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Loire Valley: 2004 vs. 2011

My recent mini-update on the 2011 vintage in the Loire Valley, featuring a handful of wines from Anjou and Touraine, prompted some discussion with Loire courtier Charles Sydney and I thought it was informative enough to bring out here, on the Winedr blog.

The selection of wines, which were encountered at Charles’s annual Loire Benchmark tasting, were very small in number, and certainly not large enough to produce any valid sweeping generalisations on the vintage. And so when I wrote of the red wines “[t]he closest match from recent history was almost certainly 2004, not a particularly desirable vintage” I was in fact referring not to my tasting assessment (although, to be straight, some of the wines weren’t showing at all well) but to a comparison of independently-produced data published by the Laboratoire de Touraine on the two vintages. I clearly didn’t explain that well enough, and so I thought it was worth clarifying that point.

Secondly, however, Charles added a nuanced point to my interpretation of the Laboratoire’s graphs which is worth noting. The original graph is here:

Touraine 2011 technical data

The two traces of importance in the above graph are on the right hand side, and are for 2011 (bold blue with circles) and 2004 (thin blue with diamonds). Each data point (circle or diamond) represents one analysis of sampled fruit from the vine, each sampling one week apart. Thus, as the plots snake leftwards and upwards, this represents increasing physiological (tannin) and sugar ripeness respectively as the weeks pass, and harvest approaches. As can clearly be seen, the two plots end on exactly the same point, leading to my comparison of the two vintages.

This seems indisputable, but Charles’s point, which I thought insightful and valuable, was this; the Laboratoire de Touraine’s assessments are made on fruit from middling vineyards; they are not vines in the possession of a leading grower, such as Jacky Blot or Philippe Vatan. There is therefore less desire to delay picking on these vineyards, a practice which is of course essential – especially in a less warm and benevolent vintage – in order to obtain maximum ripeness, flavour and quality. Thus, although the 2004 and 2011 plots on the graph above end when the fruit in these vineyards was harvested, other vineyards elsewhere, those in the possession of the more dedicated vignerons, may well have been picked much later, perhaps many weeks later. The plots therefore, although providing an excellent clue as to the character of the growing season, do not necessarily represent the potential quality that might come out of the vintage from the very best domaines.

This seems particularly true when comparing 2004 with 2011; 2004 is remembered in the Loire as a dreadful vintage, one where the growing season ended in a melange of weather-related misery, the harvest described by one vigneron as “les plus emmerdants depuis dix ans“, a comment which I don’t think needs any translation. Suffice to say the harvest wasn’t a particularly pleasant or rewarding one. The 2011 vintage, however, is remembered much more favourably; here, despite the unreassurring technical analyses represented on the above graph, there then came several weeks of beautiful sunshine, allowing for further movement along both ripeness scales. But only at those domaines where the team had the dedication to wait it out, naturally. I guess this is part of the reasoning behind the oft-heard statement that, in the Loire, the quality of the vintage is determined by the September and October weather.

The inevitable conclusion is that the graph is a guide, but can never describe a vintage’s true potential as the analyses cease long before the best vignerons harvest. Having said that, however, it is only correct to point out that 2011 remains, for me, a weaker vintage at present. I have uncovered quite a few less-than-ripe reds, and some leanness in some whites. The rot was not restricted to Muscadet either; I have smelt it and tasted it in Anjou and Touraine. Although, to be fair, I have also encountered some attractive sweet wiens from Anjou. As always, individual analysis of each domaine, and each cuvée is required. I’m therefore not saying avoid at all costs, just do your research before you buy. There’s plenty of relevant material recently added to Winedoctor, and more lined up for publication in coming months. After yesterday’s look at 2011 (and 2010 and 2009) from François Chidaine, tomorrow I present notes on recent releases from Frantz Saumon.

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