Thierry Germain & Michel Chevré Bulles de Roche NV
Some wine writers think of the Loire as a white wine region, on one hand a source of nice minerally Sancerre, for drinking young with a certain set of fish dishes, on the other hand giving us Muscadet, again for drinking young, again best paired up with fish, with oysters no doubt topping the list of favourite choices. They are aware of the sweet wines, of course, but rarely bother with them as they are too easily disregarded as the poor man's alternative to Sauternes. And as for the red wines.....red wines? From the Loire? Those of us who know the Loire of course know its red wines, not the green and herbaceous efforts, light and for drinking young as some have misconstrued them, but the delicious, balanced, fresh, ripe and structured wines, often set up for some time in the cellar, that come from Chinon and Bourgueil. We know the wines of the real Loire, the heart of the region, as Claude Papin described it only a few weeks ago.
But what of the sparkling wines? Well, clearly, the wine writer who sees in the Loire only Sancerre and Muscadet knows that good sparkling wine only comes from Champagne. But again, those of us who know the Loire know different. It's many years since I saw the light, when I had my eyes opened to the delights of sparkling Vouvray from the likes of Huet and Foreau, or Montlouis from La Taille aux Loups. Alongside the wines of Saumur houses such as Bouvet-Ladubay and Langlois-Chateau (which although more industrial and no doubt disregarded by some, such as Richard Leroy, still turn out some wines worthy of our attention, in my opinion) they make the Loire an interesting go-to region for sparkling wine.
But the Loire is a dynamic region, and the aforementioned trio of Touraine estates provide barely a glimpse of the mousseux and pétillant opportunities to be found in the Loire today. Around Montlouis, for example, there is a veritable sparkling wine revolution ongoing right now, with a focus on ultra-natural methods, small-volume wines that are fermented using only natural yeasts and are bottled sans sucre while the hungry fungi are still at work, meaning that some of the carbon dioxide so generated stays in the wine, a process otherwise known as the méthode ancestrale. The wines are officially termed pétillant originel (and have had INAO recognition since 2007) but are instead often referred to as pétillant natural or the more charming moniker of pét-nat. It's still a wine available in only very limited quantities, with a mere handful of committed estates, but as production increases we can look forward to greater availability in the coming years I think.
There are other exciting wine and new developments in and around the Touraine vineyards, new producers such as Vincent Carême and his vibrant 2008 Brut and Ancestrale cuvées, new wines from old friends such as the eagerly awaited Triple Zero Rosé from Jacky Blot, or wines made by incomers such as Catherine Breton's Dilettante cuvées. But there are also notable new wines to be found downstream, some unsurprisingly from around Saumur, but others from Anjou, a region not strongly associated with sparkling wine styles (although it yields just about every other style, so why not fizz too?). I'm salivating at the thought of Jo Pithon's latest project, a sparkling wine which he plans to make by bottling a blend of Anjou Blanc from 2009 with must from 2010 in a 9:1 ratio. From the base vintages you can see that I have a little while to wait yet before I get my first taste though.
One of the latest developments in Saumur has been the arrival of Bulles des Roches, a sparkling cuvée created by Thierry Germain of Domaine des Roches Neuves working with long-time collaborator Michel Chevré. This is the second release of this wine, a non-vintage blend of hand-harvested Chenin Blanc in the main, this variety accounting for 90%, with just 5% each Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. The fruit receives a gentle pneumatic pressing before fermentation in a mix of one- and two-year old oak barrels previously used for Germain's Insolite cuvée. The second fermentation is in bottle, as per the méthode traditionelle, before dégorgement à la glace and - naturally - zero dosage. Overall the whole process takes about 12 months, so the eventual wine should still be packed with the vibrant fruit flavours of youth. And so it was with this bottle of Germain & Chevré's non-vintage Saumur Bulles de Roches, a wine with quite an intriguing and impressive lemon-gold hue in the glass, with an incredibly fine bead giving it a very gentle, bone-white surface coating of bubbles. On the nose there is superb minerality, suggestive of powdery-salty rocks, twisted with citrus zest and aromatic herbs. It very much speaks of the Loire. And on the palate it is very dry as we would expect with zero dosage, although it possesses a nice flesh which runs throughout the palate, with a fine but broad pétillance reflecting the character seen in the glass. Remarkably bold and firm here, like a mouthful of pebbles rubbed with a mix of salt, pepper and lemon zest; a superb food wine with a slightly savoury-sour character conveyed by the acidity, which has a real not-for-the-faint-hearted crab-apple intensity to it. Wonderful stuff. 17/20 (1/11/10)