Noëlla Morantin Chez Charles Sauvignon Blanc 2014
Few grapes incite as much adulation and also as much ire as Sauvignon Blanc. We all have our own favoured interpretation of it, for many it seems the New Zealand version, every glass fizzing with gooseberry, passion fruit, cat’s pee or box tree. Here is where the wine scientists get busy, because it’s all about thiols and methoxypyrazines. The latter have been discussed in the context of Sauvignon Blanc (and related varieties, particularly Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon) for years and years; they bring the classic greener side, including all that grassy herbaceousness. Thiols, meanwhile, are merely mercaptans under a different name. Sulphur-containing compounds, they give Sauvignon some of its more aromatic and sweeter characteristics, including grapefruit, passion fruit and also that famous feline scent.
That we know so much about Sauvignon Blanc probably reflects its importance to the New Zealand wine industry. New Zealand Winegrowers, a body created to promote the national and international interests of the industry, even has a formal research program, led by Dr Simon Hooker. That this is so is perhaps inevitable; Sauvignon Blanc has been a runaway success for New Zealand, accounting for up to 80% of wine exports by volume in recent years, and its popularity is based purely on those varietal flavours – thiol, methoxypyrazine or otherwise. Its great significance to the industry was perhaps best embodied by the Sauvignon Blanc 2016 conference held just last week in Blenheim, on New Zealand’s South Island, featuring three days of talks and tastings. I have to confess I found it rather ironic that the conference dates directly clashed with the 30th Salon des Vins de Loire in the Loire Valley, the variety’s probable birthplace and to my mind its true ‘spiritual’ home. I will gladly wager I tasted more examples of Sauvignon Blanc in Angers last week than any attendee at the conference dedicated to the variety on the other side of the world (as an aside, I know a wine writer who came to the Salon once and spent the entire three days tasting nothing but Sancerre – now that’s my idea of true Sauvignon Blanc dedication).
Moving on from New Zealand to the Loire Valley, where the variety reaches its true apogee, here the greatest examples of the style do not focus on varietal flavours but other flavour characteristics and sensory elements. One in particular is minerality, the feeling that these wines have been chiselled from the ground rather than squeezed from mere bunches of grapes. Another is terroir, the concept that one wine differs from another by virtue of the soils and rocks (and various other factors) in the vineyard. Suddenly, we find the science is sadly lacking here, but that does not make this style of Sauvignon Blanc any less interesting or significant, especially to us happy drinkers. Tasting through the range with Stéphane Riffault last Tuesday, neither of us could provide you with a scientific rationale on why his five different white cuvées, from terres blanches limestone and marl, from caillottes, from shallow soils over Kimmeridgian, deeper soils over Kimmeridgian and of course good old silex tasted different. Nor could we explain, tasting first through 2015 and then 2014, how the characteristics of each cuvée and thus the differences between them were preserved across the two vintages. This is one of the mysteries of wine, which one day I suspect will be solved (probably when Hooker or one of his team get their teeth into it), but for the moment it remains elusive (but no less delicious to drink).
Beyond this elusive terroir-driven purity the Loire Valley gives us other styles too. Only last year I hosted an Oaked Sauvignon Blanc tasting which seems to have made a real impact in some corners (this was the first-ever Salon des Vins de Loire when I was mentioned in a speech – fame has come at last!). And then there is this wine, with which Noëlla Morantin really does seem to be channelling the spirit of Clos Roche Blanche (she took on many of their vines as Catherine and Didier wound down, of course). This is also oak fermented, Noëlla utilising 400-litre demi-muids, and yet it stands quite apart from all the oak-fermented wines I featured in my tasting. The 2014 Chez Charles Sauvignon Blanc has a rich straw-yellow hue in the glass, and it has a simply beautiful aromatic complexity on the nose, with a very ripe theme to it. I find notes of chalky lemon dust, ripe fruits such as tangerine and peaches, with hints of menthol and a sweet pea perfume. It is a tense but also very textured wine, rich with pithy fruit complexity, only moderate acidity, with lots of supple weight. Its presence feels very broad and lightly chalky, fresh and supple, but that huge depth of fruit present on the nose also shows very confidently on the palate, which is full of peach, apricot and tangerine, and even pineapple, all laced with a fresh wildflower perfume. Complex, imposing, this is a ripe but fresh example of Sauvignon Blanc, neither in the green fizz style of New Zealand, nor the more tense and minerally style that tends to typify the Loire Valley. Hats off to Noëlla for this stylish, Sauvignon-themed work of art. 17/20 (8/2/16)