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François Chidaine Montlouis Clos Habert 2008

When I think back to my first memories of the wines of Montlouis, I recall an appellation very different to the one I see and taste today. My earliest experiences with this particular Ligérian wine commune was through the wines of Domaine Delétang (today renamed Domaine Flamand-Delétang, after Olivier Flamand married into the family), at a time when there didn't seem to be any other producers of note. I accept that this almost certainly wasn't true, and that there were probably any number of other domaines making wine here, but at the time a superficial hunt was likely to turn up Delétang and little else. It would be their wines I would spot when browsing the shelves of a French supermarket, and they would also pop up from time to time in the UK; the Wine Society used to list them, if I recall correctly. And approaching Montlouis by road, it would be their miniature advertising hoardings, offering dégustations and vente directe au domaine that I would notice before any others. As far as I was concerned, Montlouis was Delétang. And Delétang was Montlouis.

And yet the wines themselves were hardly exceptional. I only tasted a few examples, so I cannot provide a multi-vintage rundown of great historical merit, but the handful I experienced were pleasant but never breath-taking. At the time I had no context within which to place them, so for all I knew they could have been the best the appellation was ever going to offer. These days I know that to be untrue and I can, retrospectively, put the wines into some sort of Montlouis hierarchy; nevertheless, comparing wines from 15 to 20 years ago with those made today in an appellation that has been so totally revitalised by other vignerons working other domaines seems more than a little unfair, so I will resist the temptation. A more appropriate context might be found by comparison with other wines from the same era, such as those from Prince Poniatowski. When I look back on the wines of these two domaines I draw similar conclusions; while they offered some pleasure, they were never the most focused of wines, and for as many times as you found something positive there also seemed to be something missing. Quite often that was a sense of energy, purity, definition or vigour.

François Francois Chidaine Montlouis Clos Habert Clos Haberl 2008

But there has been a quiet revolution in Montlouis in recent years. And this has not happened by accident, it has been the result of much hard graft. Instrumental in this task has been François Chidaine; in his shop La Cave Insolite on the quayside in Montlouis there is a laminated photograph taken from a magazine (I forget which one) showing François and a group of his viticultural peers hauling a plough between the vines. Behind them they are towing the village sign for Montlouis, with its traditional red border; taken some years ago now, this little tableau vivant told of their efforts to pull their much-maligned appellation from the mire, and from beneath Vouvray's shadow. Without the efforts of these vignerons, today Montlouis would still be a forgotten appellation

Although quality has remained high in Vouvray in recent years (provided you go to the right domaines), bolstered by the new arrival of new blood such as Vincent Carême, it is Montlouis that is the more dynamic appellation. Here is where the greatest leaps forward in quality have been made, and where some of the most exciting new wines and domaines have appeared. Some are brand new, such as Xavier Weisskopf, Frantz Saumon and Lise and Bertrand Jousset whereas others are familiar names, such as Jacky Blot and the man behind this week's wine, François Chidaine. And this wine is very significant, because although I have scored some wines higher in the past they have always been sweeter cuvées, such as the stunning Cuvée Romulus from La Taille aux Loups. Putting those impressive moelleux cuvées to one side for a moment, the 2008 Clos Habert from François Chidaine, a demi-sec cuvée with about 18 g/l residual sugar, is the greatest example of Montlouis that I have ever tasted. I was sufficiently convinced to add half a case to the cellar; and when I bought it La Cave Insolite during the summer of 2010 there were others in the shop at the time wheeling out several cases at a time. They made a good decision - this is a wine which, although irresistibly delicious now, will keep for decades.

In the glass the François Chidaine Montlouis Clos Habert Demi-Sec 2008 has a fine, polished, lemon-gold hue, and a fabulous nose, pure and yet concentrated. The fruit is expansive and yet firm, composed, taut, with a liquid-stone, minerally feel to it, but also exotic, with a suggestion of candied pineapple. And alongside that there are flower petals, redolent of acacia dusted with honey. But it is the purity and brightness that really registers with me. The palate has all the breadth and textured sweetness that I recall from my previous tastings, but there is also substance running through this wine, a barley-water, icing sugar solidity to its core, which raises the wine above the average demi-sec. There is a fine sappy-sour seam of acidity which adds a firm backbone alongside the bitter twist of citrus pith, and this really shines through at the finish. It is long and gently polished by its residual sugar, but more prominent are those gloriously pithy, lightly phenolic elements which bring the wine a tinge of bitterness, an extra dimension alongside the other components. As I have noted from my previous tastings, this is a fabulous wine. 18.5/20 (30/5/11)

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