Pithon-Paillé Quarts de Chaume 2011
Looking back over my Weekend Wines for 2014 I am mildly surprised to discover this is the first time this year the Quarts de Chaume appellation is making an appearance, for two reasons. First, I have bolstered the presence of Quarts de Chaume in my cellar somewhat this year; including some difficult-to-find wines from Pithon-Paillé (as here), several vintages of Domaine de la Bergerie (all bought at the domaine) and Château Pierre-Bise (which is at least a little more widely distributed). I do find it sad that the top wines from Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux are so hard to get hold off, especially when the market (the wine market in the UK, at least) is awash with old and new vintages of Sauternes, but I guess this reflects the size of the vineyard, which is no more than about 30 hectares. This is dwarfed by the Sauternes vineyard, indeed by several individual estates such as Château Guiraud, which alone has 85 hectares dedicated to the production of Sauternes and another 15 hectares earmarked for its dry wine.
The second reason for giving Quarts de Chaume a nod is of course the appellation’s elevation to Grand Cru status this year. The process of determining the exact standing of the Chaume and Quarts de Chaume appellations has been a long and drawn-out one. Although it has long been clear to all familiar with the wines of the Loire Valley that both of these intertwined subregions are of superior standing to the rest of the Coteaux du Layon vineyard, agreeing how this superiority should be assured by the relevant appellation regulations and how it should be expressed on the label has been a tortuous process. The idea that they should be Premier Cru and Grand Cru respectively finally seemed set to be agreed back in 2011, despite Chaume’s elevation having previously been denied after two successful legal challenges from Florent Baumard, of Domaine des Baumard, and his father Jean Baumard, doyen of the Quarts de Chaume appellation.
The latest plan was also the subject of a legal challenge from the Baumard family, and the challenge went right up to the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest public administrative court. It was not until early this year, the decision made public several weeks after the court’s judgement in March 2014, that the challenges were finally thrown out and the status of the two appellations was finally secured in law. There are several key differences in the new cahier des charges for Quarts de Chaume worth recognising, including: (a) the maximum yield per vine is 1.7 kg (the limit is 2.5 kg for less dense planting), (b) the minimum must sugar concentration is 298 g/l, (c) potential alcohol of the harvest must be at least 18º, (d) no treatment that lowers the temperature of the grapes below -5ºC is permitted. These are just four of many regulations pertaining to planting, picking and vinifying, but they are all new, and the effect will be to prevent the harvest of large/many bunches of non-concentrated fruit, which have a low concentration of sugar and therefore low alcohol potential, and then concentrating the harvest by cryo-selection, as has been the practice at Domaine des Baumard for many years. There is a transitional period allowing cooling methods until the 2019 harvest, thereafter such methods will be illegal.
I will cover all this in more detail in my Loire Valley wine guide – having recently completed a huge overhaul of my Bordeaux guide, I will be doing the same to my Loire guide during 2015 and 2016. In the meantime though, if this past weekend is anything to go by it looks like I will be spending forthcoming weekends Christmas shopping instead, and recovering in the evening with a glass of something suitable, such as the 2011 Pithon-Paillé Quarts de Chaume. This is clearly a heavily botrytised wine, the first indication of this being the wine’s incredibly burnished, bronzed hue. The aromatics carry the same message, and are just mind-blowing in their concentration, with scents of baked peach and orange, deeply caramelised fruit and drizzled honey. There is a lifted and floral edge to it, but ultimately you cannot ignore the huge, sweet, caramelised botrytis concentration this wine boasts. This shows as a rich caramel substance at the start of the palate, massive but pure, with concentration to match that suggested by the aromatics. Happily there is vibrant acidity underneath it all, and overall it shows very cleanly despite the richness of the wine. This has great substance and balance, is tense yet imposing, and it runs long and deep in the finish. A wine that is larger than life, and delicious with it. 18.5/20 (1/12/14)