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Pierre Ménard Apollo 2018

Pierre Ménard Apollo 2018

And now for something completely different.

No, not a cross-dressing lumberjack, or even a dead parrot. Something even more different than that.

Pierre Ménard is a young vigneron based on the outskirts of Faye-d’Anjou, one of the seven villages of the Coteaux du Layon appellation. I first met him about ten years ago, at the Salon des Vins de Loire; at the time he was just starting out, having just taken on a small slice of the family vineyard, the fruit of which had previously all been sold to the local co-operative. He had no wines to show, so it was a brief introduction, and the truth is Pierre remembers it better than I do. But then to be honest I have a lot of trouble remembering things these days; important things, like where I left my car keys, the time of my reservation at The Kitchin, and the names of the three classified fourth growths in Margaux.

A few years later Pierre’s wines started appearing on the market, and naturally I was keen to try them. Completely blown away by their quality, I was keen to visit him at his domaine. I first called in on him in 2019, and I returned just a few weeks ago, the latter visit a good opportunity to see his newly acquired vines, his brand new cellars, and to taste through the current portfolio of wines (full report to follow, obviously). Although based in a village and a region with a longstanding reputation for sweet wines, like many along the Layon today Pierre is staking his reputation on the quality of his dry wines; they are, in short, stunning examples of what can be achieved with Chenin Blanc grown on these ancient schistose terroirs and then vinified dry.

Pierre is an inquisitive vigneron with a keen mind though, and he is not afraid to experiment, and not just with Chenin Blanc. The cuvée Apollo, a one-off produced in the 2018 vintage, is one such speculative project.

Pierre Ménard Apollo 2018

The 2018 vintage was a benevolent one; with no frost of note, and good conditions throughout the summer, it gave the region’s vignerons a harvest of bountiful volume and fine (if rather richly styled) quality. This is exactly what Pierre was facing with his Cabernet Franc, and rather than pick it all in one fell swoop he decided to try something different. He picked what he needed for his red Orion Alpha cuvée, but left a portion of the crop on the vine, and he settled back to watch the potential alcohols climb.

Before long Pierre was looking at 14.5% to 15% potential, and he eventually cracked, harvesting his second tri of Cabernet Franc on October 9th and 10th. He picked the bunches in small trays which he then left stacked up in his grandparents house (the house was unoccupied, and has since been converted into a barrel cellar). The grapes soon dehydrated, and within four or five weeks the juices had concentrated to a potential alcohol of 21%, botrytised Coteaux du Layon territory. Although of course this is Cabernet Franc not Chenin Blanc, and concentrated appassimento style, not by noble rot; indeed, Pierre describes it as a ‘straw wine’ on the label.

At this point Pierre pressed the bunches and got the fermentation going, which was – as is the case with all intensely concentrated musts – a very slow process. By September 2019 (almost a year later!) he was able to rack it into a small stainless steel vat to age, and he eventually bottled it – in 50 cl format only – in August 2020.

The 2018 Apollo from Pierre Ménard is a cuvée of Cabernet Franc with just 11% alcohol and a remarkable 155 g/l residual sugar. In the glass it displays a vibrant and translucent red hue, much brighter than the dark and concentrated appearance I was expecting (perhaps because that was how it looked when I stared into its inky abyss, when it was still in the vat, back in 2019). The aromatics are delightful and distinctive, with scents of crushed rose petals, crystalline blackberries and red cherries, all lifted with nuances of pomegranate, currant and a herby freshness reminiscent of bay and mint. It is beautifully silky at the start of the palate, before it develops breadth and texture through the middle, the residual sugar giving a sweet and weighty substance to the midpalate. There is a sense of finesse to it as well though, with the same perfumed floral notes as the nose, all supported by a gentle frame of tannins and modest acidity. It is this light grain of tannins which adds form and freshness to the structure, before they yield to a sweet and caressing finish. A distinctive and certainly unusual wine, and while I would have preferred a little more acidity to cut through the sweetness here, I think this is an undeniably successful experiment. 93/100

I hope you will agree that was something completely different. And while I will admit that the sweet red field is not a strong one in the Loire (I have memories of tasting an experimental botrytised Cabernet Franc made by Jo Pithon many years ago, but that had gone the way of the Norwegian Blue – red varieties and botrytis simply don’t play well together) I can say that this is undoubtedly the best appassimento sweet red made in the Loire Valley I have ever tasted. Chapeau, Pierre. I look forward to tasting your next experiment. (20/3/23)

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