Château de Fesles ‘F de Fesles’ Bonnezeaux 1998
If there is one Loire appellation that hasn’t featured enough on Winedoctor over the years then it must be Bonnezeaux. Admittedly there are plenty of others that also haven’t made much of an appearance over the years – Touraine Noble-Joué and Coteau de Giennois for instance – but these are hardly the most iconic of Loire appellations. Bonnezeaux, however, is one of the two crus of an archetypal appellation of global significance. I am referring to the Coteaux du Layon, an appellation which embodies a hallowed triumvirate of Chenin Blanc, schistous soils and botrytis. From this union comes a unique style, a sweet wine of occasionally heavenly proportions which can rival any other sugar-rich libation from the Loire or indeed from the vineyards around the Ciron, Neusiedlersee or the Mosel.
So why has Bonnezeaux not made much of an appearance on these pages when its companion cru, the Quarts de Chaume, pops up so frequently? The answer to this question is fairly simple; it is all to do with availability. Quarts de Chaume is actually a much smaller appellation, 54 hectares currently planted up compared to 104 hectares of Bonnezeaux according to INAO figures for 2010, but with the former there are a number of high-profile domaines involved, turning out superb wines which are rightly recognised as such, and thus widely distributed; the pack is led by big names such as Claude Papin at Pierre-Bise and Domaine des Baumard, but then there follows the likes of Domaine des Forges, Château Bellerive and Domaine FL (and there was once Jo Pithon too of course). With Bonnezeaux we have Château de Fesles, now owned by Les Grands Chais de France having been sold by the Germain family (the same Germains who run Roulerie and Roches Neuves) in 2008 and then….who? Not many names spring to mind, although they do exist. Current INAO statistics indicate there are 52 individuals or businesses working within the appellation, either growing or vinifying the grapes, including two co-operatives and one négociant. That is three times the number associated with the Quarts de Chaume appellation. It’s just that very few have established a reputation and therefore a strong market position, something that has been achieved at Fesles (there are more details on this in my Fesles profile).
The vineyards of Bonnezeaux are located on three hills, La Montagne, Fesles and Beauregard, the slopes of which run down from Bonnezeaux towards Thouarcé, which lies on the Layon just to the southwest. These vineyards, on their schistous soils with seams of quartz, silex (flint) and phthanites (Palezoic silica) were granted AOC status in 1951, following persistent lobbying from Jean Boivin, then proprietor of Château de Fesles, with a total of 152 hectares marked up as eligible for the appellation. Boivin was a key figure in not only how Bonnezeaux developed, but how wines were made in much of this region; for example, it was Boivin that introduced harvesting in tries, the practice of passing through the vineyard in order to pick only the ripest and botrytised grapes, something he had learnt at Château d’Yquem. The wines of Bonnezeaux, harvested at a typical 22 hl/ha, with a minimum requirement of 230 g/l sugar in the must – the highest in all the Layon appellations – have a rich yet nervously excited character about them as a result.
In view of the estate’s central role in the history of the appellation it seems fitting that Château de Fesles should be the source of this week’s wine. Rather then take the obvious path with the grand vin, however, this week I am featuring a rarely seen beast, the Fesles second wine, F de Fesles, from a less than exalted vintage, 1998. I acquired these bottles (a lot of them in fact) at auction, never having tasted the wine before, and thankfully they have turned out to be delicious. The Bonnezeaux ‘F de Fesles’ from Château de Fesles in the 1998 vintage has an appealing golden hue in the glass. On the nose I find elements of honey sweetness, with mango exuberance, cut through with the fresh bite of citrus fruit and a quartz-like minerality. Although bright on the nose the palate starts off with an immediately fat and rich style, but there is freshness here too; through the midpalate it reveals a fine vibrancy and more of that mango fruit. It perhaps doesn’t have the nervous acidity of a top Bonnezeaux but this is still delicious, and the minerality certainly gives it lift. It even shows a little botrytis character here and there. Overall, a rich wine, with good depth and balance – impressive for a deuxième vin, in fact. 17+/20 (7/6/10)