Domaine des Baumard Quarts de Chaume 1997
Dim the lights. Cue the music. And settle into your seats (preferably drink in hand - you might need it!), as we bring you episode seventeen in our gripping serialisation, L'Affaire des Baumard.
Well, OK, maybe not episode seventeen, but the ongoing kerfuffle over the knighting of Chaume and Quarts de Chaume as premier and grand cru respectively adds another chapter to what is certainly one of the longer-running wine sagas I have ever encountered. Entire Bordeaux classifications have collapsed, been mourned and reborn - either as the new Cru Bourgeois designation, or as the rather watered-down St Emilion classification - in the time it has taken to establish the ranking of these two Loire appellations. For those in need of a little reminder, previous instalments - also covered within the context of my Weekend Wine updates - started with the creation of the Chaume Premier Cru des Coteaux du Layon appellation in 2003, followed by its annulment in 2005. Then came some attempt at compromise, giving Coteaux du Layon-Chaume its own appellation - simply Chaume - without the premier cru emphasis; this decree was passed in 2007, but annulled in 2009. In both cases the new appellations were overturned following appeal to the Conseil d'État by Quarts de Chaume producers, the main protagonists being the Baumards - father Jean and son Florent - of Domaine des Baumard.
In late 2009 solution number three was proposed, one which was anticipated would appease the Quarts de Chaume objectors; Chaume becomes premier cru, but Quarts de Chaume a grand cru. Unfortunately, other features less likely to appeal were also ushered in; the Quarts de Chaume syndicat agreed to new and more stringent regulations for this new grand cru, with a particular emphasis on yields (including weight of fruit per vine rather than ultimate hectolitres per hectare - an important distinction!) and outlawing mechanical processes in the cellars. This affected one domaine in particular, a domaine with a unique method of viticulture known as vignes hautes et larges, the larger-than-life vines laden with fruit come harvest time. The domaine in question belongs to the Baumards of course. The yields obtained from these vignes hautes et larges must be very high, and that would seem to be borne out by the use of cryo-extraction (or as he refers to it cryo-selection) by Florent Baumard (pictured above), a technique which has seen his harvest reduced in volume to just 20% of the original in some vintages.
Loire fans may well already know what comes next; as reported by Jim Budd in Decanter, and Eric Pfanner in the New York Times, solution number three - which was all but signed off - is again facing an appeal at the level of the Conseil d'État. There are no prizes for guessing who the opponent is; the Baumards object on the basis of contradictions and errors within the text of the decree, although I suspect many will wonder whether they might be more concerned with the financial impact of declassified vines and cryo-extraction equipment made worthless by the new regulations. To say that other exponents of the Quarts de Chaume appellation are furious is something of an understatement.
These thoughts were foremost in my mind at a tasting of Quarts de Chaume and Chaume from the 2007 vintage recently laid on by InterLoire for me and Jim Budd when we were both in the Loire a couple of weeks ago. Jim has already alluded to the tasting here (I will be writing up as soon as possible), and I find it interesting that he highlights two domaines in particular, Pierre-Bise and Domaine des Baumard, because these are exactly the same two domaines I returned to at the end of the tasting, after Jim had left, for a repeat tasting and an instructive moment of 'compare-and-contrast' self-education. Both wines were delicious; that from Claude Papin showing a botrytis-rich intensity and deep complexity which placed it head-and-shoulders above the competition in this context, but traces of this quality could be found in other well-made wines such as those from Domaine Cady or Yves Guégniard. The wine from Domaine des Baumard was delicious, but certainly of a different style, with more intensely vibrant exotic fruit tones suggestive of mango and pineapple, with a twist of caramel richness, this latter characteristic being one I also find in more mature examples such as 2001 and 1997; as a result, I felt compelled to open one such wine on returning to the UK.
Thus this week's Weekend Wine is the 1997 Quarts de Chaume from Domaine des Baumard; it has a wonderful colour in the glass, showing a lightly burnished yellow-gold hue, but it still seems very bright and fresh. The nose is certainly stunning; it kicks off with aromas of quince, rich and heady and faintly apricotty, so - regardless of what level of cryo-extraction or cryo-selection has been utilised here - this does seem to be showing some traits which I would usually associate with botrytis. This rich and enticing character persists as the wine warms a little in the glass, but is soon joined by the scents of beautifully fresh mango, with suggestions of tangerine zest keeping it fresh, but also deeper notes of praline and almond paste providing depth, richness and opulence. The palate is similarly divine; it is immediately expansive, rich and coating, but this rapid impact is nicely balanced with vibrant citrus and tropical fruit acidity, and then there comes the sudden influx of cream, praline and caramel to match the aromas found on the nose. Despite this the wine remains fresh and bright throughout, grippy and long in the finish. It's an excellent wine. 18.5/20
And so I am left with something of a dilemma; I believe that Quarts de Chaume is a great terroir, and that such a treasure should be protected and expressed through moderated yields (the new grand cru regulations stipulate a stringent 20-25 hl/ha and more importantly a maximum of 1.7 kg or 2.5 kg per vine, depending on planting density) and avoidance of excessively technical manipulations. I realise this latter expression is very vague - much winemaking involves 'manipulations' - but I think you probably know what I am getting at, especially as the grand cru regulations are more specific; techniques which involve taking the fruit or must below -5ºC are banned. And yet I will not deny that, although I find quality across the Baumard portfolio to be variable, the Quarts de Chaume is very frequently an exciting wine. Yes; I find this high-yield, cryo-selected/cryo-extracted/cryo-manipulated wine to be delicious. It is, having tasted it alongside a selection of its peers, a very distinctive (atypical, perhaps?) style within the appellation and I am sure this relates to the production methods. Nevertheless, although a style that perhaps relies more on technology than terroir I can't deny the pleasure I experience when wine and palate come together. These wines might not express the joy of Quarts de Chaume in the same honest, botrytis-fuelled fashion as other wines from this precious appellation, but they remain delicious; and so I have decided that, until the new Quarts de Chaume regulations are finally thrashed out, I will continue to enjoy those bottles I have in my cellar, and file my experiences under guilty pleasures. Or, as I have heard suggested, under eiswein perhaps? (20/2/12)