Château Pierre-Bise Coteaux du Layon Beaulieu Les Rouannières 2006
The great vintages are usually the easy ones, for both vigneron and consumer. Take the Cabernet Francs of the Loire Valley in 2009, for example; Chinon and Bourgueil enjoyed some beautifully sunny weather, the fruit was harvested in perfect conditions under clear skies, and the wines that resulted are set to challenge the greatest vintages of the 20th century. The vigneron experienced that rare thing, a relaxed harvest, and the consumer has an easy time buying the wines because, in a vintage where so many excelled, there is less risk when buying ‘blind’.
This situation doesn’t always hold true, of course, as some vintages that are very challenging for the vigneron (such as 2008 and 2012 in Muscadet) still yield excellent wines, albeit in smaller quantities than is usual. The battle might have been against poor weather during flowering, a spring frost or summertime mildew but dedicated vignerons can win through in the end. Nevertheless, for the consumer, the job is still an easy one; as far as we are concerned, these are great vintages for Muscadet (2008 better than some in the region seem to realise, their memories perhaps clouded by the crisis that came to a head during that most difficult year).
The vintages that pose more difficulty for thirsty drinkers are in fact the ‘middling’ years, those that were neither great nor a disaster. For many parts of the Loire Valley (I am loathe to lump the Loire’s wine regions together as one, but excuse me for one moment as I do just that) this was a challenging vintage. This is a region where quality is most often determined by late summer weather leading up to and during the harvest, and that was just the problem with 2006. This was a vintage dogged by heavy rain up and down the Loire Valley, starting in mid-August and continuing mostly unabated through the vendanges. I recall seeing pickers working for François Pinon harvesting in bright yellow waterproofs and sou’westers. Warmer temperatures and high humidity encouraged the development of rot on the fruit, their thinning skins as the grapes ripened also contributing to their susceptibility. Making a dry wine required strict selection and many domaines discarded a significant percentage of the crop, with some reporting a 20-30% loss.
To make a sweet wine in such conditions is even more challenging, requiring not just the selection of clean and ripe fruit from that which is succumbing to rot, but instead selecting out that fruit which shows clean botrytis rot, what we might call noble rot, or simple passerillage (if such a thing was possible under such conditions) from grey rot, where instead of showing dehydration and dry desiccation the rot has simply degraded into a grey, mouldy mass. Under such conditions only the most fastidious winemakers will succeed; and in such a situation who wouldn’t look to Claude Papin, of Château Pierre-Bise? His Coteaux du Layon Les Rouannières 2006 has a lightly burnished golden hue, suggesting concentration, botrytis and inspiring a little confidence already. Aromatically this confidence does not seems misplaced, as taking into account the challenges of the vintage the nose is expressive and interesting, showing a lightly biscuity character reminiscent of orange and apricot macaroons, with a layer of gently caramelised orchard fruit on top. The palate is nicely textured, rather open in style, loose but also supple with a moderate concentration and a good substance for the vintage. It has a ready balance of sweetness, body and acidity, and there is a little length to it as well. This vintage might not have the great impact and concentration we see in Les Rouannières in more favourable years, such as 2007, 2010 and 2011, but it has the advantage of an open and mellifluous composition, and it is certainly ready to drink now. Making great wines in great vintages is to be expected. Making a wine such as this, from a wet harvest, is a real achievement. 16.5/20 (13/10/14)