Monday, 7 August 2017

Beaujolais Podcast

The latest episode of my educational podcast focuses on Beaujolais. I wrote about this underrated region in a recent blog post; here I go into greater depth, exploring the history, appellation structure, and style of wine. You can also follow my podcast on Soundcloud or on iTunes.




Music by Bensound

Monday, 31 July 2017

Cabernet Franc

In my last blog post, I wrote about the underrated wines made from Chenin Blanc in the Loire. The same can be said about the region's major black grape, Cabernet Franc. It's one of the parent grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Carmenère, as well as a grandparent of Malbec. Yet around the world it's often seen simply as a blending grape, probably because that's how it's used in Bordeaux. In the Loire, Cabernet Franc is treated much more seriously, with wines that can age for decades being produced. For more everyday drinking, there are also plenty of fruity, approachable wines. However, these are generally lower-alcohol, lighter-bodied wines, explaining why they don't always fit into international trends.

ripeness

Phillipe Boucard
As I've already mentioned in the previous Loire blog posts, the challenge of getting the grapes ripe in the region has changed a lot in the last twenty to thirty years. For both white and black grapes, this used to be much more unpredictable than it is now, accounting for huge vintage variation. I visited Lamé Delisle Boucard, a domaine based in Bourgueil, where the current winemaker, Phillipe Boucard, gave me a taste of the 1989 vintage, the bottle sourced from his cool cellar dug deep beneath the chalky soils. Tasting a wine that old is always a source of excitement, but Phillipe was quick to comment, "This wine was a disaster, and it was the first one I made. The 1980s were catastrophic, full of green, underripe aromas which no one outside the region wanted." The wine certainly had retained its herbaceous, green bell pepper aromas, though I thought it had also maintained its structure remarkably well. But Phillipe went on, "The 2000s have been fantastic," as they've seen a succession of warmer vintages which have allowed more consistency and riper aromas in the wines, making them more approachable to foreign markets. Making wine now is much easier than it was in the 1980s, and it's reflected in the wines: riper, fruitier, and more immediate while still retaining their acidity and tannic structure.

the caves

Chinon's château

Many producers such as Lamé Delisle Boucard age their wines in underground cellars that have naturally cool conditions perfect for storing wine. These cellars are extraordinary, dug over the centuries to provide stone for local buildings. In the Touraine area of the Loire, the soil is tuffeau, a chalky limestone soil which was used for the construction of the region's famous châteaux. It's ideal for growing grapes as well as building castles, as the rocky surface doesn't retain water, forcing the vines to dig deep to seek underground resources. The cellars give you a great opportunity to see what the soil actually looks like underneath the surface, as well as creating damp, humid, cool conditions that allow the wines to slowly mature. The Loire is also famous for the historic troglodyte people who lived in caves dug into the rocky landscape. Again, producers take advantage of these ancient caves, storing wine in dark, cool conditions hidden well away from the sunshine. The Loire is a region whose winemakers work harmoniously with its beautiful landscape.

troglodyte cave

Chinon and Bourgueil 

Joan of Arc in Chinon
These are the two most important appellations for Cabernet Franc in the Loire, and one could argue in the world. They lie either side of the Loire river and, despite just being half an hour's drive from one other, display considerable differences in styles of wine. Chinon is perhaps the more famous. It's the birthplace of Rabelais, the French author who is, in part, the inventor of the modern novel, and the town was a focus for the many wars waged against England: Chinon was once the base for French kings and was where Joan of Arc pled her case to help lift the siege of Orléans. It's a beautiful village dominated by its fortress and old medieval buildings, situated on one of the Loire’s many tributaries, the Vienne. Style varies within the appellation. Near the banks of the rivers, the soils are sandy and produce fruity, easy-drinking wines. Further up the slopes away from the rivers, the soils become more limestone and gravel based, leading to complex wines with grainy tannins, more restrained fruit aromas, and intense peppery wines. Unless the name of a vineyard is on the label, it’s difficult to know where a wine is from and what it’s going to taste like: in which case, price is a guide.

Vienne river, Chinon

Bourgueil is north of the Loire, where the clay-gravel soils on south-facing slopes rising from the Loire result in intense, tannic wines with great ageing potential - arguably the best Cabernet Franc wines anywhere in the world. Again at Lamé Delisle Boucard, I got to taste a wine from 1964. It was astonishing how fresh, alive, and strutcured the wine remained, proof that Cabernet Franc can age as well as the best wines of Burgundy or Barolo. Old wines are not always the easiest to drink, but this wine belied its age. The wines can be drunk young too, with fresh red fruit aromas, high acidity, and firm tannins. In either case, these are extremely food-friendly wines, the acidity, tannins, and restrained fruit aromas making them great with rich chicken, pork, or lamb dishes, with maybe a little bit of spice.

Within Bourgueil is St-Nicholas-de-Bourgueil, which produces much fruitier wines for earlier drinking. Cabernet Franc is also grown throughout the Anjou-Saumur region; generally the wines are again fruitier and easier drinking, though some more serious examples are made. One further wonderful aspect of Cabernet Franc in the Loire is the price. Domaine du Closel, more famous for their white wine from Savennières, also produce some red wine. Le Rouge 2009 (✪✪✪✪) is mature, floral, and herbal with great acidity and tannin structure: they sell it for €9.

... and Cabernet Sauvignon 

Despite its universal fame, Cabernet Sauvignon is not my favourite grape, so it was satisfying to travel around the Loire and hear producers say that they are pulling out Cabernet Sauvignon in favour of local grapes such as Grolleau. Perversely though, I find it at its most interesting when it displays slightly green, herbaceous aromas which are frowned upon in areas such as Napa Valley. I'm definitely in a minority on this, but it means Cabernet Sauvignon in the Loire intrigues me. On its own, I don't think it works - it's just too green as it's so difficult to get it fully ripe in Loire's cool climate. It's mainly grown for rosé, when complete ripeness is not an issue. But it's also allowed in the Cabernet Franc based appellations to add tannins and black fruits to the red wines. And despite my aversion to Cabernet Sauvignon, one of my favourite wines of the trip was Clau de Nell's Violette 2015 ($50; ✪✪✪✪✪), which is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Cabernet Franc. The Loire is a region which never ceases to surprise.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is one of the world's greatest white grape varieties, but there are only two areas that specialise in it: South Africa and the Loire Valley. In South Africa, it's often cheap and off-dry, although there are some select producers who produce quality examples. It's in the Loire that it excels, with world-class dry and sweet wines being made from the grape as well as more variable sparkling wine. There's a growing focus on dry wine, which is increasing in quality, but the less fashionable sweet wines still rank among the world's best.

the grape variety

Chenin Blanc is naturally high in acidity, which is accentuated by the cool climate of the Loire. This acidity used to be so searingly high that it took decades for the best wines to open up and be drinkable. The warmer climate and better vineyard practices have tamed the acidity a little and the riper grapes make the wines more approachable when young. Chenin Blanc, particularly in the Loire, is not an especially fruity wine, but it's much more aromatic than, for example, Chardonnay. In the Loire, there are citrus and stone fruit aromas, with tropical aromas in the sweet wines, with an unusual nutty toastiness especially as the wines age.

the appellations

There are dozens of appellations in the Loire which specialise in Chenin Blanc, many of them too small to be found outside the region. Here are some highlights, by no means exhaustive, from my trip through the Loire:

Anjou

Anjou is home to some of the great Chenin Blanc appellations, but some excellent white wine is made under the Anjou appellation itself. Unfortunately, Anjou has fallen from fashion because of too much cheap wine (especially rosé), but there's a renewed effort among winemakers to increase the quality of the dry whites. A good example is Château Soucherie who make very good sweet wine, but who are now focusing more on dry wine. Their Blanc Ivoire 2016 (✪✪✪✪; €13) is great for the price, with a rich creamy texture, crisp acidity, and pear, stone fruit, floral, and spicy aromas. Clau de Nell are just starting to make wine from Chenin Blanc, having previously only made red wine. 2014 saw their first Chenin Blanc; I tasted the 2016 from the barrel and the bottled 2015 (✪✪✪✪✪). Again, the wine was creamy and rich with stone fruit aromas, and it could have been mistaken for a high-quality Chardonnay but with high acidity and a dry mineral texture. This wine isn't actually under the Anjou appellation because the vines were planted 100 x 91cm instead of the minimum 100 x 100cm. As winemaker Sylvain Potin said, "Rules are great except when they don't work." Instead, the wine is under the Val de Loire IGP.


tasting at Clau de Nell

Savennières

Lying north of the Loire river, the south-facing slopes of Savennières soak up the sunshine resulting in rich wines that nevertheless maintain high acidity from the grape variety and the cool nights. The wines of Savennières used to be notoriously difficult, perhaps because it used to be more difficult to get the grapes fully ripe, but now they are more approachable when young - though they still benefit from many years ageing. Domaine du Closel, a picture-postcard property in the heart of the village, have been run by female members of the family for several generations. They make three single-vineyard expressions of Savennières. La Jalousie 2014 (✪✪✪✪✪; €24) is mouth-wateringly acidic with a mineral texture typical of Savennières. Les Cailladières 2013 (✪✪✪✪✪; €30), made from thirty-year-old vines, is creamier, richer, and rounder with herbal, thorny aromas. Le Clos du Papillon 2015 (✪✪✪✪✪; €37), from volcanic soils and fifty-year-old vines, is a smoky, meaty wine that manages to be rich and austere at the same time.

Coulée de Serrant

Further down the road resides Coulée de Serrant, the luxurious but old-fashioned property of Nicholas Joly, one of the pioneers of biodynamic winemaking (I've never visited a region where biodynamics is practised so widely). He's such a signficant figure that the winery has its own appellation, Coulée de Serrant AOC, which sits on a steep, sun-baked slope. I got to try the 2007 (✪✪✪✪✪; €90), which was more balanced and approachable than the younger wines, but retaining its acidity and still rich and spicy, with stone and tropical fruit aromas. The wine, made in the cool Loire Valley, came in at 15.5%.

Coteaux du Layon

Quarts de Chaume
South of the Loire river, all wine made in Coteaux du Layon is sweet - more vines from the appellation are now being used for dry Anjou Blanc. Coteaux du Layon wines are good but not that exciting, usually made from a mixture of late-harvest and botrytised grapes. Where the wines really come into their own is in the small appellations of Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. Quarts de Chaume lies on a hill overlooking the small, narrow Layon river which provides the fog in the autumn mornings to cause the grapes to be affected with noble rot. This is the only appellation in the Loire to use the Burgundian Premier and Grand Cru terms. The Premier Cru grapes are grown on the plateau at the top of the hill, with the Grand Cru grapes lower down on the slope near the river. 2011 was apparently a perfect year for botrytis and I was fortunate enough to taste Château Soucherie's Premier Cru from that year (✪✪✪✪✪✪✪). With 180g/L of residual sugar, this is a rich, sweet wine but the acidity lifts the wine and stops it being too heavy. This is a beautiful, complex, layered wine that still has a rich, fruity immediacy: as good as sweet wine gets.

Chinon

Moving into the Touraine section of the Loire Valley, the majority of wine made in Chinon is red, from Cabernet Franc (more on that in the next blog). I didn't even know that white wine was made there, but I got to taste a rare example. Château de Coulaine Chinon Blanc 2014 (✪✪✪✪✪; €20) was rich and creamy, with a grainy, mineral texture and stone and tropical fruit aromas (most noticeably banana). Again, a wine that could be mistaken for Chardonnay.

Vouvray/Montlouis-sur-Loire

I had been looking forward greatly to visiting Vouvray, but the small village itself was something of a disappointment. The highlight of the area was in fact a wine from neighbouring Montlouis-sur-Loire. This was a sparkling wine made by a young producer called Xavier Weisskopf (who also makes a fantastic Malbec), under the Domaine Le Rocher des Violettes label (✪✪✪✪; €20). Sparkling wine in the Loire can vary in quality, but this one had a rewarding apple fruitiness, high, refreshing acidity, and balanced autolytic aromas. Unlike in Champagne, the second fermentation had started with indigenous yeasts - yet another example of the hands-off approach to winemaking by Loire producers.

The advantage of the Loire is also its disadvantage: there are so many styles of wine to choose from which will enthrall the wine lover but perhaps confuse the everyday drinker. Chenin Blanc exemplifies this aspect of Loire wine - it can be dry, sweet, or sparkling, and changes subtly according to the area and the producer. But these food-friendly, ageworthy wines at their best stand up against any white wine from elsewhere in the world.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Muscadet

As a whole, the Loire valley isn't as fashionable as it should be, and no other region within the Loire suffers as much as Muscadet. This is the largest part of the Loire and the high-volume, restrained, acidic, relatively low alcohol wines don't fit into international trends. But visiting the area I discovered not only its beauty but also the variety, quality, and immediacy of its wines.

the region

Muscadet is the most westerly of the Loire's many wine regions. Located not far from the Atlantic Ocean, the climate is maritime. This wet, ocean influence is also felt in the food, for the wines of Muscadet pair perfectly with fish and seafood. The largest and highest quality of the region's appellations is Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, named after two rivers that flow south and south-east out of the Loire. Here, the variety of volcanic and marine soils lend the wines a lean, mineral texture - a concentration that belies the lack of aromas. There are also a number of small appellations rarely found outside the region, each with their own subtly distinctive character.

the Sèvre river


the grape variety

The local grape variety now seems to have three names: the traditional Melon de Bourgogne, which indicates its Burgundian origins; Melon Blanc, which distances the variety from Burgundy; and the even simpler Melon. It's very rarely grown outside Muscadet, mainly because it doesn't taste of very much. At its simplest, it's boring but refreshing because of its naturally high acidity - which is great on a hot summer's day. (As an aside, anyone doubting climate change should visit the Loire. Historically, it's been difficult to ripen grapes; when I was visiting it was 36 degrees.) At its best, however, Melon produces wines with a surprising intensity and depth of flavour with an acidity that enables the wines to age for a few years.

the lees

The neutrality of the Melon grape means that many producers let their wines stay on the lees until around March after the vintage. The lees are the dead yeast cells left over after fermentation, and they give the wine body, structure, and complexity, with aromas of biscuits and nuts. Expect to see sur lie on most bottles of Muscadet, especially those exported.

the producer

I made a point of visiting Domaine de l'Ecu, the producer to have done more than anyone to promote the diversity and quality of the Muscadet region. Loire producers have been pioneers in promoting organic and biodynamic winemaking and Domaine de l'Ecu have been chemical-free since 1972 and biodynamic since 1998. There were originally five co-owners, but now Fred Niger is solely in charge.

Their most famous wines are based on the range of soils in Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine, with photographs of each soil on the label. The Gneiss 2015 (€9.50; ✪✪✪✪) is quite neutral, with the high acidity and mineral texture expected from the region. The Orthogneiss 2015 (€10.65; ✪✪✪✪✪) is more floral and expressive, lightly nutty, but still with that dry, mineral, acidic finish. Finally, the Granite (€10.65; ✪✪✪✪) is richer, creamier, and leafy.

Domaine de l'Ecu also produce a series of select, beautifully-labelled wines. This range includes an unusual Muscadet called Taurus, which is aged in Burgundy barrels: it's rich, creamy, slightly oxidated, and fabulous (€24; ✪✪✪✪✪✪). Even more unexpectedly, there are two red wines; the Rednoz (€12.50; ✪✪✪) is made using carbonic maceration from Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape which I don't think quite works on its own in the Loire as it results in green, herbaceous aromas. In contrast, Mephisto (€25.50; ✪✪✪✪✪), made from Cabernet Franc, Loire's signature grape variety, is much more successful with smoky, spicy, meaty, perfumed, and red fruit aromas, with a long, peppery finish. This was the first Cabernet Franc tasted on my Loire trip, with many more to come ...

Monday, 17 July 2017

Côte Chalonnais and Mâconnais Podcast

This week's episode of my new educational podcast focuses on the lesser known Burgundy regions of Côte Chalonnais and Mâconnais - tremendous value can be found here if you know where to look.

Follow my podcast on SoundCloud or on iTunes.


Music by Bensound