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Four New Crus for Muscadet

I was delighted to learn today that the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine have, on Wednesday 19th June, officially recognised four new cru communal zones in Muscadet. The four new crus are Goulaine, Château-Thébaud, Monnières-Saint-Fiacre and Mouzillon-Tillières. These four join the three crus which were ratified back in 2011, these being Clisson, Gorges and Le Pallet, as described in my Guide to the 2011 Crus Communaux.

Together these seven crus represent the highest level of Muscadet, wines of high quality and very limited production. The 2018 harvest brought in just 6000 hectolitres eligible for the three designations in existence, from just 150 hectares of vineyard (40 hl/ha on average, if you were just about to get your calculator out) which met all the cru criteria. The arrival of four new crus should see that figure rise, but it won’t be an explosion. Vineyards are not automatically eligible, they must be identified by a willing vigneron, submitted for cru status, inspected and signed off, then worked in a manner which meets the criteria, and the harvest, vinifications and time the wine spends on the lees must also clear the bar.

Four New Crus for Muscadet

Despite these crus being newly ratified I already have plenty of experience with the wines, as many vignerons have been working to a level that meets the criteria for some time (as illustrated above, a Mouzillon-Tillières released more than ten years ago), the development of the new cru communal system being very much a vigneron-led process. For more on Château-Thébaud and Monnières-Saint-Fiacre, see my Muscadet Crus Communaux Retrospective Tasting published in January this year. I will add a guide to the four new crus to my Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wine guide as soon as possible, and hopefully get around to tasting more from Mouzillon-Tillières and Goulaine.

Congratulations to all those in Muscadet who have been pushing this through! I know it has taken many years of effort. Now the attention must turn to the remaining cru candidates, La-Haye-Fouassière, Vallet and Champtoceaux – maybe after a celebratory glass of Château-Thébaud first!

At the Decanter World Wine Awards

I went to London for the marathon earlier this week. No not that one. I’m talking about the marathon that is the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA). A week (which in this case is a ‘working week’, meaning five days – I know some in the wine trade have a different definition of a ‘working week’) of tasting all of the Loire submissions to the 2019 Awards.

This was the 16th year for the Awards, and I am not sure how many years I have been judging on the Loire panel, but it must be seven or eight years now. I started off just doing a couple of days, at a time when the Loire panel would sit for perhaps three days in total. These days the Loire submissions have increased in number (as have submissions to the Awards in general) and both last year and this year the judging extended across five days. I try to participate for the entire Loire judging, and that is exactly what I did this year. The panel was chaired by Jim Budd (who needs no introduction), while my tasting colleagues were Nigel Wilkinson (once of the RSJ, home of London’s best Loire list, now retired) and Chris Hardy (of Charles Sydney Wines, and now undoubtedly the leading wine trade figure in the Loire Valley). The panel was the same across all five days.

The system at the DWWA, for those unfamiliar with it, is as follows. Wines are served in themed flights, anything from four wines to twelve, the principal themes being variety and appellation, sometimes nuanced by style, vintage or price. So we might have a dozen Muscadets, followed by a dozen Touraine Sauvignons, then a dozen white Sancerres, and so on. The tasters have all the information on appellation, vintage, price, residual sugar, alcohol and so on, but the blinding as to the domaine and cuvée is rigorous; I imagine anybody who attempted to unblind a wine by removing it from its bag, a cardinal sin, would never be invited back. Tasters don’t even get to handle the bottles, as everything is poured for you by the ‘red shirts’ as they are known. Our ‘red shirt’ was Abdel, who was a star.

DWWA 2019

All four panel members work their way through the entire flight, tasting and retasting as they see fit, writing notes, and awarding marks out of 100. Faulty bottles are always replaced during the tasting of the flight, no mean feat considering the number of wines being tasted in any one day and the logistics involved. A few words might be exchanged at this time (especially regarding faulty wines) but otherwise we keep our opinions to ourselves for the moment. Once all four of us have finished, it’s time for the panel chair to review the notes and scores, for discussion, and for the decision on a final score and a medal position.

Any judging system has strengths and weaknesses. One accusation commonly made about the system used here is that it is ‘tasting by committee’, which would I think be a fair accusation if the final score and position were achieved simply by taking an average of the four submitted scores. But of course that isn’t how it works; there is the opportunity for discussion, to advocate for each wine as you see fit, and the process varies from one wine to the next. If all four tasters are in close alignment – awarding scores, for example, of 86, 88, 88, and 89, all in the bronze medal category – then taking an average is not inappropriate (although an individual could still argue for a specific score if they wish). When the marks start to straddle medal categories, for example 86, 88 (both bronze), 90 and 91 (both silver) then the discussion becomes more important. We all revisit the wine, and the supporters of a bronze award may decide they have underscored the wine, and revise their marks upwards, or they may stick to their guns and persuade their colleagues that silver is too generous. And vice versa for the advocates of a silver medal. A lot of effort goes into ensuring each wine is given due consideration, and the right level is found.

If agreement can’t be reached, there are floating super-judges who can also be asked to chip in with an opinion. The super-judge system worked well this year, although sometimes the decision went against me, and sometimes for me. There was one wine on day two where half the panel were rooting for gold, while half (including me) were less eager, and an opinion from a super-judge nudged it over the line. I lost. But then a couple of days later we were in the same position with a different wine, with at least two tasters rooting for gold, and I was holding back, holding my ground, as I didn’t feel the wine was worthy of that merit. The super-judge came down in my favour. Vindicated! However the wines get there, though, all the gold medal winners are tasted again next week, by the super-judges, and can be knocked back down if not deemed worthy. I doubt that will happen with any of the Loire wines; we’re a careful lot!

The Loire did well this year, and while I can’t reveal anything about the result it won’t be giving too much away to say there were a number of really fine wines submitted, and a nice number of gold medals awarded. The success of recent vintages shone through; although there was frost in 2016 and 2017, the region has had several good vintages in a row, up to and including 2018 (most Muscadet and Sauvignon submissions come from the most recent vintage, for obvious reasons). And quality overall was consistent; although I don’t have any figures, I am sure we rejected fewer samples as simply substandard this year. And among the golds, there were some real superstar wines. Sadly, unlike that other more famous marathon, it takes a good few months for the results of this particular competition to be published. I hope it won’t be too long though; I’m looking forward to finding out exactly what theose superstar wines were.

Get Ready for Peak Muscadet

We haven’t yet reached peak Muscadet, but this wine has certainly been rehabilitated in the eyes of many; that much was clear to me back in 2017 (I can’t believe it was two years ago already) when Decanter magazine not only decided to host a lees-aged Muscadet panel tasting, inviting me along as a panel member, but then went on to dedicate 13 pages of their June 2017 print edition to it. In the post-tasting discussion I made the comment that the tasting proved Muscadet’s perception as a simple wine you just knock back with oysters was dead in the water; when it made it to print that had been toned down a little and it was merely “outdated and should be put to rest”, but I think I prefer my original words.

Despite this resurgence in interest, and an obvious awareness that something important has happened in Muscadet in recent times, I see many still struggle to get to grips with the region and its wines. Jobbing wine writers now brave enough to dip their toes in the water often do little to demystify the region. This is perhaps inevitable if you are limited to writing about cheap and cheerful entry-level wines, all of which can be purchased off the shelves of a British supermarket, in the confines of a Sunday Supplement wine column. It can be difficult to spin a tale of tenacity, terroir and a ten-year élevage around such wines.

With that in mind here is my 7-point guide to getting up to speed with Muscadet. And I mean really getting up to speed, not just waffling on about Domaine de l’Ecu because (a) you’ve heard of it, (b) you like the labels and the wax capsules, and (c) you don’t realise those funky wines aren’t actually Muscadet.

1. Don’t start every conversation about Muscadet with a comment about the region’s decline in the 1970s. Yes it happened, but the smart vignerons weathered the region’s waning popularity thanks to the quality of their wines and they are still here, leading the pack. And the smart wine journalists and wine drinkers look to the wines of today, not yesterday. Nobody opens an article on Austrian wine with a reflection on the pros and cons of diethylene glycol.

2. Be mindful that there has not been a revolution in Muscadet, but an evolution. Its sudden resurgence is a false image created by the generalist press (I realise I sound like a left-wing activist when I write this), and reflects not a sudden shift in the region, but a sudden shift in the author’s awareness of it. The region’s current success can be traced back across not years, but decades. Several long decades, of hard work. Some vignerons with less familiar names, such as Bruno Cormerais, have played a big part in this, and deserve credit.

Peak Muscadet

3. To understand Muscadet’s modern-day diversity – it is no longer a name to solely be associated with oysters – think of Muscadet not as a wine, but as a vineyard or region. Nobody thinks of Burgundy, or even a Burgundy sub-region such as Chablis, as producing one style of wine, at one level of quality. And yet this is Muscadet’s fate. Most wine drinkers and wine hacks know there is basic Chablis, premier cru and grand cru Chablis, and while we can still intelligently talk of them all as ‘Chablis’, there is an innate awareness that these wines offer varying taste experiences, a range of quality levels, and they work well with different styles of food. So too with Muscadet.

4. The premier cru and grand cru equivalents in Muscadet Sèvre et Maine are the crus communaux. These wines do not come from a specific hill, like Chablis, but from within specified zones. Eligible vineyards within a zone are identified as cru communal candidates by vignerons, and checked out and signed off by local wine authorities. The vigneron is then beholden to work in a specified manner in the vines (lower yields, better maturity at harvest) and cellars (a longer élevage on the lees). These crus have their origins back in the 1980s (see, it is not a recent revolution). You can find wines from Gorges, for example, from the 1990s. Anyone who has hailed ‘the Muscadet revolution’ in the past five years should probably read this post.

5. Be ready to roll your eyes at the glacial pace at which French wine law adapts to the modern world. The reason this has been an evolution rather than a revolution is in part down to the French wine authorities which seem to work about two decades behind the vignerons they should serve. The first three crus were ratified in 2011. The next four hopefully this year. Try to think of them not by date of ratification, however, but by terroir, as I did in my recent Muscadet Crus Communaux Retrospective. For the solidity and substance of granite, go for Clisson and Château-Thébaud. For the vibrancy and cut of gabbro, go for Gorges and Mouzillon-Tillières. For the effusive charm and piquancy of gneiss and orthogneiss (and even amphibolite), go for Monnières-St-Fiacre. For the pungent weight of schist, go to Goulaine. There are nuances of course, but this is a good starting point.

6. Do not go on and on about oysters (or the other Muscadet clichés, the cling-clang of the marina, the call of the seabirds, and the briny sea breezes). Cru communal Muscadet, like grand cru Chablis, offers a much greater range of food-and-wine matching possibilities. Keeping it simple, drink any of the crus communaux wines, or any of the long-lees-aged wines made outside the crus (a few spring to mind, such as Trois from Domaine de la Pépière and Origine and Signature from Domaine du Haut Bourg), with anything you would drink top-end Chablis with. For me this means, as well as a huge variety of fish dishes, also chicken, guinea fowl, veal and pork in creamed sauces, various cheeses and crisp sandwiches*.

7. Also be ready to roll your eyes at efforts to make the most basic Muscadet more saleable by allowing the blending in of other varieties such as Chardonnay or Colombard. It’s like trying to make bottom-end Burgundy more appealing by allowing Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache in the blend for Bourgogne Rouge (actually that sounds rather attractive……OK, OK, I’m joking). I have long said that the solution to Muscadet’s image problem and the financial difficulties that face some vignerons will come from the top end (the crus communaux cuvées) dragging the region into the limelight, not from bottom-end manipulation where bulk wines sell for less than €1 per 75 cl. A sentence ridiculing this move should be mandatory in any article about Muscadet.

Stick to these seven rules, and when we finally hit peak Muscadet – which will presumably be when Robert Parker comes out of retirement to start up a new publication specialising in Melon de Bourgogne and its wines – we will all be able to roll our eyes together. In the meantime, I am off to choose another ten-year old Muscadet cru communal wine for tonight’s dinner, which at the moment is looking like free-range chicken breasts in a sauce of madeira and shiitake mushrooms. I’m thinking Monnières-St-Fiacre.

*maybe not

Nantais 2018: Some Figures

I have just received some figures from the Fédération des Vins de Nantes regarding the 2018 vintage in the Nantais.

The 2018 harvest for Muscadet alone brought in 420,000 hectolitres, a yield of 56 hl/ha on 7,500 hectares of vines. This is heartwarming news after the 2016 and 2017 vintages, both of which were blighted by frost. Stocks held by the vignerons in Muscadet are at a record low (just 130,000 hectolitres as of July 31st 2018 – not even equal to one-third of the 2018 harvest) and so a strong harvest as seen in 2018 will allow the vignerons to meet demand as well as build up a buffer of stock in the cellar.

Nantais 2018 Harvest Figures

It was interesting to see the Muscadet vineyard has declined further, to 7,500 hectares. The figure I have in my head for Muscadet (all the vineyards, including regional zones such as Sèvre et Maine, and the crus communaux) is 8,000 hectares. The drop in 500 hectares is, according to the Fédération, down to some vignerons making use of the Vin de France designation rather than the Muscadet appellation. While this is a well established trend in some parts of the Loire Valley, aside from one domaine which springs to mind (Domaine de la Sénéchalière), and the occasional cuvée here and there from others (e.g. Melonix from Jo Landron, pictured above), this comes as something of a surprise. Who are the Vin de France guys in Muscadet?

Lastly, it is also good to see a record-breaking volume of crus communaux wines being made. Even so, this remains a relatively niche interest in the region, with just 150 hectares (out of 7,500) committed to this category in 2018. The harvest was 6,000 hectolitres, so a much lower yield of 40 hl/ha, as we should expect. The limit set for cru wines is generally 45 hl/ha (lower than for the other Muscadet appellations).

The harvest for the region’s greatest appellation Gros Plant du Pays Nantais (that one was for you, Vincent Lieubeau) held steady at 33,000 hectolitres on 470 hectares.

This is all great news for the region, a vintage of both quality and quantity. And I am looking forward to seeing how those cru wines are doing a couple of years from now. In the meantime, as well as my Luneau-Papin report today, and my 2018 Nantais report, I have plenty more notes and reports on 2018 in the region coming up.

Being Ahead of the Curve

It was a surprise to hear the name of Richard Leroy crop up in conversation this week. Not my conversation admittedly, but a conversation between Fiona Beckett and Liam Steevenson, hosts of the excellent wine-focused podcast Bâtonnage, and their guest Jamie Goode. Bâtonnage is one of only two podcasts I listen to regularly (and the other one is politics not wine), which hopefully says something about its quality. I have enjoyed all of the ten episodes released thus far and I can’t wait for series two.

Richard Leroy was cited as an example of a vigneron making wine in a very reductive style. Before I come to the meaning behind the title of this blog post, let’s just dive a little deeper on Richard and his reductive style. It is true that his wines are very reductive, provided you are talking about the wines released onto the market during the last five-or-so years. It was only in the 2011 vintage that the style chez Leroy, Richard having had something of a Burgundy-inspired epiphany, suddenly lurched towards reduction. Prior to that the wines had been classically ambitious Anjou Blanc (even if they switched to Vin de France in the 2008 vintage). They were concentrated, polished, sinewy, laden with intent, and they were frequently also wrapped in new oak in their youth, a fact that was overlooked by many who would cry “spoofulation!” at a similar use of new oak in less favoured wines. It never really bothered me; like all great wines they deserved time in the cellar and with time the oak would be absorbed.

Being Ahead of the Curve

Then in the 2011 vintage all of a sudden the wines were painfully reductive, and tasting them in their youth was like sucking on shards of flint rather than wine. In fact it went further than that, as aromatically the 2011 Les Rouliers went from a mildly reductive barrel sample when tasted in 2013 to a pungently reduced wine, marked by eggy notes of hydrogen sulphide, the extreme end of the reduction spectrum, when I tasted it from bottle in 2015 (I need to revisit it soon). Having produced a wine in this style, for the first time Richard was sufficiently confident to add no sulphites, a philosophy he has persisted with in most (but not all) vintages since.

Fair enough, you might say. But what does this have to do with being ‘ahead of the curve’?

Well, this mention of Richard Leroy perhaps signifies something else I have long predicted. There was a time, not that long ago, that Richard Leroy was a name known only to committed Loire geeks. Any use of his name in conversation would have elicited the response, even from serious wine geeks and sommeliers, along the lines of “you mean Leroy, in Burgundy, right?”. I sense in the past few years this has changed; Richard has broken through into mainstream wine consciousness, in the same manner as the late Didier Dagueneau once did, along with the likes of Clos Rougeard and Nicolas Joly. When mainstream ‘cult status’ is attained, demand increases, and with the supply of bottles naturally limited the price inevitably follows suit. Back in 2013, advising my subscribers to buy, buy, buy, I wrote in a tasting report:

“I do fear that with increasing global demand for Richard’s wines we will see the price rise and availability decrease, but for the moment there remain relatively few hurdles to finding and buying these wines.”

That is certainly no longer true. In the past few years the retail price has quadrupled; that’s if you can even track down a bottle. The driving forces for this shift include, firstly, the absolute quality of the wines, although to be fair I could rattle off half a dozen vignerons working in Anjou and Savennières who turn out wines of equivalent standing. As always in the Loire Valley, cult status is not just about what is in the bottle. Secondly, the wines are in increasingly short supply, giving them a ‘rarity’ appeal. Even when the vineyards are in full production supply will always be finite, but in some recent vintages the vines have been hit by frost, decimating production. Yields have often been between 13 and 20 hl/ha, with frost reducing this figure to zero in 2016, and zero on one terroir in 2017. Thirdly, Richard has an image of an independent man battling against greater foes, our wine-minded David to a variety of Goliaths. He is set against the wine authorities, ditching the Anjou Blanc designation in favour of Vin de France. He has fought Mother Nature and lost, his biodynamic vines hurt by mildew and frost. And yet still, against the odds, he turns out his precious, jewel-like wines. With this sort of reputation it was perhaps inevitable that his appeal would spread beyond pure Loire geeks.

While sommeliers pop corks of increasingly pricy Leroy wines, surrounded I hope by crowds of natural wine fans, all chanting “Chenin!, Chenin!, Chenin!”, I am happy that with Richard Leroy I was well ahead of the curve. I have bottles of just about every cuvée and every vintage he made, back to about 2003, which should keep me happy for some time. And while I will try to track down a bottle or two of 2017, and some 2018s too, it may be that with the prices as they are, I now have to let go. If you discover the wines today you will get just as much pleasure as I have out of them, but you may have to pay through the nose for the privilege. There is no doubt you are behind the curve.

In the meantime I will continue my work rooting out young (and some not-so-young) vignerons who are turning out wines of comparable (or superior, in the case of one guy working in Anjou I can think of) quality, so that I can continue to stay ahead of the curve, drinking brilliant wines as yet unblessed by cult status. This is how I drink well without having to sell one of my kidneys. And of course I will continue to point the spotlight at these vignerons, so that my subscribers can also – provided they follow my advice, as I know some did with Richard Leroy – stay ahead of the curve with me.

So now I am off to pop a cork, maybe on a 2009 Les Rouliers (to celebrate its tenth birthday), and I will get back to listening to Jamie, Liam and Fiona talking wine faults. It’s called Bâtonnage – do check it out.

R.I.P. Pierre Couly

I am saddened to learn today of the passing of Pierre Couly, one of the doyens of the Chinon appellation. He passed away last Friday night, unexpectedly, at the age of 83 years.

Pierre was (with his late brother Jacques, who passed away in 2016) one of two sons born to René Couly, who arrived in Chinon from the Corrèze in the early years of the 20th century. It was René who bought up the Clos de l’Echo, and oversaw its replanting; at the time of its acquisition much of it was planted with wheat.

With the passing of Pierre we have lost another connection with Chinon’s history.

RIP Pierre Couly

Pierre Couly was a very significant figure in the Chinon appellation in his own right. He was a founding member of the Confrérie des Bons Entonneurs Rabelaisiens, and he held the office of Grand Master up until 2016. He also played a role in the local growers’ syndicat. And with his brother Jacques he also ran Couly-Dutheil, perhaps the appellation’s most famed domaine, for many years.

In more recent times, after the domaine split, he set up anew with his son Bertrand Couly, building new cellars (pictured above) at the back of the town. It was early on during this new chapter in his story that I last met him (although sadly I have no photographs), a few years ago now. Today the domaine goes from strength to strength, and Bertrand now works alongside his own son, Vincent, who vinified the 2018 vintage.

A service is planned for this Friday 1st March, 14h30, at the Église Saint-Etienne in Chinon.

My condolences go out to Pierre’s son Bertrand and the rest of his family.

See more at La Nouvelle République.

Wine Paris 2019: Chalk and Cheese

I returned to Scotland from Wine Paris late on Wednesday night, after three days of tasting. This new wine salon felt exceptionally busy; I had no shortage of interesting tastings, with some of the highlights being Famille Bourgeois, Couly-Dutheil, Château Gaudrelle and Famille Lieubeau, to name just a few examples. More importantly, though, every vigneron I spoke to was happy with the number of visitors and the level of interest shown in their wines. And while trade fairs offer good opportunities for journalists, really it is how useful the growers find them, in terms of making contacts, getting their wines in front of buyers, and doing deals, that surely counts.

It is a far cry from the reports that came out of the first ever Vinovision in 2017. Then one prominent grower from Montlouis reported opening four bottles of each cuvée per day at the Salon des Vins de Loire, implying strong interest, but only one bottle of each at Vinovision. Perhaps unsurprisingly they never returned in 2018, and several big-name Loire Valley growers who also attended in 2017 followed suit. This was despite considerable growth in visitor numbers, up from 3,300 in 2017 to 5,000 in 2018. Reports from growers earlier this week suggested that visitor numbers might be higher again in 2019. The fact that the press release trumpeting the 2019 figures landed in my inbox on Thursday, just 24 hours after the doors were closed, also suggested the fair had been a success. It is in stark contrast to the rather subdued level of communication coming from the Salon des Vins de Loire, which seems to be treading water.

Wine Paris

Of course, we are comparing chalk and cheese here. Vinovision no longer stands alone, having joined forces in 2019 with Vinisud to create Wine Paris, so it has more than doubled in size across two halls of Paris Expo (Hall 4, and the curiously named Hall 7.1, which sounds like it might be a rebooted Hall 7), and I suspect its interest to buyers has increased exponentially as a result. In truth visitor numbers were bound to rocket, and indeed they have; in 2019 Wine Paris saw an incredible 26,700 visitors cross the threshold, which is more than a 500% increase on 2018 numbers. And this is more than three times the number of visitors to the Salon des Vins de Loire, which whimpered along with “nearly” 7,500 visitors.

Even more importantly, if you are trying to sell your wine, Wine Paris welcomed a lot of international buyers. Of the attendees, 30% arrived from beyond France’s borders, principally from the USA, Belgium, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, these five countries accounting for about half of the international visitors. I know of one foreign buyer who, charged with finding entry-level white, rosé and red vin de pays style wines for his firm at a punchy (i.e. very low) price point, realised a week or two before Wine Paris that it would be the perfect opportunity to track down what he needed. Contacting the organisers to see what support they could offer him in getting there, with time so short, they immediately offered to pay for his air fare and hotel accommodation. This clearly reflects this salon’s strong financial position, not a description I can imagine applying to the Salon des Vins de Loire at the moment.

The Salon des Vins de Loire seems, at the moment, to have the support of many big names in the Loire Valley. I wonder, however, with the success of Wine Paris 2019, how long this will continue? The dates for Wine Paris 2020 are already set (February 10th to the 12th) and 70% of the 2019 exhibitors have already signed up. I hope the Salon des Vins de Loire can build on the successes of the 2018 vintage to regain some lost ground in the next year or two. But if they aren’t convening a crisis meeting to see how they can respond to the threat of Wine Paris, which is surely set to grow further next year, then I think further decline seems likely. We could, sadly end up with only chalk, and no cheese at all.

Salon des Vins de Loire 2019: Treading Water

Last weekend I published some reflections on the 2019 Salon des Vins de Loire, when I expressed surprise at not having received any official figures on visitor numbers for the 2019 edition. Despite four days having passed since the doors had closed, my inbox remained unbothered by Salon missives. I checked the user-unfriendly Salon website, hard work at the best of times, and there too the press-release-cupboard was bare. It was a shame, because personally I found the Salon a success, with lots of good tasting opportunities, and at times it felt busy. But just how busy was it?

Well, the answer, according to a press release I have just prised from the Salon website, is rather vague. There were more exhibitors this year, up 330, which is an increase of either 15% or 20% depending on which press release you read (it clearly can’t be both). A number of these exhibitors were local beer, perry, cider and gin producers, which is pushing the definition of vins somewhat. And I was amusd to hear yesterday that Yves Cuilleron – of Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu – apparently had a stand this year. Having checked the Salon website I can see no trace of him among the exhibitors, however, so I cannot verify whether or not this is true. If so, it would be a new concept of where the boundaries of the Loire Valley end. Not since Australia’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest have geographical boundaries been so thoroughly stretched.

It is visitor numbers, rather than exhibitor number, I am interested in though. The press release suggests visitor numbers matched the 20% (or is it 15%?) increase in exhibitors, but this appears to be <ahem!> not quite true, as the text then declares the number as “nearly 7,500”. That is the same figure declared last year, as I documented in The Results Are In, 2018 visitor numbers having also been about 7,500, down from about 8,500 in 2017. It seems, despite increased exhibitors, the Salon has been treading water this year. Which is (popping my rose-tinted spectacles on), I suppose, better than further decline. I hope this is the start of a turnaround, and that next year we get a serious return in serious exhibitors, with visitor numbers that really match this increase, keen to look at what will be some seriously good 2018 red and sweet wines which should be ready for tasting at that stage.

“Le Salon des Vins de Loire est LE rendez-vous légitime de l’offre Loire” the press release goes on to say. The capital letters are their doing, not mine. I hope that remains true in 2020.

Reflections on the 2019 Salon des Vins de Loire

Earlier this week I set foot in the 33rd edition of the Salon des Vins de Loire, in Angers. It was my eleventh time at this salon, and in writing this I realised I must have missed the celebrations that will have inevitably been in place to commemorate my tenth consecutive visit last year. I would have expected trumpets, cheering crowds and maybe a small-firearms volley in salute. Perhaps I went in via the wrong entrance? In truth though, ten (now eleven) salons is nothing. There is currently a thread on Facebook between merchants sorting out who has been the most often, and eleven lags behind their figures by some considerable margin; the British wine trade know how popular the wines of the Loire Valley are with British consumers, and quite rightly many famous (and some not so famous) merchants seem to have a presence here.

There also seemed to be a strong presence from the USA this year, although I noted this was more evident in the ‘off’ events, or rather the one ‘off’ event I actually had time to attend, which was the Salon St-Jean, an organic-biodynamic tasting previously named Renaissance, than I did in the Salon proper. This might just be coincidence though; the Salon proper is much more spread out, in a huge hall, and it can be difficult to be certain of anything just eyeballing the number of people around you. Even so, it felt like a busier Salon this year, especially on Monday, especially nearer the entrance to the tasting halls. Moving deeper into the halls, admittedly it felt quieter. I have been waiting for a press release confirming visitor numbers for this year, but four days after the doors closed I am still waiting. I hope that doesn’t signify anything of note…..

On the press side of things, representation from the UK was, as usual, pretty dismal. Here my attendance ranks somewhat higher, second behind long-time Loire expert Jim Budd who has attended every year since it began, save for last year, when he had a sick note. Indeed, I would not be surprised if it turned out the first-ever Salon was his idea, such is his influence and the high regard that he is held in the region. So on the score card I come in second place, but who is in third place? Nobody, it seems*. Considering the size of the region, the volume of wine produced, the fame of some of its appellations (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray, Chinon, Coteaux du Layon, Muscadet) and the value it offers this is utterly shameful. Bearing in mind that there are several global wine publications with huge teams of writers and tasters, it is amazing that one cannot be dispatched to the biggest annual event in the Loire Valley. It seems it is more interesting to have yet another yawn-inducing deep dive on the latest Bordeaux vintage (I’m all for reviewing Bordeaux obviously – but I’m also for achieving a sense of balance) than it is checking out the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, all of which emanate from this region. It’s an approach I just find head-scratchingly impossible to understand.

Jo Pithon

So how was the 33rd Salon des Vins de Loire? It was a busy four days. Day one I spent at the Salon St-Jean, with the wines of Nicolas Joly, Eric Nicolas, Mark Angeli, Vincent Caillé, Damien Laureau, Tessa Laroche and many others. These are all famous names, and some of their wines I adore, some I am completely ambivalent about, and subscribers will no doubt see (or already suspect) which is which. On day two I ditched the usual Salon schedule and headed out into the vines with Jo Pithon and Ivan Massonnat; Jo has sold his domaine to Ivan, who has augmented it with new vineyards, and he has christened it Domaine Belargus.

This was a great visit, checking out vineyards in Savennières, Quarts de Chaume and Anjou/Coteaux du Layon, before a tasting at the cellars. Jo will continue to advise and work with Ivan and his team for a while, and I feel very positive about the project as a whole, but at times it did feel as if it was a sad farewell for Jo, something which I thought came across when we visited Les Treilles (pictured above). I will profile this new domaine very soon, probably as soon as I have my Loire 2018 report and Muscadet reports for this year done (unless the Bordeaux primeurs get in the way, which is possible). Later on day two I headed back to Salon St-Jean for a final hour or two there. Days three and four I spent at the Salon des Vins de Loire, and with just two days (the fair was cut from three to two days a few years ago) to taste, this meant checking in with the crème de la crème rather than exploring. So I enjoyed tasting with Domaine Luneau-Papin, Domaine de la Pépière, Château Pierre-Bise, Philippe Alliet, Xavier Weisskopf, Vincent Carême, Paul-Henry Pellé, Alphonse Mellot, Domaine Vacheron and more. By 4 pm on day four I was really flagging, and gave up, heading for the railway station and home.

I will put many of my thoughts about the 2018s tasted in my aforementioned Loire 2018 report and Muscadet reports, but the key is 2018 is a very fine vintage, perhaps a truly great one, at the very least to be ranked alongside the likes of 2009, 2005 and 2003, maybe even 1990 and 1989. There are many reasons for the success, but climate is clearly one of them. That is something I think I will examine in a future post. Tomorrow I am off to Wine Paris, so expect another delay in posts next week, followed by my Loire 2018 report the week after.

*If you are a UK blogger or journalist and you were at the Salon des Vins de Loire, do get in touch and put me straight.

Winedoctor 2018 Disclosures

Well, a new year is upon us and it is time to look back upon the heaps of illicit benefits I have received as a result of completing yet another year as owner, author, editor, technical director, secretary, accounts manager and tea boy at Winedoctor Towers.

Before going any further, an important point I must first address. Those readers who were paying attention about twelve months ago will have noticed that I did not publish a disclosures statement for 2017. My excuse is that I was extraordinarily busy, my year having been complicated by the purchase of a house (completion date, December 31st 2016) just to the south of Chinon. Twelve months later I think I was still in a state of shock, and it was only midway through 2018 that I realised I had made this grave omission. Well, that’s my story and I am sticking to it. Any rumours you might have heard suggesting I could not bring myself to write about all the bungs I received during 2017, including pay-offs from the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, InterLoire, the Saudi government and Alice Feiring are categorically untrue.

Moulin Touchais, tasted at Vinovision, February 2018

At this point I don’t think it would be useful to revisit 2017, so I will focus on 2018. I will of course respond to any questions regarding 2017 you send my way, provided I am permitted time to check my responses with Prince Mohammed and Alice first.

So here goes then with my support report (I can’t believe I haven’t paired those two words together in a sentence before) for 2018:

Salon des Vins de Loire: As in previous years, no formal funding was offered or accepted, InterLoire having decided long ago that as the wines of Savennières and Chinon are now more popular and selling for higher prices than Burgundy and Bordeaux, and with this annual salon regularly swamped with visiting wine hacks, they no longer need to offer any support. <wakes up from dream> I do recall accepting a dinner invitation from Latitude Loire though, this being a collaborative group including Luneau-Papin, Clos des Quarterons, Nicolas Grosbois, Domaine Pellé and Le Rocher des Violettes. The group get together and hold a competition to see who can open the greatest number of magnums, and obviously I go purely for journalistic reasons. All other expenses on this trip I met myself (see below).

Vinovision: I headed to Paris for Vinovision (where I tasted the Moulin Touchais pictured above), accepting no financial support. Putting my trust in Chris Hardy, Loire courtier extraordinaire, to locate a bar for some evening R&R, I found myself buying beer at €20 per pint. I soon regretted not being able to submit an expenses invoice to Antonio Galloni or Jancis Robinson.

Bordeaux primeurs: I headed out to Bordeaux for eight days, or nearly three weeks if adhering to the definition of the ‘working week’ used by most Bordeaux journalists. My trip started with a hectic run through Stansted airport as I left myself 75 minutes to make a connection, only for my first flight to be delayed by 45 minutes. In the half hour remaining I needed to exit the airport, and go through security clearance once again. Wisely I bought a pass for the express lane, but the queue there was longer than in standard security, somewhat defeating the aim. Thankfully my second flight was with Ryanair, so naturally it was delayed, so I made it on time. The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful (which makes a change). I accepted accomodation with Hubert de Boüard de Laforest (three nights, including one dinner with disclosure statement), Château La Lagune (two nights, uncatered) and Château La Dauphine (three nights, uncatered). The last of these tested my fitness as on the final night I was locked out and had to clamber over a wall to gain entry. Other expenses I met myself (see below).

Loire Valley & Bordeaux, May: Keen to catch up on my Bordeaux vintage reports I headed back to Bordeaux in May to retaste the 2015 vintage (some of the wines which came under my gaze are pictured below). I accepted accommodation in Château La Dauphine (two nights, self-catered) mainly to see if they would lock me out again. They didn’t. I was almost disappointed. At the end of an afternoon at Château Lafleur to learn about their approach to Cabernet Franc I acccepted an invitation to have a tasting and dinner with the Guinaudeau family (disclosure statement included) at Château Grand Village. Other expenses, including all those relating to the two following weeks which I spent in the Loire Valley, I covered myself (see below).

Loire Valley, October: A rather gentle harvest trip with just a handful of visits. I accepted no support (although to be frank nobody was offering any, and I do have a house there). I thus covered all expenses myself (see below).

Loire Valley and Bordeaux, December: I arranged a complicated trip starting in Vouvray and Chinon, with four days in Bordeaux retasting the 2016 vintage the meat in the sandwich, finishing up with a day in Muscadet. Frankly I am still amazed that it all went to plan, and not even the gilets jaunes and their blockade of petrol stations could sway me from my schedule; it’s great to know that when the tank is nearly empty, you can always top up with Sauvignon Blanc. I accepted accommodation in Château Clément-Pichon, (one night, uncatered) and Château La Dauphine (one night, uncatered). I also had lunch with Vincent and Tania Carême. All other expenses I met myself (see below).

Gifts received: I received a magnum of a recent vintage from Château Montrose. I don’t believe I am alone in receiving such a fine gift, the difference is that I have actually told you I received it. In addition, Tania Carême gave me a bottling of 2015 Ancestrale at the end of the Salon des Vins de Loire, which turned out to be a lifesaver (see below). I don’t recall receiving any other gifts.

Samples received: A small number of wine samples were received, where the wines have been written up this has been declared. Most wines written up on Winedoctor are encountered at open tastings, or purchased.

This concludes the ‘support received’ section of my 2018 disclosures report. I try to keep support received to a minimum, but more important is to be transparent about exactly what support has been received, and the details presented above meet that requirement. In addition, where new articles have been published after support was received, this has been disclosed.

Bordeaux 2015, revisited May 2018

If you are still reading, while it is possible you have merely run out of more interesting free content to browse, perhaps you are also interested in the second part of my disclosures statement, looking at the Winedoctor expenses which were footed, through their monthly/annual payments, by Winedoctor subscribers.

Salon des Vins de Loire: All travel and accommodation expenses for the Salon des Vins de Loire were met by me; this included travel in the UK, flights, return rail fare in France, a hotel room for four nights in Angers, one night in Paris CDG airport, and all subsistence save for dinner with Latitude Loire. Of note, France ground to a halt under snow in February 2018, so I was glad I had booked a hotel room at the airport, and that I had a bottle of Vouvray from Tania Carême, both of which made my overnight stay there more bearable. I did consider subletting my room to some of the stranded passengers sleeping on the floor in the terminal, but was fearful they would also want a share of the Vouvray. No way, Jose.

Vinovision: I met all my own costs, including flights to Paris, local connections, hotel accommodation and subsistence. Through the purchase of beer I subsidised two years of private school fees for the children of one Parisian bar owner.

Bordeaux primeurs: I met my travel costs myself; this includes travel in the UK, flights to Bordeaux via Stansted, and a hire car for eight days. While I accepted accommodation, I covered all my own subsistence expenses except for the one dinner described above. I must also make clear that any rips in my trousers suffered when clambering over walls I have repaired myself.

Loire Valley & Bordeaux, May: I spent a week in Bordeaux, followed by two weeks in the Loire. Feeling masochistic I drove from Scotland, which gave me an excuse to borrow my wife’s brand new car for three weeks, rather than take my 18-year-old banger. Aside from the two nights accommodation and one dinner described above I covered all costs, including driving to the Loire Valley via Hull, ferry tickets, driving from Chinon to Bordeaux, three nights in a Bordeaux hotel, the drive back to Chinon, and all subsequent expenses in the Loire Valley. This was a really tough trip, tasting wine with Bernard Baudry, Jérôme Billard and the like by day, relaxing in the jacuzzi by night. Nose to the grindstone stuff.

Loire Valley, October: After a summer break it was back to Chinon for a harvest visit. I flew there via Nantes. As suggested above, I met all my own costs, including travel in the UK, flights, hire car and subsistence.

Loire Valley and Bordeaux, December: For this trip I flew via Nantes again, meeting all costs associated with my Loire Valley visits myself, save for lunch at the Carême’s kitchen table. In Bordeaux I paid for four nights in four different hotels (I like to move around a bit). Other costs, including flights, car hire for a week, and subsistence aside from that mentioned above I paid for myself.

London tastings: These were fewer than in some previous years, but included a Clos L’Église vertical tasting at 69 Pall Mall, the Bordeaux Index 2008 tasting, the Loire Benchmark tasting, the Union des Grands Crus tasting of the 2016 vintage, the annual Cru Bourgeois tasting and the IMW Bordeaux tasting of the 2014 vintage. I paid for my entry fee where applicable (this only applies to the IMW tasting), and for all tastings I covered my own costs, including flights, airport transfers and subsistence.

This concludes my disclosures statement for 2018. The year ahead will be a fascinating one, with excellent murmuings on 2018 from Bordeaux and the Loire Valley suggesting there are going to be some amazing wines coming our way. I just hope that neither region suffers the kind of frost in 2019 that we saw in 2016 (in the Loire) and 2017 (in both regions). Fingers crossed everybody.