Philippe Delesvaux Anjou Feuille d'Or 2006
In my guide to the wines of Anjou I describe the region as "the melting pot of the Loire", a comment which reflects the huge diversity of terroirs in this region - there is gravel, chalk and limestone to match that found around Bourgueil and Chinon, the black schist and carboniferous soils of the Layon and Aubance, and even the granite and sand more typical of the Nantais makes an appearance. With a good grower this is a region which can yield some excellent wines.
Terroir is not something I want to concentrate on here though; instead I think the vines that provided us with this week's wine themselves deserve some attention. The wine in question comes from Philippe Delesvaux, a respected vigneron based in St-Aubin de Luigne who I profiled on this site only last week. This estate is worthy of attention for many reasons, and the fact that he too produces a wine (his Cuvée Authentique) from ungrafted vines is yet another. I once thought only Charles Joguet followed this rocky road; that domaine has, until recently, boasted a single hectare of ungrafted vines, planted in 1982 in the Varennes du Grand Clos. They were grubbed up in 2006, having been anything but easy to tend - half needed replacing in 1992, just six years after first planting, and the rest were replanted in 1995. But although François-Xavier Barc (the man behind the Joguet renaissance from 2003 onwards) has given up this experiment, that is not to say this estate has been alone in this field. There are numerous other producers who have tried their hand, not just Delesvaux, but also Henry Marionnet, Bernard Baudry, Pierre & Catherine Breton, Chereau-Carré, Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau (at his late father Didier Dagueneau's domaine), Thierry Puzelat, Jacky Preys and surely many others.
It is unlikely that anyone reading this page needs an explanation of why most vines in Europe are grafted onto American rootstock, but in case I am mistaken in this belief I will briefly explain. The process is necessary to give the vine resistance to phylloxera, a vine louse which was unwittingly introduced into Europe in the late 19th century on imported American vines. The march of the disease across France, and the myriad of different treatments extolled before grafting became accepted, are perhaps best described in Phylloxera (Harper Collins, 2004) by Christy Campbell. Although Campbell doesn't mention the vines of Anjou, he does discuss the arrival of the louse in the Loir-et-Cher region. The story is one repeated all over France; the import of foreign vines had been banned in 1875, but this was already to late. The local vigilance committee, comprised of three local landowners and two mayors, raised the alarm in 1877 and treatment of the affected vineyards using carbon bisulphide (an expensive treatment which although effective to a degree was not curative) began immediately. Others spoke in favour of replanting with naturally resistant American vines - Vitis labrusca and similar - as they were doing in the Midi, despite the questionable flavours obtained from these varieties. It would be several years before the process of grafting European Vitis vinifera onto the American rootstock would gain acceptance in the region.
Few vineyards today date to that time; Marionnet's Romorantin vineyard, used for his Provignage cuvée and which dates from the 1850s, is the only one of which I am certain. For most of the domaines listed above, the vines have been planted much more recently, as a sign of their commitment to the 'naturalness' of the wine, or to the terroir, or just as an experiment.
Sadly I don't have a bottle of the Cuvée Authentique to hand, so I cannot add Delesvaux to my own personal list of ungrafted wines tasted. And so this week's wine, the 2006 Feuille d'Or from Philippe Delesvaux, is one made, like the vast majority of wines in France, from vines grafted onto American rootstock. In the glass it has a fairly rich, yellow-gold hue. This is followed on the nose first of all with baked apple, and then notes of almond and pineapple. It is delightful, especially as that baked note fades with a little air, and it maintains a fresh yet sweet dessert apple element. The palate also holds hidden surprises, with layers of apple, mineral and nut, which come across the palate in waves. There is grip here too, a rounded and very balanced mouthfeel, and most importantly a very harmonious, cottony composition. Delicious stuff. 17/20
I hope these projects and experiments with ungrafted vines continue in the Loire - they add yet another facet to what is already an endlessly fascinating region. I will try to taste more, including perhaps Philippe's Cuvée Authentique, when I return to the Salon in Angers next year. (3/8/09)