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Wine in Context #2: Oaked Sauvignon

I think in any other year the Oaked Sauvignon Blanc tasting that I arranged with Richard Bampfield MW in November 2015 would have been my favourite wine event of the year; there was, however, some very stiff competition in 2015. I learnt a lot through arranging this tasting, and I developed a great appreciation of the generous nature of eight vignerons in the Loire Valley, as I sourced almost all my bottles direct from the eight domaines (the only exception being a couple that came through Justerini & Brooks).

For me the tasting came just at the right time. I know there are more than one or two wine drinkers out there who are allergic to the combination of oak and Sauvignon Blanc. It is easy to pick holes in such a belief, for example Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux is heavily reliant on oak, and plenty of drinkers go ga-ga over Silex from Didier and more recently Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau without realising that it is raised almost exclusively in new and nearly-new oak. But that’s not the point, because I understand the ‘allergy’. These two famous names are exceptions to the rule that do it well, and until a few years ago I also had the Sauvignon-oak allergy. The typical Sauvignon fruit character in combination with buttery oak just seemed to jar. I couldn’t understand why a number of domaines in Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon persisted with what seemed to me to be a winemaker’s folly.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc

Then I tasted couple of examples with a few years of bottle age, and I suddenly realised the purpose of these wines. It was a revelation, like the first time I really ‘got’ Sherry, or the first time I tasted 19th-century Madeira. Oaked Sauvignon Blanc is not a wine to drink young, and thus we must put our entire understanding of this variety – the wines of which are almost universally touted for drinking young – in the bin when it comes to the oaked wines. These are wines for the cellar, and when you come back to them with 8-10 (or sometimes more) years bottle age you suddenly realise their purpose. And the style is completely different, not at all like aged unoaked Sauvignon Blanc. It was like a veil had been lifted from my eyes. Even after years of researching the wines of the Loire, it was only now that I finally understood what this select group of vignerons who combined oak and Sauvignon were up to. And this was the phase I was in when Richard Bampfield’s invitation to co-host the tasting popped into my inbox.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc

Those domaines that sent wines were La Tour Saint-Martin (best wishes to Bertrand who is reading this from his hospital bed – courage Bertrand, get well soon), Alain Cailbourdin, Masson-Blondelet, Didier Dagueneau, Lucien Crochet, Alphonse Mellot, Vincent Pinard and Henri Bourgeois. Any fears that the wines would be green, over-oaked, weedy or otherwise soon dissipated once the corks were pulled. My only disappointment was that one of the bottles of 2002 Silex was corked, leaving just one bottle for the entire tasting. This was something we planned for by having three bottles of each wine, but there were only two of this wine available to us.

So what did I learn here? First, I learnt that putting on a tasting, even a small one such as this, is hard work. First you have to beg for bottles (thanks to the eight domaines again!). Then you have to arrange to have them shipped over, and generally feel like a nuisance by emailing the same people again and again for an update on where the bottles are (my nightmare was for tasters to turn up to half a tasting!), then there is the logistics of serving temperatures, venue, glasses and so on. Thankfully Richard Bampfield took care of most of this, but there was still a lot of checking and chasing to do. And I learnt a lot by meeting some of those who came to taste; I could explain why I chose those domaines, and those vintages, they could explain why they were there, and what their interest in oaked Loire Sauvignon Blanc was. In fact, meeting some new faces and talking about the wines was probably the most rewarding aspect of the day, and so I resolved at any tastings I go to in future to always put aside a minute or two for the host, if nothing else to say thanks for all the hard work.

There will be more Wine in Context moments over the next few days. If you are new to Wine in Context, a glance at Wine in Context #10: Return to Thieuley might be helpful. If you want to contribute, feel free to add your favourite moment in the comments below – or if you have a longer report from a great wine dinner, wine trip, wine tasting or other wine moment during 2015 you can email it to me, and I can host it on the blog for you.

Wine in Context #3: A Day at Dagueneau

I’m now onto my top three wine moments of the year. Number three took place back in June 2015 during a tasting trip to the Loire Valley. Having spent a couple of days mooching around Savennières and then Saumur, I headed upriver towards Sancerre. I had plans to visit a couple of domaines where I hadn’t tasted before, my schedule for the visit taking in Domaine Thomas-Labaille, Pierre Morin and Anne Vatan. In other words three very strong domaines. My fourth visit, however, which involved a short drive across the river to Pouilly-Fumé, was the icing on the cake.

It wasn’t the first time I ever visited the Dagueneau family in Saint-Andélain, and it was certainly not the first time I ever tasted their wines. I did so here when I visited, and I also met Charlotte Dagueneau at a tasting in London a few years ago (and of course I have had one or two bottles in restaurants and at home over the years). But this was still a special tasting, for a number of reasons.

Dagueneau

First, there was the sheer quality of the wines of course. Just getting your lips to a glass of Silex or Pur Sang is likely to be the highlight of your day, so to taste the entire portfolio of wines across a fine vintage such as 2012, and finding every wine to be superb, was a real delight. Second, when I say entire portfolio, I really mean entire portfolio. This was my first chance to taste the cuvée Astéroïde, which is sourced from a few rows of ungrafted vines planted at the end of the Pur Sang vineyard. It is perhaps one of the rarest wines I ever tasted (not including that rosé a friend of mine made from Scottish-grown Black Muscat a few years ago of course) with just 100 bottles produced. Indeed, I was tempted to give this post the title “A Celestial Event at Dagueneau” such was the significance of this bottle.

Dagueneau

I chose not to though because this tasting wasn’t a favourite simply because of just one bottle. It was a great tasting because of the warmth and approachability exhibited by Charlotte Dagueneau, daughter to the late Didier Dagueneau, and also her generosity in opening not just the 2012 Astéroïde but also many older vintages, including the 2008 Les Monts Damnés, 2007 and 2002 Silex, and 1996 Pur Sang. Not to mention a number of experimental bottles not actively commercialised, a chance to have a little glimpse behind the scenes chez Dagueneau.

Most of all, however, it was about recognising the talent of Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau, who has been in charge here since Didier’s death in 2008.

The problem is, as I wrote in my report on the visit and tasting, that with Didier in the background he always gave such an easy hook for a journalist. Consequently, even after his tragically early passing, when writing about the domaine it is still too easy to just trot out a few Didier anecdotes and to overlook the new generation in charge. But it is now eight years since Louis-Benjamin had to step into his father’s shoes, and thus it is Louis-Benjamin (and his sister Charlotte) who should be positioned centre-stage, in the full glare of the spotlight. They are responsible for the success of this domaine today, and they deserve credit for what they have achieved. Of the wines I tasted during my visit six were made by Louis-Benjamin, eight if we include those he vinified within weeks of his father’s death. Only three were from Didier’s era, the trio of older wines mentioned above. Louis-Benjamin’s wines were on the whole delicious, indeed some were outstanding in their poise and precision. They are no less compelling than any other Dagueneau wine I have ever tasted. He and his sister have achieved something remarkable here, and that is why this visit and tasting was my number three top wine moment of 2015.

There will be more Wine in Context moments over the next few days. If you are new to Wine in Context, a glance at Wine in Context #10: Return to Thieuley might be helpful. If you want to contribute, feel free to add your favourite moment in the comments below – or if you have a longer report from a great wine dinner, wine trip, wine tasting or other wine moment during 2015 you can email it to me, and I can host it on the blog for you.

Wine in Context #6: Vincent Caille

The problem faced by any wine writer, critic or blogger is finding something new worth writing about. There is the old adage that the world of wine constantly renews with every new vintage of course, and that has some merit, but there has to be more to it than that.

Part of the problem is that wine has been written about for centuries. Take a long-established region such as Bordeaux and there is thus a long-established hierarchy. There is a reason domaines such as Château Haut-Brion, Château Latour, and Château Ausone are so well-known and so obsessed over; although they (like any other domaine) may have had their ups and downs, the recognition that they have some of the best terroir is not a new one, and their wines have been highly regarded for a very long time.

There are hierarchies in other regions too, even Muscadet. When I started out looking at this region in more detail, it seemed to me that the main players were well established in the minds of the region’s fans, and the one or two writers who bothered to taste these wines. They were Pierre Luneau-Papin, Domaine de la Pépière, Jo Landron and André-Michel Brégeon. Others were rightly popular, but these were the names that seemed to appeal to Loire geeks the most. Tasting the wines, it seemed to me that they all deserved the recognition they already received, and thus we had the top tier of a Muscadet hierarchy.

Vincent Caillé

This is why meeting Vincent Caillé back in May 2015 was such a delight. I vaguely knew his name, through his project Vine Revival with Christelle Guibert, but this was only the second opportunity I had been presented with to taste his wines, and my first time meeting Vincent himself. The wines were superb, in particular two crystal-pure expressions of the Gorges and Monnières-Saint-Fiacre crus communaux, both in the 2012 vintage, were absolutely stunning. These wines immediately catapulted Vincent up to the top of my personal Muscadet hierarchy.

Perhaps one taste is really too soon to judge, but the quality was breathtaking, and I was immediately sucked in. I will taste them again one day, so I should be able to reassess them, and maybe refine my opinion. But the key message here, for me, is this; the more I delve into the different regions of the Loire Valley, the more I uncover new domaines, really some good, but every now and again I come across a domaine that makes truly striking wines, like Vincent. Wines that seem to transcend the appellation and their origins. Didier Dagueneau did that. François Chidaine still does. I wonder if Vincent Caillé isn’t another who should be considered in the same light. One thing is for sure, he is proof positive that any taster, critic or writer should remain open-minded to new discoveries, and that no hierarchy should be regarded as set in stone.

There will be more Wine in Context moments over the next few days. If you are new to Wine in Context, a glance at Wine in Context #10: Return to Thieuley might be helpful. If you want to contribute, feel free to add your favourite moment in the comments below – or if you have a longer report from a great wine dinner, wine trip, wine tasting or other wine moment during 2015 you can email it to me, and I can host it on the blog for you.

Wine in Context #9: Jonathan Pabiot in Edinburgh

As we mature (a less hard-edged way of saying “grow older”) our circumstances change. Children (if you have any) also mature, gradually becoming more independent and responsible. It is a joy to watch, even if the majority of teenagers still have the ability to behave as if they were two-years old again at times. And financial situations often improve (although sadly this is never guaranteed – the costs of further education loom large for any family with aspirational youngsters filling out their university application forms). Sometimes, change doesn’t merely flow, but is the result of a concerted effort. Such as in January 2015, when I decided to make an effort to eat out more in Edinburgh.

A decade ago I used to eat out regularly, but that lifestyle soon ground to a halt. Having young children meant less free time, and less disposable income. I moved to Edinbugh, in the process losing a network of friends and family who provided a handy childminding service. And in truth I didn’t really move to Edinburgh, I moved to the countryside outside Edinburgh (where I could actually afford a house – Edinburgh house prices were crazy then, and they are still crazy now); and so dining out in Edinburgh meant driving (and deciding who drinks and who takes the wheel), or an extortionate taxi fare, or (not for the faint of heart) a three-hour round trip on the bus. It all conspired to make me happy to eat at home.

Jonathan Pabiot

So what’s changed? Partly my children are more independent, and don’t need a childminder. So that’s one hurdle cleared. Pretty soon the eldest will soon be able to take the wheel; when that happens, perhaps I will be able to cash in on the free taxi service I have provided for the past 17 years? I can be a passenger, rather than the driver? That will be another hurdle cleared (I’m looking forward to telephoning my personal chauffeur from the restaurant to request my ride home). Perhaps most importantly it was my attitude that changed. After an illness last year I decided that, while I would continue to work hard (Winedoctor updates are as regular as ever, and subscription numbers are now well into the thousands), I would also factor in a little more down-time if I could. Eating out more would be part of that.

My favourite dining experience of 2015 was Martin Wishart, where everything – cooking, service, ambience, wine – seemed to come together on the night. I will be going back in 2016. Ondine was another favourite, with superb fresh seafood, and the fact I have another table booked for next Monday only reflects this. Then came Timberyard, in itself the most exciting dinner of the year, although I struggled a bit with the hyper-natural selection of wines on the list, and I was glad for Mark Angeli, whose 2012 La Lune I spotted nestled deep in the Loire section. The Pompadour by Galvin was a surprise success, as when my eyes first took in the plush hotel-based setting I though this was going to be a tourist-trap, but the cooking was top-notch, the service largely spot on, and I left very content indeed. And for great value, it would be hard to beat Purslane, the cheapest dinner out this year by far, but with some very fine cooking on the night.

There have been some less successful evenings too, but that’s life; there’s no need to dwell on them here, and truth be told no dinner was disastrous. Every restaurant had its strong points. And for one or two that was the very sensible decision to list the wines of Jonathan Pabiot (pictured above in Angers in February this year). Thanks to a Scottish importer bringing in these wines they appeared on the majority of lists that passed before my eyes this year, and as a consequence in the past twelve months I have drunk more of his wines than anyone else’s. When the wine world wakes up and realises that, other than Louis-Benjamin’s wines themeselves, his wines are the closest in style and quality to Dagueneau’s to be found in the Pouilly-Fumé appellation (perhaps this will happen when the Wine Spectator finally writes him up), I will be able to look back and relish the many great bottles I have enjoyed. Along with many great dinners too of course.

Now, where’s my phone? It’s time to telephone for my driver.

There will be more Wine in Context moments over the next few days. If you are new to Wine in Context, a glance at Wine in Context #10: Return to Thieuley might be helpful. If you want to contribute, feel free to add your favourite moment in the comments below – or if you have a longer report from a great wine dinner, wine trip, wine tasting or other wine moment during 2015 you can email it to me, and I can host it on the blog for you.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc, Part 2

Continuing on from Oaked Sauvignon Blanc Part 1, I want now to reflect on what I learnt at this tasting. Having sourced all the wines from the Loire Valley, you might think I would already know them well, but that’s not the case. This tasting was definitely an eye-opener for me.

Although I have tasted older Sancerre before – some vintages as old as 20 years – it has sometimes seemed a little hit and miss. I find older Muscadet the same, by the way. My experiences with them has taught me that both wines can age well (I acknowledge this goes against the grain of accepted wisdom, but happily stand by my assertion – because the accepted wisdom is hogwash), but some older wines I have tasted clearly haven’t done so well. The wines that turned my opinion around and gave me the confidence to participate in this event are those of Bertrand Minchin, particularly his Cuvée Honorine. Tasting this in its youth, I have always wondered about the purpose of the oak (and I thought the same when tasting other oaked Sauvignons). Why? But tasting the wines at 8-10 years of age I suddenly realised just how well they age. The oak seems to change the potential of the wine in this regard. These aren’t wines to be drunk young, as we would most Sauvignons. These are wines for the cellar.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc

So I went ahead, and the eight domaines (see my previous post for their identities) sent vintages that ranged from 5 to 13 years old (i.e., 2010 back to 2002). I should point out that Henri Bourgeois graciously offered a range of vintages back to 1989, but I decided we should stick with 2002. But how would these older wines show? Would the oak integrate? Would the wines be tired? Would the lesser vintages (e.g. 2008) be too green? Old, tired, green but oaky wines could be a disaster. I was nervous. On the day, however, I was delighted, as soon as it became clear that the wines had aged beautifully. Sure, some were stronger than others, but on the whole they were fresh and vibrant, as a group of wines a wonderful showing. Generalising, they seemed to have greater focus than I expected, with defined evolving fruit, and the oak seemed to give structure but not influence the flavour once integrated. Even the younger wines (all from 2012) showed more harmony and integration than I expected.

By contrast, several of the wines from Bordeaux seemed quite tired, certainly oxidised in the case of one or two, the rest too young to perhaps make any definitive statement on aging. I expected these wines to sing with absolute confidence (after all, Bordeaux is for aging, isn’t it?) but on the day it wasn’t so. Some seemed a little flat by comparison. The younger vintages were, it has to be said, quite classic and defined though, and delicious. It was the older wines that let the side down here.

And so the tasting taught me three things (or at the very least it prompted me to ask three questions of myself). First, the ability of Loire Valley Sauvignon to age is surely under-rated. Yes, you have to know the domaine and the cuvée to go to, but the wines – oak-fermented and oak-aged – are out there. Denying it seems, to me, to be living in the past, inside the pages of a three-decade-old wine guide trotting out the ‘drink youngest available’ mantra. Second, Bordeaux Sauvignon-Semillon blends are perhaps (speaking of dry, non-botrytised wines) over-rated in their ability to age. Sure, we all know Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion do well with age, but experience with some wines from my own cellar suggests that this success cannot necessarily be extrapolated to other wines. It’s probably a little like my Loire Valley conclusion – you have to know which wines to go to.

And the third thing I learnt? I was surprised how grateful I felt when people came up and said ‘hello’ on the day. It seemed to justify the whole experience and more particularly my involvement in it, and regardless of whether tasters liked the wines or not (because we all have our own tastes and preferences), it made the time and effort I put into sourcing the Loire wines, and the generosity the domaines had shown in sending them over, all worthwhile. I learnt that this is something I should remember next time I attend a tasting arranged and hosted by somebody else.

I guess what really matters, though, are the wines and how the tasters viewed them. I will publish some thoughts next week, for subscribers, and I look forward to seeing how other tasters found the wines when they publish their reports.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc, Part 1

Last Monday I hosted an Oaked Sauvignon Blanc tasting, along with Richard Bampfield and Jean-Christophe Mau of Château Brown. It was great fun. Jean-Christophe and Richard put forward a selection of white Bordeaux (so Sauvignon-Semillon blends on their side really) with vintages ranging from 1999 (although most wines were no older than 2006) through to 2012. My role was to sort out the Loire side of things.

I wanted to focus on the crème de la crème of the Loire Valley when it comes to oak and Sauvignon Blanc, so I chose domaines where the wine was fermented in oak with subsequent élevage in oak (not wines fermented in steel and then thrown into wood, or treated with chips or staves) and I also wanted domaines using a good proportion of new oak (not just a few old barrels they have had lying around for 20 years). Secondly, I wanted to ensure those domaines historically associated with the style, and who pioneered it (i.e. Henri Bourgeois especially) were involved. And thirdly, because oaked Sauvignon Blanc isn’t about drinking it young (this is where most people go wrong I think – oaked Sauvignon needs time in the cellar to show its best, just as we would expect with wines from Pessac-Léognan, or Burgundy, or anywhere else where white varieties and oak come together) I also wanted to ensure that for every young wine included we had a matching older vintage.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc

Perhaps most importantly, I just used my knowledge of who is just doing it, and who is doing it well. I therefore came up with a shortlist of eight domaines and wines, as follows (including the vintages I managed to procure):

La Tour Saint-Martin, Menetou-Salon Cuvée Honorine, 2012 & 2002
Alain Cailbourdin, Pouilly-Fumé Triptyque, 2012 & 2008
Masson-Blondelet, Pouilly-Fumé Cullus, 2012 & 2002
Didier Dagueneau, Pouilly-Fumé Silex, 2012 & 2002
Lucien Crochet, Sancerre Cul de Beaujeu, 2012 & 2010
Alphonse Mellot, Sancerre Satellite, 2012 & 2008
Vincent Pinard, Sancerre Petit Chemarin, 2012 & 2008
Henri Bourgeois, Sancerre Cuvée Etienne Henri, 2012 & 2002

I will be writing up the tasting, including my notes on these wines as well as those from Bordeaux (which included Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, ‘Y’ d’Yquem, Domaine de Chevalier, Château Brown & others), for subscribers, in the very near future. First I just wanted to quickly reflect on the tasting, but also to give out some thanks to those who helped, especially Bertrand Minchin, Alain Cailbourdin, Pierre-François & Mélanie Masson and Arnaud Bourgeois, who all sent me bottles straight from their cellars. I would also like to thank Charlotte Dagueneau, Alphonse & Emmanuelle Mellot and Clémence Pinard, who all sent their bottles via Charles Sydney. And I would like to thank Charles himself for his help, as well as Jules Campbell of Justerini & Brooks, who brought Lucien Crochet on board. Thanks also to Richard and Jean-Christophe for inviting me to show the Loire off in this manner.

Thanks too also to all those who came to taste the wines, of course.

I think I learnt three things at this tasting, but reflecting on it here, following all these thanks, seems like an afterthought. I will save these reflections for a subsequent post, tomorrow.

Montlouis and Bourgueil, New Maison des Vins

Fascinating news from Tours. The two biggest appellations to have left InterLoire, Montlouis and Bourgueil, have come together to take over the old Maison des Associations Culturelles on the Place Plumereau, in the old quarter of town (I have fond memories of the old quarter, having stayed there for a couple of nights on my first ever trip to the Loire Valley in the early 1990s).

There is a long history behind the story, but being brief both the Montlouis syndicat (led by François Chidaine, pictured below) and the Bourgueil syndicat (led by Guillaume Lapaque, no picture, my apologies to Guillaume, who I have met several times) left InterLoire, disillusioned with paying subscriptions and not seemingly getting value for money (as you might imagine, there is probably a lot of detail to be explored there, but that will have to do for the moment). This leaves them looking after their own publicity now, something Bourgueil (which left first) has done quite well with I think (with the annual Bourgeuillotherapie bash, for example) while Montlouis (which left much more recently) are playing catch up a little.

François Chidaine

The new accommodation in the centre of Tours will function as a window for their wines, hopefully drawing in Loire tourists (as I once was). It will act as a shop, cellar and bar, a complete Maison des Vins. And so visitors to Tours in future may well end up becoming better acquainted with the wines of Montlouis than of Vouvray, despite the latter being literally on their doorstep. Whether or not Françios Chidaine and Jacky Blot could pour their Vouvrays here for customers would be a moot point (it is funded by the Montlouis and Bourgueil syndicats, after all, so should be showcasing only these wines) …… except of course the recent Vouvraygate affair means they no longer have any Vouvray to pour anyway, only Montlouis and Vin de France.

The two appellations hope to open the new Maisons des Vins in spring 2016. I wish them the best of luck.

For more information (in French), see this report in La Nouvelle Republique.

Loire 2015 Harvest: Francois Lieubeau Reports

Another harvest report now, this time from François Lieubeau (pictured below), of Domaine de la Fruitière (and a handful of other domaines also). I have chosen to post it here because, as with others, there is some interesting background information in it, and no hyperbole (not that I would mind a little hyperbole coming out of Muscadet now ahd again). François starts with a few words on 2015, before talking about recent developments at the domaine.

“The vintage 2015 grapes have now all reached the Domaine de Fruitière and the wines are now fermenting.

After a relatively cool winter, no spring frost, and especially a perfect flowering, July and August have been warm and dry.

In early September the last maturity checks let us expect an extraordinary vintage, on the standards of 1990 or 2009, Pays Nantais’ anthologies.

But in the last summer days, a short period of rain came, refreshing the vineyard and delaying maturity. In the end of September, we concluded the last days’ harvest by hand, under a bright sun.

François Lieubeau

It is often said that these conditions reveal the good growers. The work throughout the year in the vineyard by Pierre, Vincent and the team had great results: short pruning, working the soil and / or natural grass cover, care of the vines. In particular, this year extension of “palissage” and deleafing played beautifully, allowing us to maintain a perfect sanitary state, stretch the dates, and therefore harvest at the best maturity. Our technical investments, combined with the organization of the team let us vinify the entire Fruitière vineyard with skin contact in order to further develop aromatics and fruit driven wines. Also, under Vincent’s leadership, we have imported a qualitative press process from Champagne, generalized juice fractioning (unique in the Muscadet region). Finally, all the “classics” (IGP white, rosé and classic Muscadet) have been made in a reductive process under full protection against oxygen in order to keep a maximum of aromatic freshness. Finally, the 2015 vintage offers a beautiful alcohol / acidity balance and great aromatic potential with yields still in the low average (due to wood diseases).

Even more meticulous care has been taken into the culture and harvest of our vineyards from Crus Château-Thébaud and Clisson, where we are in organic farming conversion. In the vineyard, systematized plowing and a green harvest allowed us to reach perfect maturity while preserving the ecological balance of our plots. At harvest, we have hired 30 pickers to hand harvest all of our plot, a revival of this process in the Famille Lieubeau history. At the winery, these wines are vinified without chaptalisation, and for the first time without sulfites before fermentation and with natural yeasts to keep the most natural expression of their terroir. Vincent and I, in accordance with our parents, have introduced these innovations within the Famille Lieubeau. They are also a revolution in the Pays Nantais.”

It is great to see that it is not just the ‘big names’ that have already gained some fame, such as Pierre Luneau-Papin or Marc Ollivier, who are pushing the quality envelope in Muscadet. Here we have minimal intervention winemaking of hand-harvested fruit using natural yeasts, just as we would expect to find at the region’s leading domaines. I look forward to tasting these 2015s, especially those crus communaux wines.

Loire 2015 Harvest: Charles Sydney Reports

I know you’ve all been waiting for it. The first report from Charles and Philippa Sydney, Loire courtiers extraordinaire. Charles and Philippa work with a wide range of growers, from Muscadet up to Sancerre, and they are always out on the shop floor during harvest. Here is their first take on 2015, as exuberantly informative as ever.

Hello

At last a morning off from tasting grapes as the growers pick across the Loire! It’s pretty well all in, and time to let you know how things are going.

After a hot, dry summer, with drought blocking vegetation in some places, we finally got some rain in September, at last softening skins and letting the grapes really ripen.

The only ‘hic’ is that quantities are down pretty well everywhere, in part a result of the drought, part too a result of a few cold days at the end of the flowering, especially for Sauvignons from Touraine through Sancerre and Pouilly.

Some growers grumble about lowish acidities, but everywhere we tasted, the juice had that tang of freshness behind the concentration. Some people are never happy!

Given the great summer, it was not surprising to see picking start early – but it was a first to see some growers in Sancerre finish just as others in Muscadet were starting! Normally we kick off with Muscadet then things head east, with the Touraine a week later and Sancerre a week after that. This year saw growers picking in the Touraine on the 1st September, the Sancerre ‘*ban de vendanges*’ on the 9th – while on the 10th we still had Muscadet producers (Fruitière, Choblet, Sauvion) wondering how much longer they could wait!

Overall, quality looks exceptional.

Muscadet: yields OK-ish, averaging just under 50 hectos/hectare, which for them is good but still about 10% down on what we’d have liked. The harvest was smart, a little rot towards the end as expected, but loads of lovely gold grapes and liquid gold juice reflecting the sunny growing period. Ripeness is good, with a smart balance of freshness. The rain mid-September dropped average degrees a touch, so some growers had to chaptalise a bit. That’s fine by me – 2015 looks to be a lovely vintage.

Loire 2015

Touraine: Quality looks exceptional across the region – lovely healthy grapes, nice degrees, balanced acidity and super concentrated juice. The big bugbear is yields that were zapped by coulure post flowering, leaving an average yield of around 40 hectos/hectare for the Sauvignons. The 2015s are going to be brill, but if you still have reserves of 2014s, don’t let go!

Sancerre & Pouilly: 2015 looks hard to beat for quality – with an interesting comparison with 2006, which we noted the local Sicavac oenologists as rating ‘somewhere between 2005 and 1989 in quality’. Again, the ‘hic’ is quantity. At an average 50-55 hectos per hectare, it’s around 10 – 15% below normal, at a time when stocks are at an all time low.

Reds: There are two theoretical approaches to picking, depending on whether the grower wants to pick ‘fruit frais’ (fresh fruit) or ‘fruit mûr’ (ripe fruit). Some growers seem happy at having an excuse to pick early (we see unripe plots being picked first) while we know the potential that can be achieved with great vineyard management techniques. In our opinion, the real stars have only just started picking – and there the quality should be extraordinary.

Pinots: Looking fab too – maybe even better than last year!! We all know the handful of guys who push the limits in Sancerre, but it’s wonderful to see Sylvain Miniot down at the Cave in St Pourçain pushing his growers to get full ripeness. He’s still the one to watch.

Finally, Chenin Blanc.

Vouvray and Montlouis: The potential is lovely, so it’s still a shame to see over 2/3rds of the crop going to make sparkling. The guys who concentrate on making ‘real’ wines are on a high – look at the photos and see the gold chenin crinkling as it starts to concentrate and then going brown and raisiny. There should be some smart moelleux this year.

Loire 2015

Anjou and the Layon: Here the saga is just starting. Late last week saw the great growers starting to pick the dry whites – and doing a first ‘clean-up’ *tri* to get the rest of the crop ready to concentrate in ideal conditions. We have never seen such beautifully run vineyards as René and Christophe Papin’s Les Rouannières plot…. they’re clearly going even further than the great daddy Claude Papin.

There’s a photo of a mustimètre showing around 22° potential – hard to be sure as it stops marking at 18°. And that’s just a ‘clean-up’ picking. If the weather holds, we could be in for a truly great vintage.

With apologies for the exuberance – and a final report to come once we finish tasting end December.

Charles and Philippa

Initially only one of Charles’ photographs came through, but I have since added a second, one of the juice from a pre-harvest nettoyage registering 22º, a figure that in itself would be rich enough to make a very nice sweet wine. Sorry, it is far from being the best quality picture that Charles sent, but I included it as it speaks clearly of the potential quality of the vintage.

Vouvraygate

I have reflected for some time on the recent debacle in Vouvray and Montlouis involving Jacky Blot and François Chidaine. If you’re not up to speed with the issue, in a nutshell both have been vinifying their Vouvray in their cellars in Husseau (Montlouis), Jacky for many years, François more recently. Neither are in the zone where vinification is permitted carte blanche, but Jacky held documents which permitted him to vinify in Montlouis, while François seems to have operated under the assumption that he could do the same. Both make excellent wines, and François has control over the Clos Baudoin, one of the most highly regarded terroirs of Vouvray, so these aren’t guys hanging around on the periphery of the appellation. They have been making waves in recent years, Jacky seemingly buying up half of Montlouis, François building a new winery and taking on the old Poniatowski domaine (which is how he came by the Clos Baudoin).

Then, seemingly out of the blue, a few weeks ago word came from the INAO; their domaines in Montlouis were outside the zone where vinification of Vouvray was permitted, therefore they would be denied the appellation, from the 2014 vintage onwards. There is always the (necessarily expensive) legal route, of course, but barring that both Jacky’s and François’ Vouvrays would, from 2014, have to be sold as Vin de France. To see how the story first came to light, see this post on Jim’s Loire, and a subsequent report in La Nouvelle Republique.

Jacky Blot

So why the reflection? Well, as much as I revel in the free spirit and disregard for authority exhibited by many vignerons, I also believe that the appellation system is basically a good thing. This is a thought that will horrify the likes of Richard Leroy and many others, who believe the system favours dull, generic, boring wines made using questionable chemically-dependent methods, while sidelining wines of real interest. In explaining his beliefs, one sufficiently strong for him to personally ditch the appellation system altogether and go down the Vin de France route, Richard makes many good points. But I don’t believe we would be better off if the appellation system were scrapped altogether; it gives a valuable framework for wine, which is a vital slice of Ligérian culture, along with Renaissance châteaux, tarte tatin and the most magnificant moustaches in the world of wine. So I think we need to be careful when it comes to regulations such as this.

There is also a danger when it comes to the INAO and their appellations of picking and choosing which regulations we view as important, and which ones vignerons are ‘right’ to ignore. We’re all guilty of this to some degree. After all, we enjoy the benefits of living in a modern society which functions because of well-established laws, and that’s great until, of course, it is us that comes a cropper with a parking fine, a speeding ticket or some other minor infringement. Then, suddenly, the law is an ass! When it comes to Jacky (pictured above) and François (pictured below) vs. the INAO, the weight of public opinion would perhaps be on their side. But what about the INAO vs. Olivier Cousin, who stuck two fingers up at the authorities with the labelling and naming of his wines? What about the INAO vs. Florent Baumard, and new regulations pushed through despite his protests? I would argue that the first two are minor infringements that would and could be settled through negotiation (if the infringement is really the heart of the matter). The latter I believe was a more serious winemaking issue that failed to respect a hallowed terroir. But that’s just my opinion, and I know others view some of these recent controversies quite differently.

François Chidaine

So what is the issue here? Grapes are loaded onto a truck or trailer in Vouvray and driven cross-river to a winery in Husseau in Montlouis, by road a distance of about 11 km. Montlouis, sadly, isn’t one of the communes where vinification of Vouvray is permitted. So this is the crime in a nutshell; the grapes cross an arbitrary line, drawn by the human hand. In terms of what actually happens to the fruit, however, it is no different to Claude Papin moving grapes from Savennières to his winery in Pierre Bise for vinification (about 8 km). Indeed, should a vigneron as far away as Brissac-Quincé buy some vines in Savennières, he too could do the same, despite being over 20 km from his vines. This is just his good luck; the Savennières line is drawn wide, while that for Vouvray is drawn tight. But none of this will prevent Savennières tasting like Savennières, or Vouvray tasting like Vouvray. The journey does not seem to negatively affect these grapes, even though they are transported by road, and even though they cross the Loire. And isn’t that what the INAO should really be worried about?

The vinificiation of these wines in Montlouis is no great crime. The INAO, with support from within Vouvray (I spoke to two vignerons in the town – I was sorry to hear there was no sympathy for Jacky or François expressed) has chosen to maintain the hard line (not for the first time), sidelining two significant vignerons in the process. The Clos Baudoin, one of the appellation’s most significant terroirs, will now be sold as a Vin de France. It feels rather reminiscent of the Super-Tuscan debacle, when a number of domaines turned out superb wines which, because they flouted regulations on grape variety, started out as Vino da Tavola. Eventually, after two decades, when it became clear that not only were these ‘table wines’ some of the best in the region, but that they also weren’t going to disappear, that they were taken into the fold, the regulations ‘stretched’ to encapsulate them. It is a shame the INAO cannot learn from history and work towards a similar solution. It seems that, sometimes at least, the law really can be an ass.