Cave Saint-Verny Puy de Dôme Gamay 2013
After yesterday’s treatise on Gamay, the latest variety to be ‘profiled’ in this manner in my new Loire Valley Wine Guide, what else would my weekend drinking feature but this variety? Especially since, in my eyes at least, Gamay has recently been elevated to a new level of interest, as I have continued to discover more distant and less familiar Loire Valley appellations.
It is fair to say that when I first really started investigating the red wines of the Loire Valley it was towards such famous names as Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur that I first gravitated, floating in towards these appellations’ bright lights like the proverbial moth. More esoteric red appellations such as the Coteaux du Vendômois, Coteaux du Loir, Cheverny, Valençay and the various Touraine appellations came later. Gamay can crop up in all these wines, often as a minor part of the blend, but with the Cheverny, Touraine Mesland and Touraine Gamay appellations it plays an increasingly significant role (the clue is, I guess, in the name for one of them). Some wines I came across were uninspiring, but slowly I woke up to the existence of some domaines turning out wines worthy of attention. Clos Roche Blanche, now wound up and the vineyards divided between Noëlla Morantin, Laurent Saillard and Julien Pineau of course, was the obvious example. But I always felt the wines were missing something. They remained determinedly less interesting than my favourites from Chinon or Saumur-Champigny.
Then came the discovery, a few years ago now, of the vineyards of the Upper Loire. Not Sancerre, or Pouilly-Fumé, which lie barely halfway along the length of the river, but the real Upper Loire. The river rises from bubbling streams on the Massif Central, as does its equally impressive tributary the Allier, and on these two rivers sit four fascinating wine regions, Saint-Pourçain, the Côtes d’Auvergne, Côtes du Forez and the Côte Roannaise. These regions have long been considered part of the Loire Valley; even if I look back to the very first book on wine I ever purchased, The Wine Book by Oz Clarke (Portland House, 1987), all four of these regions receive at least a mention, even if it is under the Loire section of the ‘French Country Wines’ chapter, none of these regions having been awarded appellation status at the time. Nevertheless, decades later they remain overlooked by many; I suspect their remote location has much to do with that.
All four regions feature Gamay to at least some extent, exclusively in the case of some. And the wines are very distinctive, very different to the style of Gamay coming from the vineyards gathered around Tours. Whereas the more northerly wines tend to be led by their fruit, here on the slopes and foothills of the Massif Central the wines tend in my experience to have more structure, and more minerality. Generalist wine writers seem to enjoy describing them as ‘juicy’, because they’re not Pomerol or Chambertin I suppose, but to do so does them a great disservice. They are anything but juicy, a term I find rather disparaging. They are also not like the wines of Beaujolais, which despite having similar soils do not seem in my experience to offer the same frame as can be found in a wine from the Côtes d’Auvergne or similar. I am convinced that a large part of this (certainly the difference between these wines and those from Touraine) is soil acidity. The granite soils here are more acidic (I explain why in my Gamay guide) and these are conditions this variety seems to favour greatly.
Homing in on the Côtes d’Auvergne, this appellation is along with the Côtes du Forez which sits maybe 50 kilometres to the east a contender for the southernmost appellation in the entire Loire Valley. The appellation is dominated by the co-operative, the Cave Saint-Verny, the wines of which I first tasted several years ago in Angers. This was once a huge wine region, it being estimated that there were over 10,000 hectares planted here during the 11th century, this figure rising to 45,000 hectares by the end of the 19th century. Then phylloxera came, the region collapsed, and there are now less than 300 hectares remaining. The co-operative’s members own more than half of these. The Côtes d’Auvergne appellation allows only for Pinot Noir and Gamay blends, so varietal wines (usually one of these varieties in isolation, but Syrah is also a possibility) end up as IGP Puy de Dôme, as here. The 2013 Cave Saint-Verny Gamay (IGP Puy de Dôme) has quite a dark hue at its core, but it is vibrant too, with a raspberry-crimson rim. The nose is delightfully fresh and expressive, with cool and smoky notes of just-picked plum and cherry fruit. With Gamay and granite it is the tension on the palate that really matters and this wine has it in spades; the fruit is all grainy plum skin, delicately textured, the entirety underpinned by the acidity, fresh and tense, keeping the frame of the wine firm and defined. Interwoven within the fabric of the wine, however, there is an appreciable stony-mineral seam too. It all leads confidently into a strong and sappy finish. A very appealing wine, far removed from the fruity, carbonic maceration, oily memories of Gamay I formed when first exploring wine too many decades ago. 16.5/20 (14/12/15)