak is not unknown, the wines tasting more of mint and dark chocolate than the perfumed elegance of Cabernet Franc. Sadly, some of these wines seem to come from the next generation coming through as well as the old guard, so things aren’t likely to change any time soon. In short, there are perhaps four domaines making wines worth your money, while the rest are a disappointment. I will write up all my notes, in new profiles if necessary, in the coming months. There’s none of this shying away from publishing low scores here.

In the afternoon, a more varied bag, with Vouvray and Chinon, and a couple of wines from the Auvergne, which seems to be part of the Loire Valley these days.

Acrobats at Bouvey-Ladubay

Then in the evening I headed over to Saumur (so it was a Saumur-fuelled day all in all) for a visit to Bouvet-Ladubay. I figured this would be a little tour of the cellars, a tasting of vins clairs perhaps, or some finished wines, and a little dinner. But that isn’t how the Monmousseau family like to do things. There was a tour of the cellars, which were filled with rope artistes (I can’t thing quite what else to call them) dangling from the ceiling (the Health and Safety Commission would have had a fit), acrobats (like those above) and so on. I came away knowing nothing new about Bouvet-Ladubay, but the wines we drank (the Mademoiselle Ladubay Crémant de Loire Rosé and the Saumur Trésor in particular) were of high quality. It amazes me that they aren’t more widely appreciated; I guess people like what they know, which these days is Champagne, in all its forms.

Today, it’s back to the Salon, feeling a little jaded although nothing a couple of imminently due croissants won’t fix. I’ll be tasting what I call my ‘staples’ today – Huet, Baudry, Pépière and so on. Hopefully, there will be time for Sancerre and similar as well.

Renaissance and Dive Bouteille

Here’s the first of three daily updates from this year’s Salon des Vins de Loire, starting with a quick run-down of the ‘off’ events – those that tag onto the Salon – that I have attended over the weekend.

Friday evening was fairly leisurely – I ate on the train on the way down to Angers, and as a consequence had an early night. Very rare for me! It did mean I was ready for Saturday though, which was a long day. First, a short trek across Angers from my hotel to the Renaissance tasting, at the Greniers St Jean. I missed this tasting last year, the result of the Salon dates having moved, and it has clearly evolved since I was last here two years ago. No more Thierry Puzelat, for instance, who now has his own tasting with friends (the Pénitentes tasting) elsewhere, so I will have to catch up with Thierry later in the year. And no Clos Roche Blanche either. And some new names here; Huet have joined the throng for the first time, a sign of a new self-image now that Noël Pinguet has left perhaps? And a few others of interest; Michel Autran, one of the new wave of Vouvray producers (who makes wine in his spare time – otherwise he is an ER/A&E doctor – something sounds familiar about that….), Toby Bainbridge, an Englishman in Anjou, and plenty of others.

Saturday evening I headed out to La Table de la Bergerie for a tasting and dinner with Vincent Ogereau, Claude Papin and Yves Guégniard, as I did last year. Once again this tasting proved that no matter how much clamour the ‘natural’ wine crowd can make, there’s no substitute for dedication, commitment and thoughtful winemaking, seeking the highest possible quality in the final product rather than obsessing over the methodology and philosophy. These three make some exceptionally fine wines, which also age well, as some older bottles – back to the 1989 vintage – served during dinner clearly demonstrated.

Saturday was therefore a very long day and I was feeling rather jaded yesterday morning but La Dive Bouteille, held at Chateau de Brézé near Saumur, soon perked me up. I last visited Brézé about 3 or 4 years ago, with my family, when my three children enjoyed exploring the tunnels, cellars and giant moat. I hadn’t ever envisaged the cellars crammed full of producers from all over Europe, but that was the scene yesterday. Here there were plenty of good tasting opportunities, including more from the new wave of producers in Vouvray, such as Sebastien Brunet and Matthieu Cosme, both next-generation growers who have recently taken over from their fathers. There were good wines from both.

The Thouet breaks its banks, February 2013

Thereafter I headed back to Anjou. All weekend I have been skirting around swollen rivers and flooded fields; on Saturday I saw that the Layon had broken its banks, the Maine has been running very high through Angers (I walk more quickly over the bridges than I usually do – although they have been here for a few hundred years and so probably won’t be swept away any time soon) and on the way to Dive Bouteille I saw the Loire had also broken its banks, flooding nearby fields, an impressive feat for what is already a majestic river. On the way back from Dive Bouteille, however, we (Jim Budd, and Nigel and Tom of the RSJ restaurant) were confronted with the Thouet (pictured above) which had decided to forego its usual route under the bridge from which the photograph was taken and flow over the adjacent road instead. Needless to say we turned around and found a different route.

Yesterday afternoon I returned to the Renaissance tasting for a little more, with wines from Loïc Mahé, Christophe Daviau, and a brief detour into Pomerol (although my focus is the Loire, both Renaissance and Dive Bouteille feature domaines from far-distant regions) for a mini-vertical from Gombaude Guillot.

Today, the Salon proper, day 1. I will report back tomorrow.

Off to The 2013 Salon

It’s February, and so it must be Salon time!

The annual Salon des Vins de Loire is, quite simply, one of the most fascinating tasting events of the year. InterLoire, for all their faults, do an immmense good in bringing together some of the top vignerons of the Loire Valley for this annual tasting bash which fills the Parc Expo exhibition centre on the outskirts of Angers. I am delighted to see that, despite some doubts about its continued existence a few years ago, this event continues on an annual basis. It is without a doubt a hugely valuable opportunity for the trade and the press to get to grips with the wines of the region; wines are written about, deals are done, and sales are made as a result.

This year’s Salon is on the 4th, 5th and 6th of February, and I will be there. Thanks to a shift in train times from Angers to Paris I will be able to spend more time there on the Wednesday (in previous years I have had to leave at midday – this year I will be there until the bitter end), so I expect to return with notebooks brimming with more information, reviews and notes than ever before. That’s if my feet and palate hold up…..

Thierry Puzelat

A particular joy of the Salon is the build up of other events around it. I’m just heading for the airport now, so will get there Friday evening. A bit early for a Monday morning start, wouldn’t you say? Well, on Saturday I will be at the Renaissance tasting in Angers; this used to be called Renaissance des Appellations, then when they realised they didn’t like the appellation system it became Reniassance des Terroirs I think. I’m not sure what it’s called now; it could be Renaissance des Renaissances, for all I know. Whichever it is, this is where I get to grips with the latest vintages from Marc Angeli, Richard Leroy, Thierry Puzelat (pictured above) and others.

Saturday evening is time for Pierre-Bise, Bergerie and Ogereau I hope; we have met up like this in past years, but I’m unsure of this year’s arrangements – we shall see. If not, no worries, I will pick them up at the Salon. Then on Sunday I’m off to La Dive Bouteille, another tasting of non-adherents to the InterLoire machine where I hope to pick up a few domaines missing from my Loire profiles. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of André-Michel Brégeon and Marc Pesnot (both Muscadet) but I haven’t had time to do the research – I must check out who will be there!

Then, three days at the Salon; Pépière, Hureau, Huet, Vacheron. And maybe one or two others.

For this reason, I won’t be making any regular updates to the site from Saturday to Wednesday, and my next post (more on Bordeaux 2010, surprise, surprise) will be on Thursday 6th. I will make some blog posts to let you all know what I’m up to. Happy drinking all!