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Loire Misunderstood #4: Sancerre; not for the Sauvignon

It’s been a while since I have taken the opportunity to promulgate one of my beliefs regarding the wines of the Loire Valley. Indeed, the last episode seems to have been the Light and Easy-Drinking Reds post that I wrote back in July. Time to get on with another one, I think.

A focus for my updates next year will the central vineyards, i.e. Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon, long overdue I think, a realisation that came to me when I visited Sancerre and Chavignol earlier this year. When Sancerre is good, I really enjoy it. When it isn’t, it can be pretty horrible stuff. I believe in part this reflects fruit ripeness, as certainly the less appealing wines usually have a fairly raw, green fruit character to them that never appeals to my palate.

This is looking at Sancerre at a very basic level though – after all, anybody can distinguish between unripe and ripe Sauvignon Blanc. You only have to look at the wines of Graves, and contrast those that delay for ripeness (Domaine de Chevalier, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Brown) with those that tend to pick earlier (Olivier, Carbonnieux) to see what a huge effect picking ripe fruit can have. It’s just the same in Sancerre.

Sauvignon Blanc on a sorting table, October 2013

Where Sancerre starts to get really interesting though is in terroir expression; this is where the wines leave behind the fruit flavours (green or otherwise) that we would normally associate with Sauvignon Blanc (you know the drill – green bell pepper, asparagus and pea, moving to yellow pepper, yellow plum and ultimately passion fruit when ripe) and begin to express characteristics that talk more of the soils that the fruit. I assume this reflects yields as well as ripeness, and perhaps there are other nuances also at play. I aim to find out more next year.

Most of Sancerre is limestone, with terres blanches (classic Kimmeridgian limestone, like Chablis) or caillottes (much more stony soils, often Portlandian/Oxfordian). The major difference this engenders is in the substance of the wine, which is frequently quite bold, firm and structured in style. The flavours can vary from orchard fruit to a more minerally character, reminiscent of white stone. A much rarer terroir is silex, in other words flint; here the wine often seems to have a more lifted, dancing character, with a lacy, filigree style; I often liken it to Mosel Riesling more than any other wine, although obviously it doesn’t have the sweetness or the Riesling character. But look beyond technical issues such as residual sugar, and mere flavours, to the way the wine feels in the mouth, and you will see the similarities. The flavours often tend more towards citrus character, especially tangerine and other orange fruits, all of which would be very surprising to a palate used only to, for example, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

It is really at this stage that Sancerre gets interesting to me. It is strange to think so much New World Sauvignon Blanc was planted to emulate this style, and yet at the very peak of the Sancerre appellation there is really no suggestion on the palate that Sauvignon even has a role here. I come to these wines to sense the soils from which they come, not for the Sauvignon.

Four from the Loire

Four very impressive wines from the Loire Valley, three of which were of some age, recently tasted with Jim Budd. My thanks to Jim for pulling the cork on these; the two Chinons in particular were memorable bottles that contributed in no small way to my ever-continuing, life-long Loire education.

Charles Joguet Chinon Clos de la Dioterie 1989: Showing some maturity, paling in terms of hue, but still fresh and bright. The aromatics are delightful, fresh and expressive, and increasingly complex the more I return to the wine. There is a sweetness to the fruit still, but also a more savoury and evolved quality reminiscent of black bean and soy sauce, perhaps a little balsamic too. Along with this there is a little sliver of green, but not one that detracts from the wine, but instead lifts it up a level. The palate is evolved, still with appealing substance, and also energetic and firm, with a softening texture and evolved characteristics like those on the nose. So long and full. A superb wine. 18.5/20 (October 2013)

Domaine de la Perrière Chinon Vieilles Vignes 1989: From Jean and Christophe Baudry. The colour here is a little deeper and more confident than the Dioterie from Charles Joguet, tasted alongside. It has a smoky and evolved, lifted nose, not so complex as the Dioterie perhaps, but it does seem to look more clearly to the future. The palate is sweet, evolved, with good flesh and depth, and although the evolution is not as apparent as I would have hoped I have to acknowledge that this wine probably has decades ahead of it yet. All the same, right now it feels energetic and bright, polished and long. A very good wine, and one that is potentially great given time. 18/20 (October 2013)

Château du Breuil Coteaux du Layon Beaulieu 2007: A pale golden hue here, and a very classic nose of honey and mineral-schist, with nuances of cinder toffee. The palate has a very fine freshness to it, a bitter and pithy grip which really appeals, being wholly subsumed by the flesh and concentrated fruit of the midpalate. This is tense, with great grip and pithy acidity through the middle. A classically styled and quite exceptional wine, which could age brilliantly, from a relatively (compared to the greats of Anjou) unsung domaine. 17.5/20 (October 2013)

Domaine Ogereau Coteaux du Layon Saint Lambert Cuvée Nectar 1990: An amazing colour, a burnished orange-golden hue, and yet it is bright, with a red-pink hue, almost like a very confused sunset. The nose is redolent of orange zest, coffee and cinder toffee, and shows great character and admirably evolved style. In the mouth it is very rich and broad in keeping with the vintage, and the overall impact of the wine so far. The breadth and sweet polish is matched by some structural elements, which largely come from the bitter grip possessed by the wine, rather than the acidity which seems rather muted, perhaps typical of 1990. The finish is long and pithy, the flavours sweet and tinged with toffee. Overall, this is an excellent wine, and very true to the vintage in question. 17.5/20 (October 2013)

Saumur-Time, and the living . . . .

I think many with a knowledge of the wines of the Loire Valley, when asked to indicate their red-wine favourite, would point to the appellation of Saumur-Champigny. It is perhaps not as widely known as Chinon, the other main contender, where the likes of Couly-Dutheil, Philippe Alliet and Bernard Baudry have been busy turning out excellent wines for many years now. Nevertheless Saumur-Champigny is home to many top-class domaines, not least Clos Rougeard, where the lesser-spotted Foucaults can be found. I’ve never managed to secure an appointment or tasting here, despite sending letters (yes, printed words of French, on paper, stuffed into an envelope, complete with stamp, posted by hand, the full works), making several telephone calls and leaving answer phone messages (all in French, again, in case you were wondering), as well as turning up and simply hammering on the gates with my bloodied fist.

Why the attraction, and all the effort? Quite simply, the furtive Foucault frères turn out the purest examples of Cabernet Franc I have ever tasted, wines with a precision and floral finesse that sometimes makes me wonder whether they have imported something magic from Burgundy to the slopes of Saumur-Champigny. If not the fruit (although you don’t get a lot of Cabernet Franc in Burgundy, so I’m told), then some secret wisdom or skill. The poise and delicate yet confident elegance of their wines defies accurate description I am afraid; you just have to taste them to experience their pointed precision for yourself.

Saumur Château, July 14th, 2010

Something else the brothers – or at least those who are selling the wines – seem to have imported from Burgundy is a taste for grand cru pricing. In recent years the cost of a bottle of Clos Rougeard has rocketed to an unprecedented level. I was annoyed when the top wine, Le Bourg, doubled in price, a jump up which already put it at the very limit of whether I or not I should be buying it for my cellar. When it doubled again, reaching a level in the 2009 vintage four times what I recall paying for the 2003, it was time to call it quits. I’m not saying the wine isn’t worthy of grand cru pricing; after all, I opened with a suggestion that this was perhaps the top red wine of the entire Loire Valley. It’s just that I have other more efficient drains on my bank account (three of them, all teenagers) and I can’t buy wines priced at the current level of Le Bourg as anything other than a very occasional, single-bottle treat. So the problem then is, where next for more regular drinking? Who do we turn to in Saumur-Champigny when Clos Rougeard leaves the party? Naturally I have some preferences, but I recently decided to taste more comprehensively, across perhaps a dozen or so domaines in the Saumur and Saumur-Champigny appellations, to see what sort of quality was on offer, whether my preferences were appropriate, and to guide other buyers of the wines.

With this plan in mind earlier this year I made a concerted effort to update my knowledge of the Saumur and Saumur-Champigny appellations, and I tasted through the wines of the following domaines; Domaine des Roches Neuves, Château de Villeneuve, Château du Hureau, Domaine Filliatreau, Domaine de Nerleux, Château de Chaintres, Domaine du Collier, Clos Cristal, René-Noël Legrand and Château Tour Grise. In each case I was looking for an alternative source, to see where I might spend my Saumur sous with Clos Rougeard no longer an affordable option. I didn’t expect to find a Le Bourg or Le Poyeux replacement in all honesty, but I reasoned and hoped that I could perhaps find something close. Over the next few weeks I will be publishing my Saumur-Time reports, opinions and tasting notes from these encounters, either in the shape of domaine updates, or in new or revitalised profiles; I start today with new notes from one of the most
significant domaines in the Saumur and Saumur-Champigny appellations, Domaine des Roches Neuves, run by Thierry Germain.

Read my first Saumur-Time report, a tasting report on the wines of Domaine des Roches Neuves (subscription required).

Loire 2013: Before and After

Although I have finished my ‘from the vineyard’ Loire 2013 reports there are a few reflections still to make on my week in the Loire, starting with my visit to Domaine Baudry-Dutour. Here I found them busy picking Cabernet Franc for the 2013 Chinon Rosé, using a machine harvester with on-board optical sorting. Although I’ve seen these machines in action a few times now, I don’t recall seeing one so close-up before, and I certainly haven’t seen one with on-board optical sorting (if the image below looks familiar, it’s because I also included it in my Chinon & Bourgueil post).

Loire 2013: machine picking, before

The process is incredibly efficient, and the machine can be fine-tuned to not only to determine how vigorously the grapes are removed, but the optical sorting can also be adjusted to reject more or fewer of the just-picked fruit. As far as I could see a few leaves were removed as well as grapes, but this also happens during hand-picking, when leaves are often pulled off in order to make easier access to the bunches. Here are some bunches before picking:

Loire 2013: machine picking, before

And here is the same vine after picking; almost all the grapes have been neatly removed from their stems, the vine almost untouched:

Loire 2013: machine picking, after

The rejected grapes are dumped into a tray on the side of the machine which the operator – or rather one of a small team of men running the machine – emptied out at the end of each row. In the image below he is picking through the rejected fruit, ensuring that the optical sorting is appropriately tuned. During the process he conferred with the vineyard proprietor, Jean-Martin Dutour, as to whether or not he would like to adjust the settings in order to reject more/less fruit.

Loire 2013: machine picking, discarded fruit

Below is the accepted fruit, after it has been dumped into a trailer ready to be taken into the winery. The berries were certainly in a much better condition than those rejected, although I was somewhat confused by the presence of a few clearly unripe berries, which optical sorting really should have rejected very easily.

Loire 2013: machine picking, selected fruit

Despite this experience I remain somewhat unconvinced by machine-picking, even though I have tasted a number of machine-picked wines that have been very good. My persistent doubt stems from a correlation (a weak one, admittedly) between machine-picking and lower quality in a handful of Bordeaux grand cru classé estates. I say ‘weak’ as it really relates to just a few negative experiences, and I expect there are many other confounding variables involved. I think, perhaps, I should keep more of an open mind about it, especially looking at the quality of the fruit selected here.

I have some videos of the machine in action but will have to edit them first, difficult at the moment as I am currently ‘taking a break’ exploring the beaches, castles and gardens of Northumberland (a very fine part of the country I must say).

Loire 2013: Chinon and Bourgueil

Friday was my final day looking at the vineyards of the Loire during harvest time. Having returned to Touraine on Thursday, this time we struck out west. heading first to Château de l’Aulée near Azay-le-Rideau, followed by several visits in Chinon, Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. There was a quick stop in Vouvray before I unfortunately found myself back at the airport in Tours.

Jean-Martin Dutour

At L’Aulée, Marielle Henrion told us she had been picking since September 28th, with alcoholic potentials of about 11%. This doesn’t sound ideal, but bear in mind that Marielle is Bollinger-trained, and specialises in making Crémant de Loire, so lower potentials (and higher acid levels) are just fine here. Then it was on to Domaine Baudry-Dutour, where we met Jean-Martin Dutour (pictured above). Jean-Martin summed up the two main features that he feels will define the vintage. First, there was a warm summer, bringing excellent potential (although we shouldn’t forget some hectares were lost to hail, which hit Chinon, albeit to a lesser extent than in Vouvray). Second, and less positive, a very late harvest, meaning that converting early hopes into quality in the bottle may be rather difficult. He finds phenolic maturity this year better than it was last year in Chinon, when it lagged behind the technical (sugar) maturity somewhat.

In addition he describes having a little rot in the fruit this year, but in small quantities and only present under the skin of the grapes, not visible on the fruit. This doesn’t affect the taste, he says (as an aside - I must admit even with superficial rot on much of the fruit I have seen, Sauvignon Blanc especially, I haven’t once picked up the ‘taste’ of rot in any of them, and believe me I have popped a few furry berries in my mouth the past few days). This sub-surface rot does, says Jean-Martin, fade the colour of the wines, and it can degrade the tannins, making them finer, which caused him to liken the vintage in Chinon to 1997 or 1999, both years with very fine tannins in Jean-Martin’s opinion.

Picking machine with Opti-Grape on-board optical sorting

Out in the vineyard, picking was well underway, although really only for the rosé at present, the fruit coming in with 11% potential. The fruit was being picked by machine with on-board optical sorting (shown above), a relatively new innovation. As for reds, they are obviously looking for a higher potential, and it may be that some chaptalisation is required. Harvesting for the red wines is yet to start.

By the time we left Baudry-Dutour the rain was settling in and it continued on and off for the afternoon. By the time Jim Budd and I found ourselves in the vineyards of Bourgeuil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil it was dry again, but as I waited to board my plane at Tours an hour or so later it was raining once again. We took a look up on the mi pente slopes at Jacky Blot’s Domaine de la Butte, which were probably the best tasting red grapes I sampled this week, with sweetly perfumed skins giving real flavour (it is surprising what little flavour most grapes on the vine have) but they also had ripe, clean and brown pips, a contrast to many of the grapes we tasted down on the more sandy soils below where there was obvious methoxypyrazine character in the fruit, and the pips were still green with adherent pulp. Then we called in on Sébastien David (pictured below, clearly in good spirits despite the difficult vintage), who told us his potentials currently ranged from 11.5% to 12.5%, not too bad, but that the acidities were still high at about 6 g/l. As with others, he is hoping for cold weather now to stave off the rot, having given up on obtaining further ripening. His plan was to start picking today (Saturday 12th October). Somewhere along the way we also squeezed in a visit to Frédéric Mabileau, where he clearly runs a very tight ship during harvest time (in fact there are numerous visits made this week I haven’t mentioned, as I have aimed to give a flavour of what we did, not provide a comprehensive summary – but information, report and pictures from all my visits will make it onto Winedoctor somewhere, somehow).

Sébastien David

Before reaching the airport we stopped off at the new Château Gaudrelle facilities, on the road running into Vouvray at Rochecorbon. They lost 50% of the crop in the June hail here. They began picking last Wednesday, starting with the fruit for the bulles. The acidities are still very high indeed here though, up to 8 g/l, and so the vines are certainly not ready to be picked for still wines.

My journey back was uneventful, although I did nearly board a plane to Glasgow instead of Edinburgh by mistake, the two flights leaving from adjacent gates only five minutes apart. Sadly, since I left, Jim Budd reports that the rain has continued and been heavy, further dampening spirits no doubt.

Thanks to all the vignerons I visited in the past week, to the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins du Centre who put me up for two nights in Chavignol, and most of all to Jim Budd and CRM for their guidance, chauffeur’s service, introductions and hospitality. You can read those of Jim’s reports that correspond with mine starting here.

Loire 2013: To Pouilly

On Thursday morning I crossed the Loire to explore the region of Pouilly-Fumé, calling in at a number of domaines in Tracy-sur-Loire, Pouilly-sur-Loire, Les Loges and Saint-Andelain. There was continued activity on the roads as we departed Chavignol, yesterday’s rain stepping up the pace a little, before it could turn the rot to grey. Fortunately the temperatures have dropped somewhat, which the vignerons are happy about. There is an acceptance that there will be no further ripening now as the weather simply isn’t good enough, and indeed warm weather would simply advance the rot. Cold weather, however, will retard the development of the rot and keep things clean while the vignerons get the picking done.

Didier Pabiot, Nina Schomakers

Once over in Pouilly we enjoyed a whistle-stop one-morning tour of the appellation, hearing about the 2013 harvest along the way, picking well underway here, and we also tasted a little freshly pressed juice. Most domaines seem to have begun last week (generally towards the end, although some were earlier) or Monday this week. At Château de Tracy for example, picking began by hand on September 26th, and was about to finish. At Jonathon Pabiot, where we spoke to Didier Pabiot (Jonathon’s father) and Jonathon’s, partner Nina Schomakers (pictured above), with only a relatively small vineyard to pick they were happy that they had begun at the right time, and they were halfway to completion. The alcoholic potential here is about 12.2%, a figure with which they are very content. And, as elsewhere, although the Sauvignon Blanc here carried some rot, it remains noble and clean tasting, and without any sweetening concentration. At Michel Redde the potentials ranged from 10.5% to 11.7%, so a little lower here, with yields between 50 and 55 hl/ha.

In Saint-Andelain we call in to see Benjamin Dagueneau (below), where we tasted the 2013 juice, of which there is very restricted quantities. The picking from Buisson Renard, for example, would usually come close to filling a 9100-litre steel vat, but this year there is only 1950 litres (possibly ‘so far’ – I forgot to ask if there was more yet to come), about 20% the normal volume. Benjamin has clearly been working hard to maximise quality in this difficult vintage, with “tri, beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup” being his summing up of the vintage. After the juice we also tasted through all the 2012s from vat, and I will add a report on these wines to the subscribers area before long.

Benjamin Dagueneau

We called in at Masson-Blondelet who had begun on Monday this week, finding acceptable ripenes and a little rot, but small yields due to hail earlier in the year. And then with a long drive ahead of us Jim Budd and I headed back to Touraine, but not before stopping off with Denis Jamain in Reuilly. Denis was close to finishing picking all his whites and reds, and finds quality in the latter higher than in the former. The alcoholic potential here is between 12% and 12.5%, and the yields are not at all bad, with 35 hl/ha for Pinot Noir and 55 hl/ha for Sauvignon Blanc. Denis believes that it is soil type that will have made the biggest difference in this vintage, with more sandy soils encouraging rot, but limestone terroirs more resistant. After that, he says, it is all down to when you started picking.

Today (Friday) we are heading downstream to Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, then sadly I will be heading home via the airport at Tours. I will post a report on Friday’s visits tomorrow.

Loire 2013: Les Tables de Tri

There isn’t a road between Sancerre and the associated villages of Chavignol and Bué that I didn’t travel down yesterday. Well, perhaps that is something of an exaggeration, but it was certainly a busy day as we flitted about from vineyard to vineyard, domaine to domaine.

We spent a large chunk of the morning with the globe-trotting Jean-Marie Bourgeois, ‘emeritus’ chairman of Henri Bourgeois. Now into his eighth decade Jean-Marie no longer personally directs operations at the expansive Henri Bourgeois facilities in Chavignol, leaving this to other family members. Nevertheless he is clearly not slowing down, and the list of destinations just visited or planned for the near future – all for the marketing of Bourgeois Sancerre of course – showed the now global appeal (exotic destinations, such as Singapore and China, featured heavily) of the wines from this little corner of Berry.

Sorting at Henri Bourgeois

After seeing the sorting (above) on vibrating table de tri, we drove out to take a look at some Pinot Noir vines in Saint-Satur, the fruit here looking fairly healthy, as it has down across the region. Whereas the Sauvignon Blanc has generally been afflicted with rot, this is generally less so for the Pinot Noir. I imagined at first this reflected the slightly more advanced ripeness of the white variety, perhaps with more fragile skins (the berries certainly are fragile in some cases) but the Pinot Noir is now sufficiently ripe for some domaines to be picking, so that can’t be the whole story. Then it was on to Domaine Laporte, of which the Bourgeois family have been proprietors since 1986. Here we saw machine picking of Sauvignon Blanc, and an inspection of the fruit shows that, as elsewhere, it was showing some rot here and there. The rot is generally dry though (it still hasn’t rained) and thus it tends more towards the noble type of rot rather than grey rot, and repeated tasting of the fur-covered berries did not reveal any off flavours (this has been the case over the last three days). There were four machines picking the one vineyard here, the whole job taking two days in total.

Sorting at Vincent Pinard

After our visit to Henri Bourgeois Jim Budd and I made a long sequence of other visits. We met Vincent Pinard at his domaine, with his sons Florent and Clément. There was an emphasis here on sorting, sorting, sorting (table de tri shown above), and it has probably paid off, as the juices here were certainly the most exciting to taste, showing great concentration wrapped around vibrant acidity. Chez François Crochet we met the ever-delightful Carine Crochet who again reiterated the difficulties of the vintage. They began picking here last Thursday (October 3rd), and have been making heavy use of the table de tri. They have a team of 30 working in the vines, 26 pickers and four managers to direct the teams. The alcoholic potentials here range from 11.5% to 12% in most cases, but go up to 13% on some plots.

Alphonse Mellot, pickers' transport

At Alphonse Mellot we found a huge team of pickers on La Moussière; with six mini-buses, two Landrovers and several white vans (above) parked up on the lower slopes of the vineyard, there must have been at least 50 people picking here. We followed up by visiting the winery in Sancerre; the sorting here looked much lighter, a quick pick over before the fruit went up the conveyer belt to the pneumatic press. I guess with so many people in the vineyard, they would argue that is where the sorting is happening. Alphonse Mellot Junior couldn’t meet us as I believe he was recovering from the previous days picking, which may have gone on late into the night, but we tasted some juice instead. Yields here are about the norm, at 40-45 hl/ha. We were on the Chavignol cuvée before I found something exciting, this juice showing good concentration and lovely acids to balance it; the alcoholic potential here was, after the tri, said to be 12%.

Sorting at Domaine Vacheron

We visited Domaine Fouassier, a good-sized biodynamic operation, where yields were reported as normal (average 40 to 45 hl/ha, but ranging from 35 to 50 hl/ha depending on the plot) and alcoholic potentials ranged from 11.5% to 13.5%. We finished up at Domaine Vacheron, where we spent some time both with Jean-Dominique and Jean-Laurent Vacheron. Here they have been picking since September 27th, and the yields are reported as 53 hl/ha for the whites, not at all short. Curiously they have found here that despite a very even and rapid flowering during the spring, the Sauvignon Blanc does not seem to have progressed evenly, with one-third of the fruit quite green, one-third ripe, and one-third showing rot; there was no forthcoming explanation as for why this should be. The table de tri was very active here, with a large team working on it (above), sorting Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir discard due to rot was fairly high at 25%, more than I would have expected from what we have seen in the vineyards, although the evidence was there to see in the disposal bin (below).

Discarded fruit at Domaine Vacheron

Today (Thursday) Jim Budd and I are off to Pouilly-Fumé, with possible visits to Domaine Didier Dagueneau, Alexandre Bain, Jonathon Pabiot and others.

Postscript: As I write this it is about 7am and there has just been a sudden downpour of rain. It was quite heavy, and I can now hear the rainwater gushing down the gutters of the street outside the window of my hotel room in Chavignol. This isn’t welcome news for those yet to bring their furry fruit in. More report tomorrow…..

Loire 2013: Reuilly to Sancerre

On Tuesday Jim Budd and I headed out of Touraine, taking a route parallel to the Cher for much of the way, as we headed up to the vineyards of the Centre. That brought us first to Reuilly, where we stopped off to meet Claude Lafond, and to taste a little of his 2013 juice.

Claude Lafond

Claude (pictured above) has a very swish looking operation on the edge of the village, which he runs with the help of his daughter Nathalie. We tasted his 2013 Pinot Gris juice, which was clean, had plenty of flavour, soft texture and some nicely enveloped acidity. I thought it was surprisingly good. At his suggestion we then abandoned our plans for a roadside picnic and took an impromptu lunch with him and his team of workers. Claude, who inherited his domaine from his father André, is a mine of information on the history of Reuilly, its vines and wines, and how the appellation has waned (to near extinction) and waxed over the years. More importantly, his 2010 Reuilly Le Clos des Messieurs, made from full-ripeness Sauvignon, changed with one sip my understanding of this appellation. His are wines I am clearly going to have to get to know better.

Philippe Gilbert

Then it was on through Quincy, the Loire’s first-ever appellation, it having been ratified in 1936. It is a remarkably small appellation, and we passed through here before heading up through the vineyards of Menetou-Salon. Here we stopped off to meet Philippe Gilbert (pictured above), whose wines I enjoyed when I tasted them earier this year at the Renaissance tasting in Angers. We found him just clearing up after lunch, and after hearing of his Sauvignon harvest so far we then followed him out to see him and his team picking Pinot Noir (below).

Philippe Gilbert, Pinot Noir

I was struck by the fact that, as we moved from Touraine into Menetou-Salon and then Sancerre, how the alcoholic potentials climbed. Whereas Touraine producers may well resort to adding sugar – those whose personal dogmas don’t forbid them doing so, at any rate – this is much less likely in Menetou-Salon and Sancerre. Philippe reported alcoholic potentials comfortably higher than 12%, up to 12.9% on some pickings. The Sauvignon Blanc juice tasted clean, fresh, with nicely buried acidity.

Vincent Pinard

Then it was on to Sancerre, and we didn’t make too many domaine visits here, instead accosting people in the vineyard as and when the mood took us, as we enjoyed a veritable tour of the appellation, stopping off around Bué, looking at the Clos de la Poussie, then towards Chavignol where we took in things on Les Monts Damnés and the Beaujeu vineyards, then over to Sancerre taking a detour into La Moussière, the vineyard of Alphonse Mellot as we went. One person we accosted in the vineyard was Vincent Pinard (pictured above), who was just moving from one vineyard to the next, and he spoke to us from the cab of his white van (the ubiquitous vehicle of the harvest). Vincent confirmed what others had said, that it had been a difficult vintage and the harvest was a testing one, with rot a problem and very selective picking required.

Pinot Noir

That this was so had been evident all day. I saw Philippe Gilbert take one picker to task, after he had spotted a small bunch bearing some rot in one of the hods on its way down to be loaded for transport back to the chai. Elsewhere, rot was fairly evident, but certainly not universal. Some bunches look very clean and healthy, while others have clearly suffered. Finding a touch of rot, like that above, is not unusual; the berries feel very fragile in some cases – in trying to pick them they collapse between finger and thumb, and I imagine this is relevant when it comes to the presence of rot in the vineyard. Fortunately it has remained dry, although overcast, but the forecast for the end of the week is worsening. Rain on the rot currently in the vineyard would of course be a great cause for concern. It is a vintage for draconian selection, with the potential to make good wines (but probably no more than that). There are plenty of pitfalls, and vignerons with higher yields, or who have failed to pick soon enough, or who have a more lax attitude to selection are likely to make ‘less than interesting’ wines.

Today (Wednesday) we have a whole raft of visits lined up, including Alphonse Mellot, Vacheron, Henri Bourgeois, François Crochet, Sébastien Riffault and maybe half a dozen more.

Loire 2013: In Touraine

Monday was a busy day spent flitting across the vineyards of Touraine with Jim Budd, visiting some notable growers whose wines I already know, as well as some domaines I haven’t visited before. It was great to have this mix of the familiar and the new. I lost count of how many domaines we visited altogether.

Catherine Roussel

One of our first visits was to Clos Roche Blanche, where Catherine Roussel (pictured above, with her 2013 ‘dossier’) was honest about the quality of the vintage. “C’est genial, un très bon millésime, le millésime du siècle!“, she exclaimed. All said tongue-in-cheek I’m afraid, because it was quite clear this has been a difficult vintage, with less than adequate ripeness in the fruit, and the threat of rot forcing picking. It was, she said, a vintage for the “table de tri“, indicating that a lot of sorting was required to make anything decent this year. During our time with Catherine we also tasted from 2012 and 2011, just a trio of wines as we weren’t able to linger, and we learned of Catherine’s plans for the future at Clos Roche Blanche, something all fans of this domaine will want to read. I will add an update for the domaine to the subscriber’s section in the next month.

Noëlla Morantin

From Clos Roche Blanche it was a short drive up the road to see Noëlla Morantin (pictured above), not surprising as Noëlla rents her property from Catherine. Here we learnt more about the difficulties of the vintage, and tasted some wines from 2012.

Our focus turned more towards 2013 at Domaine Ricard, with a taste of the freshly picked Sauvignon Blanc juice, yet to get underway with fermentation. Of all the juice I tasted on Monday this was the most convincing, full of expressive citrus fruit and almost tropical aromas, with texture and fresh but nicely enveloped acidity. There’s no reason to believe this won’t make good a Touraine wine. Vincent Ricard (pictured below) was looking more pleased than most, probably because he has 21 hectares of white and only 3 hectares of red, he has largely finished picking the whites, and quality here – at the top end at least – doesn’t seem at all bad.

Vincent Ricard

Speaking in general terms, the Touraine growers are in the middle or drawing close to the end of picking the Sauvignon Blanc, with many expecting to finish in the next few days if not already. The weather isn’t too bad, with blue skies and sunshine for the past two mornings, although clouding over on each day as the hours ticked by. I expect this dry but somewhat cloudy weather will continue for the rest of the week, so not an Indian summer but not leading to a rapid degeneration in quality of fruit on the vine either, which rain would certainly do. Dark clouds continual threaten this peace though, so there is still plenty of anxiety.

The Sauvignon Blancs have come in typically at 11.5% potential, which means chaptalisation is likely at many domaines, as they pump up the wines to 12.5% or thereabouts. A few domaines claimed a little more than 11.5%, with one or two hitting 12% but no more. Yields vary greatly according to the viticultural philosophy of the domaine, but they were very good in places. In terms of tasting the juices, at some domaines they certainly tasted flavoursome and clean, although I note that when this was the case we were often tasting the upper class, old vines juice, and not the juice of younger vines or lesser terroirs. At one domaine where we tasted through a selection of juices, the first Sauvignon showed a touch of grey rot, and the others all showed some rather vegetal Sauvignon character, slight in the older vines juice but worsening as we went down through the portfolio to th every young vines. Another top-flight vigneron confirmed that there was a taste of rot in some of his Sauvignon Blanc juice, and he was treating it with casein to remove it. This is a sure sign of the trials of the vintage, and indicating that even the best, organic, true-to-the-terroir domaines have had major problems this year.

On Tuesday I am heading out to Sancerre, to spend a couple of days here, exploring the vineyards of this appellation as well as Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon, Reuilly and Quincy.

Loire 2013: A Quick Start

Yesterday I travelled down to the Loire Valley, from Edinburgh to Tours via London; other than having to hang around Stansted airport for a long time, it was an uneventful journey. Tours is a great airport, very small, and superbly located. Within minutes of landing I was out among the vines, along with Jim Budd. I may well take this route again in future.

We took a whirlwind tour of some of the Vouvray and Montlouis vineyards before we lost the evening light. I know that you cannot extrapolate quality across an appellation, or even across a domaine, but it is still instructive to see the fruit on the vine waiting to be picked.

Chenin Blanc in the Clos du Bourg

Above is Chenin Blanc in the Clos du Bourg, belonging to Domaine Huet; what the picture doesn’t really convey is the small size of the berries as well as the small size of the bunch. This is a second generation bunch, one which developed after the hailstorm swept through in June, and it was typical of what I found in the vineyard. They aren’t going to be of any use in winemaking. It illustrates what a difficult time the appellation has had this year.

Chenin Blanc in Montlouis

Above is Chenin Blanc in Montlouis, probably in the vineyards of François Chidaine, although it is difficult to be sure. These grapes look much more promising. There is a little rot here and there, but it is largely dry, and tastes clean, so no need to lose hope yet. Good weather, as is forecast for the next week, will help.

Château de Chenonceau

There was just time to catch a glimpse of some evening light on the Château de Chenonceau, probably my favourite of all the Loire châteaux – not a very original choice, I know, but the combination of beauty and history wins me over. And what’s not to like about a château built over a river?

Sunset over the Cher

And finally, before heading home to a few bottles (J. Mourat 11:22, Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Côt 2001, Domaine de Noblaie Chinon Pierre de Tuf 2005, Domaine de la Taille aux Loups Montlouis Rémus 2007, Château du Breuil Coteau du Layon Beaulieu 2007) and a very long and filling repas, a quick view of the sun setting over the Cher.

Today (Monday) I will be visiting Clos Roche Blanche and other Touraine domaines.