It was as recently as 2003 that I first visited the proprietors of what is surely the Loire’s most renowned vineyard, the Clos de la Coulée Serrant. The date still seems recent, but time flies, and well over a decade has since passed. It was a flying visit to the Château de la Roche aux Moines, during which I met Nicolas Joly’s daughter, Virginie, at that time recently returned home after her foreign studies. I tasted the wines, took a walk along the cypress-lined avenue which runs parallel to the course of the Loire, stopping near the ancient sarcophagus which lies at the far end in order to drink in the views of the Clos de la Coulée de Serrant itself, lying opposite. And then I departed. It was a rather brief visit, but the memory of it lingers ever on.
In the years that have passed since that visit my understanding of the domaine and of the forceful beliefs of its proprietor, Nicolas Joly, have increased significantly, reinforced by increasingly frequent encounters with the wines, and of course I have since returned to the domaine itself. What has become apparent above all else during these years of contemplation is that there are few estates – in fact I struggle to think of any at all – that have engendered more diverse and more strongly expressed opinion, with regard to both the wines, and the man behind them. As in all things there are shades of grey, but in this argument you can find both ends of the spectrum, black and white, firmly expressed and yet polar opposite opinions. There are some who rave about both Joly’s philosophy and the wines, decrying the bottles of old as inadequate, while others berate his pseudo-scientific beliefs, accuse him of failure to exploit properly one of France’s greatest terroirs, and who wish for a return to the quality wines of the pre-Nicolas era.
Regardless of our individual opinions on the wines – and I will come to mine at the end of this profile – there is no denying that this is one of the Loire Valley’s most significant domaines. The vineyard has perhaps the perfect position, aspect and slope, and it has the potential to give us perhaps the greatest dry white wine in all Anjou. The proprietor is dedicated to his estate but also vocal, opinionated and headstrong, some might even say eccentric, and consequently he enjoys a very high international profile, the sort of reputation and following most Loire vignerons can only dream of. The same could be said of his wines (and their price tags) of course. I will cover all this in a moment; first, like all the other grandes dames of the Savennières appellation, including Domaine du Closel, Château Epiré and Domaine aux Moines, there is much history here to explore.
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