Home > Winedr Blog

A Gentle Tour of Vouvray

Take a gentle tour of Vouvray with French rally team Florent Genestet and Romain Vallé, in their Citroen Saxo A6. Florent hails from the Loire Valley but is too preoccupied to provide any commentary, so I have added a few pointers to the sights of interest beneath the video.

Time 0:00: Start just north of Vernou-sur-Brenne (hold cursor over bottom of video screen to see timings).

0:39: Underneath the TGV line (the one that subsequently disappears into a tunnel, the campaign led by the late Gaston Huet having succeeded in prevented it cutting through the vineyards).

1:11: Past the Loge du Foujoin (a beautifully restored cabin where vineyard workers would once take shelter).

1:40: Lots of corn!

2:25: Into the Vallée de Vaugondy – now onto my running route when I am staying in Vouvray (although I’m not quite as fast as this car).

3:33: Now heading up the deuxième côte onto the plateau.

3:51: Over a particular nasty drainage channel – you can see the car bump over it – nearly threw me off my bicycle once.

4:06: Past Le Clos de la Meslerie (behind the big hedge!), Peter Hahn obviously stuck at home for the day here.

5:10: Turn right up the Vallée de Cousse, towards François Pinon. Turning left at 5:22 means we miss François’ house sadly.

5:50: Driving along the deuxième côte here – vines to the left, valley to the right. Thereafter, through mostly arable farmland north of the vineyards.

8:05: Turn right away from Château de Jallanges, one of the more notable châteaux near Vernou-sur-Brenne, and shortly afterwards come to a stop.

Not a bad drive, although anyone with any sense would call in on François and Peter for a tasting. And then buy some wine – it’s surprising how many cases you can fit in a hatchback, even a small one like the Saxo. Maybe next time.

Critics Need Benchmarks

How do we judge wine?

I recall tasting, twenty-five years (or possibly a few more) ago, a South-Eastern Australian Chardonnay from a famous producer. I forget the bin number, and I forget the vintage, but I can still recall the flavour, the tropical-fruit sunshine, the creamy weight of it. I was just getting into wine, and this one tasted fantastic! I wasn’t scoring wine at the time (or even taking notes), but if I had I would have given it a high score.

Today, I would view the wine very differently. It would seem over-ripe, probably acidified, simple, commercial and ultimately rather dull. You might argue that my palate has changed, but something else has changed too. I have a different context for wine today. I have tasted thousands more wines than I had back then, and I have different expectations, based on personal benchmarks, top wines I have tasted and enjoyed over the years.

Benchmarks are essentially for judging wine. Forget the commercial wine highlighted above. Let’s take a pricy South African Chardonnay instead. I taste it and really like it, and want to write it up. Do I score it 92 (I’m pretending I use the 100-point system for the moment)? Or should it be a 95? In view of the fact I really, really like it, should it be a 98? As it’s the best South African Chardonnay I have tasted this year, why not 100? The problem is I don’t have any strong benchmarks, South African or even New World, to place the wine and tasting note against. I decide I’m not going to give it a massive score, as it would probably be too high, and look silly. I’m going to end up being cautious, scoring it in the middle. In doing so perhaps I risk scoring it too low, an equally silly outcome, offensive to those that made the wine.

This is a problem you can see running through some wine magazine articles, when they suddenly venture into previously uncharted territory (like the Loire), and I see too many wines rated too low (interpretation: mustn’t give high scores, this isn’t Bordeaux or Burgundy after all) or some wines rated too high (interpretation: I’ve heard of this domaine, so they must be good – not always the case in the Loire, believe me – or I went on a press trip here so I had better say something nice). And I see it in Bordeaux too, when I see an approachable wine given a high score by writers who haven’t visited the region in years, and haven’t tasted what the region is capable of – Latour, Petrus, Le Pin, L’Église-Clinet, Lafite, Tertre-Roteboeuf, Ausone, Margaux, Haut-Brion, I could go on but you get the idea – for years and years, if at all.

I’m sure others see the same problem, but perhaps related to different regions. But for me, I see it in the Loire and Bordeaux. Critics need benchmarks to be credible. Without these benchmarks, it’s another process of random number generation and eye-rolling.

Checking in on . . . . another 2002, from Jo Pithon

Pulling some more mature bottles from the cellar in the past month has resulted in me pulling the corks on several Loire Valley wines from the 2002 vintage. Here’s another to add to the list, from Jo Pithon, in the days before he teamed up with stepson Jo Paillé to create Pithon-Paillé, today one of the most exciting domaines in Anjou.

Jo Pithon Anjou Les Bonnes Blanches 2002

I decanted the 2002 Anjou Les Bonnes Blanches from Jo Pithon, thinking it might benefit from some air. The appearance is a fairly deep, yellow-gold hue, I think fairly typical for an Anjou Blanc of this sort of age. The nose is quite enticing, showing the density of apricot and white peach, with a savoury fruit-skin character rather than the simple sweetness of the flesh, and there is a little seam of evolution wrapped around it, comprising notes of blanched almonds, drizzled with a little honey. The palate does not disappoint, with a grippy substance, a polished and full texture, substantial yet very vinous in its texture. This is a wine with no shortage of energy and grip, both of which come out through the middle and dominate the wine right to the finish. This is a delightful wine, firm and full of certain grip and substance. And and yet showing some elegance too. For drinking now I think, although there is no great rush; this will go a few more years yet. 17/20 (October 2014)

Checking in on . . . . Le Haut de la Butte 2002

I’ve been checking out a few Loire Valley wines from 2002 recently. This is mostly through serendipity, sometimes they are bottles recently purchased (it is amazing what great value can be had in the Loire when buying mature bottles, especially when compared to the same vintage in Bordeaux or Burgundy) and sometimes they have been bottles that have bobbed to the surface in the cellar. Now though I feel my interest has been piqued, and next time I venture into the cellar I shall have a hunt for more 2002s I think.

Domaine de la Butte Bourgueil Le Haut de la Butte 2002

This latest 2002 comes from Jacky Blot, perhaps best known for Domaine de la Taille aux Loups where he makes some very fine examples of Montlouis, but we must not overlook his Bourgueil estate Domaine de la Butte. It is a domaine I paid a flying visit to about a year ago, and yet I haven’t gotten around to updating my profile. It’s on a very long ‘to do’ list, obviously.

This wine, the 2002 Domaine de la Butte Bourgueil Le Haut de la Butte has an attractive, dark hue in the glass, although it is showing some clear maturity. The cuvée in question comes from the upper parts of the Butte vineyard, as the name suggests. The nose is elegant, quite tense, with pointed blackcurrant-skin character rubbed over a base of white stone, with maturing, autumn-leaf edges. This tense and challenging nature comes through on the palate with a lean and rather rubbed sense of fading fruit cast over a very precise and prominent frame of acidity, with any residual tannins taking a backseat behind all this. It has appeal in terms of flavour, but it doesn’t seem to have the substance or texture to stand up to the acid frame. There are some attractive savoury notes, but the structure is what dominates my thoughts through into the finish. Overall this is a wine of gentle appeal, that could work well at table. If I had more I would hold to see how the fruit develops, although I don’t think that acid backbone will fade. 15.5/20 (October 2014)

A Good Value Pouilly-Fume

I think everyone knows the Loire Valley is a fine source of good value Sauvignon Blanc and in a good vintage, such as 2012, the Touraine region was bursting at the seams with lots of full and flavoursome Sauvignon Blancs to beat anything New Zealand can produce. Well that’s my opinion, although I guess it depends on what style of Sauvignon Blanc you enjoy; for me the tense and minerally restraint of the Loire is preferable to the rather textured and exotic passion fruit versions from elsewhere.

Look to more famous appellations, though, and value can be harder to find. I see this every year when judging the Loire category of the Decanter World Wine Awards; Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre at lower price points don’t always deliver the goods. Here is one wine, however, that does.

Domaine des Fines Caillottes Pouilly-Fumé 2013

The Pabiot family, proprietors of Domaine des Fines Caillottes, can trace their story in Pouilly-Fumé (specifically in Les Loges, on the banks of the Loire) back to Louis Pabiot who was tending vines at the end of the 19th century. Jean Pabiot, whose name graces the label, was the third generation, while today the domaine is in the hands of Alain and Jérôme, the fourth and fifth generations respectively.

The wine in question might not come from the ‘go-to’ 2012 vintage, as it is a 2013 (on the neck label, out of view) and this still a good vintage for earlier picked varieties. The 2013 Domaine des Fines Caillottes Pouilly-Fumé comes from a variety of parcels and terroirs, and is the domaine’s entry-level blend. It is fermented cool (at 16-20ºC) by indigenous wild yeasts. It has a pale hue, and aromatically a rather perfumed, soapstone-mineral character, set against some sweet fruit, with a cool and very aromatic twist of scents on the side resembling lychee and pear drops, perhaps (surely?) reflecting the fermentation temperature. The palate has some rather citric, gooseberry-skin fruit, and remains very true to the variety, with seams of delightfully bright peppery acidity running through the middle, and a nice, pithy, rather bitter citrus seam here too. It is dry and punchy in the finish. It majors more on freshness and variety than minerality, but it is a wine of good drinkability. For an entry-level Pouilly-Fumé, this is good stuff. 15/20 (October 2013)

Disclosure: This was a sample from LHK Fine Wines.

Checking in on. . . . Haut Rasne 2002

Spend some time exploring wine and you will notice that, every now and again, it will throw you a curve ball. I think the 2002 Haut Rasné, from Eric Nicolas of Domaine de Bellivière, is a fine example of this.

One of numerous cuvées made by Eric, Haut Rasné is named for the vineyard of origin, which is populated with young vines. The site is particularly prone to botrytis, and so despite their youth Eric tends to vinify the fruit from these vines separately, and he tends to bottle the wine separately too. I last tasted the wine seven years ago, when I noted that it was “fleshy rather than sweet”. I thought it would be interesting to check in on it again.

Domaine de Bellivière Coteaux du Loire Haut Rasné 2002

The 2002 Haut Rasné from Domaine de Bellivière, poured from a 500ml bottle, has a remarkably deep colour, a rich orange-golden hue. And the nose seems no less striking, being richly polished, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is largely due to a healthy dose of botrytis. We have desiccated tropical fruit, perhaps even a touch of white raisin, blanched almonds and apricots too. It feels characterful and broad, confident in its complexity. The palate is everything you might expect, except for one thing; as I noted on my last taste, this is far from overtly sweet on the palate, and indeed the level of residual sugar seems to have faded further, the wine now edging more towards dry than sweet. And yet there is no shortage of deep, vinous texture, and it is not lacking in flavour, the palate very much matching the botrytis-defined nose in this respect. A long, lingering but dry finish. Delicious, quirky stuff indeed. 17.5/20 (August 2014)

This is a real curiosity, but a delightful one. I’m not really a fan of botrytis in dry wines, but this is different, evidently a fading sweet wine rather than a botrytis-tinged bone-dry one, and it has all the breadth and complexity you could hope for. Viewed in this context the wine seems really quite magnificent. Nevertheless this will perhaps be a somewhat awkward wine for those who open a bottle unprepared for this drier style, but anybody who happens to open one alongside a platter of aged cheese, especially aged Comte, could find themselves in Coteaux du Loir, Comte-matching, curve-ball heaven.

Checking in on. . . . Les Girardieres 2008

Time to check in on another older wine now, at this time I’m taking a look at the 2008 Vouvray Les Girardières, from Domaine des Aubuisières.

Now I can hear snorts of derision at the bank. Yes, I know the 2008 vintage isn’t an ancient one. And we all know Vouvray can evolve in a positive fashion over many decades, indeed a lifetime. But there is a purpose here, based on my knowledge of this wine, which is the only wine in my cellar with a synthetic closure. It was a complete surprise when I ripped the capsule from my first bottle – I generally avoid synthetic closures like the plague.

Domaine des Aubuisières Vouvray Les Girardières 2008

I promised myself I would check in regularly to see how the wine evolved, as synthetic closures aren’t renowned for maintaining a good seal over many years. But, of course, this thought soon slipped my mind, and I was only reminded of the bottles when I visited Bernard Fouquet a few weeks ago. I resolved to pull and pop another.

Domaine des Aubuisières Vouvray Les Girardières 2008: The colour in the glass is reassuring at least, the wine showing a bright, straw-gold hue. And, happily, the nose is fabulous, revealing layers of golden pear and white peach, with a mineral strength behind, and a delicate touch of thyme too. It feels pure and clean, demi-sec as always, with some honeyed nuances poured over the fresh orchard fruit. There follows a beautiful texture on entry, the middle fleshy but with an enticing liquid-stone character, pithy fruit, yellow plum-skin especially, a great density and substance, a beautiful demi-sec sweetness and a lifted balance. Overall, a superb wine, not a hint of premature oxidation despite the synthetic closure, and I hope this will also be the case with future bottles. 18/20 (August 2014)

Ploughing by Horse at Le Clos de la Meslerie

During a recent trip to Vouvray I learnt that a number of domaines in the appellation, plus one or two in Montlouis, have joined forces to begin working with horses on at least a section of their vineyard. A key figure in the project is Vincent Carême, and joining him are a number of his peers. The list of names and domaines kept changing slightly depending on who I asked, but it seems to include Domaine Huet, Peter Hahn of Le Clos de la Meslerie, a young grower named Tanguy Perrault of Domaine Perrault-Jadaud, Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau, Michel Autran, another young grower named Julien Vedel (all in Vouvray) and Damien Delecheneau of Domaine La Grange Tiphaine (in Montlouis). I apologise if I missed anybody out.

Ploughing at Le Clos de la Meslerie

Rather than buy their own animals, the group have engaged the services of Philippe Chigard, who specialises in working with horses. If contracted he will turn up with his horses, and plough your vineyard as required. Pictured above is one of Philippe’s horses in the east parcel of Le Clos de la Meslerie, with the valley of the Brenne beyond.

Ploughing at Le Clos de la Meslerie

This is Junior, a Percheron draught horse, a breed that originated in the former province of Perche, which once lay between Maine and Normandy, but which was divided up after the Revolution. This is a popular breed for this kind of work; I have seen Percherons in other vineyards.

Ploughing at Le Clos de la Meslerie

Above Philippe Chigard (bending over) and a colleague change ploughs. Philippe is ‘hands on’ in the vineyard, but he also teaches students on the use of horses in the vineyard at the local viticultural school. Other notable domaines outside Montlouis and Vouvray, such as Domaine de Bellivière, also use his services.

Ploughing at Le Clos de la Meslerie

Above, Philippe and his colleague work in parallel rows. If I understood correctly, one is simply scarifying the soil, removing vegetation, while the other is turning the soil.

Ploughing at Le Clos de la Meslerie

And above they are returning up the next row. Junior’s friend is named Mascotte, and is a Comtois, a breed that originated in the Jura. This is another popular breed for this kind of work.

In all cases the participants are ploughing only a section of their vineyard; for Peter Hahn it is his east parcel, while Vincent Carême is now working a section of Le Clos (on the première côte) with horses, and has even gone so far as to remove all the posts and wires to facilitate this work.

I believe other domaines will join the group in the future; I hear others have expressed an interest, but times have been tough in Vouvray and for some in Montlouis in recent years, and I expect they will want to reassess their finances before they take on this new expense. I have no idea whether or not the work makes any difference to the wine, but the horses certainly have a lesser impact on the soil compared to a tractor, are potentially more environmentally friendly (although the horses do have to be transported from one vineyard to the next) and they are certainly a beautiful sight among the vines.

New in. . . .the Loire

One of the joys of focusing on one region is getting to know the stars and keeping tabs on how their domaines develop, and of course returning year after year to taste and report on the latest vintages. It will probably come as no surprise to many that I enjoy getting back to the Loire to taste with Pierre Luneau-Papin, Claude Papin, Philippe Foreau, Jean-Marie Bourgeois and their peers. These guys have been making wine for years and achieve not only great quality but also great consistency. It is rare that a bottle will let you down (not impossible of course, but rare).

Of course, making a new discovery is also a joy; the problem is, it’s not as easy as revisiting the standard-bearers, as it often relies on a degree of serendipity. Nevertheless I have always relished writing about a domaine that is new to me, where I have tasted for the first time. I recall, about five years ago, feeling at a loose end; I noted a slightly bored-looking vigneron sitting at an empty stand in the Saumur-Champigny corner of the Salon des Vins de Loire, and so I wandered up to see what he had on offer. I had just met Antoine Sanzay for the first time, now undoubtedly one of the top names in that appellation. It was a real pleasure to visit him at his domaine a few weeks ago, to see how things have come on (are still coming on) five years later.

New in. . . .the Loire

Nevertheless, I have noticed in the past year of so a new wave of young winemakers in the Loire Valley. There seems to be a new generation taking hold, both at favoured, long-established domaines such as Domaine de la Bergerie and Domaine Ogereau, and also at new start-ups, names completely new to me. So, over the next couple of months I will be casting the Winedoctor spotlight in their direction. It will be difficult squeezing this in among my Sancerre profile overhauls, all my new reports from my recent trip to Vouvray, as well as my forthcoming Bordeaux reports on some recent vintages, but I have earmarked my Friday updates for the foreseeable future to be part of a new “New in the Loire….” series. I’ve started today, with Thibaud Boudignon (pictured above), a new name in Savennières to watch out for.

I will be profiling alongside Thibaud a couple of other domaines new in Anjou, these being Clos de l’Elu where Thomas Carsin is turning out some really interesting wines, and also Nicolas Reau. New in and around Saumur are Mai & Kenji Hodgson, perhaps familiar names to those interested in the ‘natural’ wine scene, but I met them for the first time earlier this year and for this reason they are included. I also met Xavier Caillard, who makes remarkable long-barrel-aged wines under the label Les Jardin Esméraldins. New in Chinon is Jérôme Billard, not exactly on his first vintage but it’s not that long since Jérôme took on the family vineyards of Domaine de la Noblaie and I am sure the name will be unfamiliar to many (but not for long I expect), hence he is included too. Two great new discoveries in Vouvray are Domaine Perrault-Jadaud (home to Tanguy Perrault and Anne-Cécile Jadaud) and Florent Cosme (younger brother of Mathieu Cosme) who are worth knowing about, and I will be profiling both. Up in the Vendômois is retired punk-rocker Brendan Tracy, whose wines will probably also soon be regular features on the ‘natural’ wine scene, while down in the Viticole Sologne I will be profiling Etienne Courtois, who works with father Claude Courtois (so not a new domaine, but a new generation) and the delightful Laura Semeria, who makes some of the best Cheverny I have tasted this year under the Château de Montcy label.

That should be enough to keep me going – there are a couple of domaines I would have liked to add to the list but which I haven’t yet managed to visit, so if I get back to the Loire before the end of the year (which is likely) I will try to rectify this, and I may then slip them in at the end.

One Last Look: Vouvray 2011

Having looked at 2013 Vouvray, and 2012 Vouvray, I want to finish off with a quick round-up of 2011 Vouvray. It is, of the three vintages, perhaps the most complex and the most difficult to understand. In order to explain why, I want first to look back to the vintage in general, followed by my initial tastings in February 2012, before then fast-forwarding to my recent trip to Vouvray.

I am always surprised when I review weather data for 2011, because this was the warmest year ever recorded in France. Yes, even warmer than 2003. The difference in 2011 was that there was no summer heatwave, instead temperatures were way above average in spring and autumn, and actually summer was really cool and damp. Nevertheless the spring and autumn temperatures were enough to push it into the number 1 spot. The warm weather during harvest, especially with warm nocturnal temperatures, brought a risk of rot (and not necessarily the good type). My first encounter with the vintage was with Noël Pinguet of Domaine Huet – it often was – and this tasting would always be a significant one in beginning to understand the vintage. I remember my meeting with Noël in February 2012 with great clarity; he told me that the vintage had been difficult, with only a token amount of demi-sec and moelleux wine, all from Le Mont, less than 1000 bottles of both combined.

So regardless of the details of the growing season, in 2012 I began to form an opinion that 2011 was really a vintage for sec only in Vouvray. And so I was surprised when, during a recent visit to Vouvray, many vignerons spoke quite highly of the vintage. Some reminded me of how warm it had been, and is if to prove the point a number of them they pulled out bottles of 2011 moelleux, showing in fact that there had been success in this regard. And then, suddenly, I would encounter wines – especially drier wines – that felt green and under-ripe. It took a long time for me to figure out why this seeming paradox existed, helped by the ever-charming Vincent Carême with some information about harvest-time decisions, what was going on.

Vouvray 2011

I believe the reason for some dry wines seem to be a bit green and under-ripe, and yet some sweet wines have wonderful ripeness and sweetness, is as follows. As harvest approached, after a cool and damp summer the weather began to improve. In fact there was a long period of warm weather, and under these conditions the sugar levels really began to climb. And yet, perhaps reflecting the cool summer, the phenolic ripeness of the berries, including the skins and pips, lagged behind somewhat. This made picking decisions difficult, but the only way to make dry wines is to pick when the sugar concentration is manageable, and so fruit for these wines were duly picked at this moment; my belief is that some of the more raw, greener phenolic compnents have come through into the wine, influencing the flavour profiles. Those that wanted to make a sweet wine, however, left the fruit to continue developing on the vines, allowing not only for the sugars to rise as required, but also for the grape structures (and the stems) to ripen. This meant that when this fruit was picked, the sweetness was there, but the other flavour components had reached a point where they were much more appealing.

Two vignerons who surprised me by producing a very good sweet wine from 2011, prompting me to reappraise the vintage, included François Pinon, who made a very appealing 2011 Moelleux which, although not as exciting as the rather electric 2008 Moelleux, still held a lot of appeal for me, and Florent Cosme, a young vigneron based out in Noizay, who made a rather delightful 2011 Moelleux Audace in his very first vintage. There are good dry wines to be had in the vintage as well though, including 2011 Le Clos from Vincent Carême, and the 2011 Cuvée C from Domaine de la Fontainerie. By far the best dry cuvée in 2011 though comes from Peter Hahn, of Clos de la Meslerie; his 2011 has all the depth found in his 2010 or 2009, both years where the wine is firmly demi-sec, yet it remains dry and full of clean complexity. This is definitely one to look out for in the 2011 vintage.

That is it for my look back at Vouvray in the 2013, 2012 and 2011 vintages. I will leave you with my picture of the setting sun over the vineyards (above), looking up to the Vallée de la Cousse, where François Pinon resides.