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François Pinon Vouvray Cuvée de Novembre 1995

François Pinon Vouvray Cuvée de Novembre 1995

There is perhaps no better time to pull the cork on a 1995 Cuvée de Novembre from François Pinon than the month of November, but in truth that is only half the reason for my turning to this wine right now.

Many vignerons have had a difficult year in 2021. Spring frosts hit many corners of France, not just the Loire Valley, where it is now such a regular occurrence that some sort of frost protection – be it candles, mobile turbines or occasionally more experimental methods – is now an essential part of the life of a vigneron. There was frost in Bordeaux as well, and even more southerly vineyards such as the Rhône Valley and the Languedoc, where the locals struggle to remember even the meaning of le gel, were hit. Spring was not much better; intermittent rain in May and June pushed back the flowering and raised the risk of mildew. The end-season was good, and in many parts of the Loire Valley the harvest was carried out under fine conditions. But it is a small crop; in terms of volume the French wine harvest is down 27% on 2020, and slightly smaller than 2017 (another frosted vintage), making it the smallest harvest for many decades.

For the Pinon family, in the Vallée de Cousse up above Vernou-sur-Brenne, the year brought more significant sadness. News of the passing of François Pinon (1951 – 2021), back in January, was a blow to the family, to the appellation and indeed to any wine drinkers who have had the good sense to ever nurse a glass of his wine. François’ dedication to his domaine shone through in every vintage, not just the great vintages such as 1989 and 2018 (and many that came between the two, it has to be said), but also when disaster struck. The 2013 vintage was a case in point; a mid-summer hailstorm whipped through the Vallée de Cousse, laying to waste all in its path. Who would not despair in such circumstances? Not François, who gritted his teeth and picked what he had, just enough for a single acid-rich dry wine – named simply Le 2013 – a throwback to the single cuvée he made back in 1994. That time it was frost which had wiped out his crop. It takes courage and determination to continue in the face of such adversity.

François Pinon Vouvray Cuvée de Novembre 1995

Tragically, 2021 has brought other challenges to the Pinon family. A few months after hearing about François, I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of his father, Claude Pinon (1923 – 2021), who has long had a presence on the old Pinon labels (pictured above) sitting with his legs crossed in front of the family house. It was Claude who had handed the family vineyard over to François in 1987; the two had never really seen eye to eye, and ergo there was a very brief transition period before Claude retired. That did not seem to do François any harm though, as within a few years he was stamping his authority on the appellation with a broad range of moelleux cuvées made in the 1989 and 1990 vintages. It was an exciting time for Vouvray, as alongside François there were a number of other new faces in the appellation, including Philippe Foreau who had not long taken over from his father André, and Noël Pinguet who was marking his mark with biodynamics at Domaine Huet, as well as Didier and Catherine Champalou and of course Bernard Fouquet.

The years that followed were difficult in Vouvray, with frost in 1991, wet harvests in 1992 and 1993 (although the sweet wines in the latter vintage were good) and the aforementioned frost in 1994. That 1995 was a good vintage was therefore a relief to all, although the wines have never received the same adulation as 1996 or 1997, two years of very high quality. The spring weather was very dry, so much so that it retarded the growth of the vines and the flowering. Later in the season the weather improved but the vines were not able to shake off that sluggish start to the season. Because the end-season conditions were good the appellation produced the full range of Vouvray cuvées, from sparkling and sec to lusciously moelleux, but the grapes (and the wines) were marked by high levels of malic acidity. Perhaps looking to see if this would come down a little, or perhaps looking for more botrytis, François left some fruit on the vine right through to November, eventually picking it for this rare Cuvée de Novembre. He did the same again in 2002, and he picked a convincingly moelleux version in 2003. I don’t believe he has ever repeated the exercise since, although it is possible that I overlooked a vintage.

In the glass the 1995 Cuvée de Novembre from François Pinon displays, bearing in mind this wine is now 26 years old, a rather a modest depth of colour, certainly compared to the most prestigious wines of other vintages from this era. It shimmers with a mid-golden hue, carrying just the faintest touch of bronze that comes with age (and botrytis, admittedly, although I don’t sense much of that here). As if following this lead, the nose kicks off in a rather shy manner, initially releasing scents of saffron and lemon peel, before it moves on to orange macaroon and oatmeal, and then some richer, deeper tones which call to mind black tea leaves and smoked black liquorice. The palate is cool, reserved and gently textured at the start, with a lightly moelleux character that suggests a rather modest residual sugar, although there is a rich seam of malic acid here too which I suspect may be playing tricks on my palate. Texturally it shows a little grain, but it has plenty of drive and energy in the finish, and overall it seems – despite the remarkably late harvest – classically Vouvray. It is a testament to the skill of François Pinon, if any were required. The alcohol is – in the Pinon style – a very precise 11.4%. 92/100

After a very trying 2021 I wish the next generation Julien Pinon (and his sisters) better fortune in 2022, with more happiness, and higher yields. My fingers, like Claude Pinon’s legs, are firmly crossed. (8/11/21)

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