Château du Hureau Saumur Foudre 2010
Take a straw poll of wine drinkers on what Saumur means to them and you will probably receive, in the main, one of two answers. The first answer, from the Saumur tourist perhaps, will be sparkling wine. Indeed, the inattentive traveller visiting Saumur might be forgiven for thinking, on scraping the town's surface, that this particular style of wine is the region's vinous apogee. Giant hoardings advertise wine from the likes of Gratien & Meyer, Louis de Grenelle or Ackerman, with offers of visits and tours. And on the crest of the tuffeau slopes that march alongside the Loire, above the troglodytic dwellings and the caves à champignons, buildings such as Gratien & Meyer's art deco headquarters seem to boast of wealth and success akin to that found in Champagne.
Ask the more wine-interested visitor to the region, and you are more likely to learn of the region's red wines, especially Saumur-Champigny. And the story you will hear will doubtless be a very familiar one, of light red wines which were unappreciated and somewhat unloved until the 1970s when Paul Filliatreau introduced them to the wine bars of Paris, where even today they are still swigged with carefree abandon. This story seems like a cliché but I assure you it remains true to this day; opening the carte des vins in a Paris bistro a few years ago (I forget which one, but I know it was within striking distance of the Musée Rodin as that is where I had spent the morning) I was taken aback by the breadth of choice from the Loire, led by page after page of options from Saumur and Saumur-Champigny (and Chinon too, it has to be said).
Who, though, will speak up for the white wines of Saumur?
The wines have few committed exponents, and - until recently, perhaps - not without good reason. Writing in the Oxford Companion to Wine (second edition, Oxford University Press, 1999), Jancis Robinson's opinion is clear: "Saumur Blanc can be remarkably difficult to distinguish from Anjou Blanc, being made substantially from Chenin Blanc and being both high in acidity and potentially long lived. Only the most conscientious growers can coax much fruity charm out of them, however." An updated opinion offered in the 3rd edition adds the concession that harvesting in tries and the use of oak can result in a "graceful, limestone alternative" to the wines of Anjou. My point, in quoting Jancis, is to show that it was not that long ago that the white wines of Saumur were easy to disparage, but also - as Jancis' more recently published opinion above suggests - things are changing here. The white wines of Saumur are increasingly interesting.
There have of course long been anorak-level wines, such as the Brézé cuvée from Clos Rougeard, which some will offer as an example of the region's great success with Chenin Blanc. But the growers have not been as convinced as the Clos Rougeard acolytes. Chenin Blanc once dominated the appellation, but as the vignerons realised that the red wines of Saumur and Saumur-Champigny were the clearest routes to commercial success, no doubt influenced by a ready market in Paris, red vines have come to dominate over white. Today the Saumur vineyard (excluding approximately 1600 hectares of the exclusively red Saumur-Champigny) has approximately 1000 hectares dedicated to red varieties, and 400 hectares dedicated to white. The whites, which six decades ago were the more widely planted, are now a niche interest, it seems, having been usurped by the Parisien thirst for lightly chilled and fruity, Bojo-style, Cabernet Franc.
In recent years, though, I have had an increasing number of good experiences with white Saumur. There are perhaps a number of different factors influencing this, including climate and improved fruit ripeness, the willingness of the growers themselves, new approaches to harvest and selection and a better understanding of how to vinify the wines to show off their best features being just a few. Of course this might just be lucky few bottles, from reliable names such as Château de Villeneuve, Château du Hureau and Domaine des Roches Neuves. But encountering a flight of white Saumur at the 2012 Decanter World Wine Awards I was yet more convinced. Half-expecting the shrill and acid-bound wines which Jancis hinted at, I instead found a number of polished and savoury wines, which focus on minerality rather than fruit, and which are therefore of great interest to my palate. To my mind they are very different from Anjou Blanc, the more taut, minerally, limestone-influenced edge setting them apart from the more effusive wines made in the more pastoral, schist-dominated landscape a few miles downstream.
This week's wine is a very good example of the quality coming from Saumur, and from the Loire in general, today. The 2010 Foudre cuvée from Château du Hureau has an obvious oak reference in the name, although thankfully nothing too obvious in the wine itself. In the glass the wine has a pale golden hue. The nose is incredibly fruit rich, quickly opening out to reveal notes of tangerine, pear, yellow plum and star fruit. It seems remarkably composed and polished, and part of this composure comes from a thin seam of oak which lies beneath it all, not enough to dominate happily, but sufficient to bring in a sense of form and solidity upon which these exuberant fruit flavours ride. There is also a sense of perfumed chalk, which in my (perhaps overactive) mind I relate to the terroir, as well as an attractively bitter and pithy substance. The palate starts off textured but also quite vibrant, and this is maintained through the middle where there is also quite a strong grip in evidence. The fruit here is more restrained, the palate showing a little tannin from the wood, especially with further exposure to air. This is certainly a wine to open and taste over several hours, as it develops quite markedly with air, especially with that firm grip marking out the finish. A very good style, and surely today one of the top wines of the appellation. 17.5/20 (7/5/12)