Couly-Dutheil Chinon Clos de l'Echo Crescendo 2003
Can you define what a Chinon should be? I don't think I can. Strangely, although some appellations in the Loire, and in Bordeaux, seem to have well established stereotypes, others do not. I think I know, for instance, what a Pomerol or a Sancerre should taste like. That is not to say that they all taste like that, just that there is an accepted 'norm', one which defines the appellation, and to which wines which stray from the norm will be compared and contrasted. Pomerol, taking my first example, is defined by wines such as Petrus, Le Pin, L'Église-Clinet, L'Évangile, Lafleur, Vieux-Château-Certan and so on. Other wines, from Latour à Pomerol through to Trotanoy, although each with their own style and flavour profile, remain true to the type. But there are exceptions, wines which stray from this type; the biodynamic Gombaude-Guillot springs to mind before any other. Similarly, in Sancerre, we probably all have a mental 'taste-map' of what a typical example will taste like, against which wines from the likes of Sébastien Riffault and François Cotat will be contrasted.
I think of Chinon as being more akin to St Emilion than Pomerol though, each providing a myriad of different styles, and whether each particular type is a 'valid' expression of the appellation is probably down to personal tastes and preferences. First up is the light, leafy, green and herbaceous Chinon which many (I believe 'many' is the correct word here) still think of as the archetypal Loire red, in other words what a Cabernet Franc from the Loire 'should' taste like. Personally I think overt vegetal greenness (aromas redolent of green pepper, celeriac and so on) represents under-ripe fruit more than anything else, and I find these wines to be of little interest. Then there are those wines which sit in the happy zone between under- and over-ripeness. Unadulterated by excessive winemaking, these wines can act as perfect conduits for channelling the terroir into the glass. From sandy terroirs they can be pure and vibrant but light and approachable, whereas from gravelly terroirs the wines have more substance and depth. The most substantial of all, sinewy and tannic, are those wines from the tuffeau (limestone) terroirs.
Over-riding these characteristics are wines where the winemaker has tried too hard to make something bigger and richer than the above styles. This might be achieved by increased hang-time, leaving fruit on the vine to reach greater ripeness before picking, and by increasing concentration through reducing yields. In the cellars, there may be increased maceration, greater use of pigeage and remontage to increase extraction, as well as increased use of new oak, perhaps heavily toasted oak. These have the potential to smother the wine in artifice, and I have tasted many examples of Chinon with balsamic-tinged over-ripe fruit, and with the scents of sweet, caramelised-marshmallow oak, where the wood has clearly been treated to a very insensitive toasting. One or two wines submitted to the 2012 Decanter World Wine Awards fitted these descriptions; needless to say they were culled pretty swiftly. These types of wines also hold no interest for me
Done sensitively though, increased concentration and oak can work in Chinon, wines where everything has been turned up by several notches, but it all remains framed by the acid and the flavour profile, and it remains identifiably Chinon. The wines may move away from the very sensitive terroir differentiation you can find in the wines of Bernard Baudry, for instance, and towards a more robust style with density of fruit and substance in the mouth, although still with a very appealing cool climate feel to it all. Philippe Alliet is the master of this more Bordeaux-style wine, and unsurprisingly it is not a style that appeals to all, especially not those looking for the Baudry-style purity, nor those looking for the green and leafy wines of yesteryear. Nevertheless I find it a very valid style, and one that seems to set the wines up very nicely for aging (I am not saying this is the only style that age, just to be clear), and mature Chinon can be an absolute delight.
This week's wine is an example of this latter style and it comes from Couly-Dutheil, not the most 'trendy' address in Chinon these days but still an important name within the appellation. Their most famous wine comes from the Clos de l'Echo, just behind the château in Chinon itself, and since 1995 some of the fruit harvested here has been channelled into a prestige cuvée named Crescendo. Whereas the 17-hectare clos is generally harvested at yields of about 40 hl/ha, 2 hectares of vines destined for Crescendo are pruned down to just 20 hl/ha. Understandably this concentrated cuvée sees more new oak than the standard Clos de l'Echo, and is produced in small quantities; just 400 cases is typical. It also doesn't come cheap, not unless you get in early with a young vintage as I did with the 2003, this week's wine. This is a darkly coloured wine in the decanter, and there is a fairly big chunk of stained crystalline sediment left in the bottle, just as I found when I tasted this only last year.
The wine has a dusty rim in the glass, clearly concentrated and not showing any maturity of note at present. The nose is hugely enticing, dark and slightly sooty, but not so overt, the charcoal tinges a thin seam of complexity rather than anything more domineering. Along with that comes a taut, defined, acid-tinged layer of fruit, cranberry and dark cherry, clean and not showing the more earthy, beetrooty nuances of my last tasting. This seems purer, fresher, and yet no less concentrated or seductive. The palate has a beautifully supple and seductive texture, but this comes bound with grippy definition and fresh acids. It remains bright and detached, despite the dark and slightly reticent substance. Closer to the big, imposing style of Chinon, and so more like an Alliet wine than a Baudry wine in that respect. But I adore it, because it has all the savoury, cool-climate peppercorn bite of the Loire alongside all this substance. Overall, a super wine. 18.5/20 (11/6/12)