The Loire Valley has a diversity of wines, primarily white. They unfortunately don’t receive the attention they deserve, and when they receive attention, it’s usually Sancerre, Muscadet or Vouvray.
But on our tour to the Loire, we found that there are unheralded white wines that are every bit as good as any others in France.
First, the sweet wines: look for wines with the designation Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume. These AOC are on the south shore or left bank of the Loire and the River Layon is to this area what the Cerons is to the Sauternes area: it adds the mist and moisture conducive to botrytis or noble rot. The result is a delicious nectar with excellent acidity, superb aromas and flavors although the area also makes a superb bone dry white wine.
Not to toot my horn too much, but today was a perfect day of wine tour planning. I had never been to this area of the Loire Valley before so logistics is always a concern. But all our visits were near each other and the timing was perfect.
We started at Domain Pithon-Paillé in the AOC Coteaux du Layon which also has vineyards in Quart de Chaume. We did find out that the AOC Coteaux du Layon is a sweet wine at 100 grams of sugar/liter, whereas Quart de Chaume nearby needs 200 grams sugar/liter, so double the sweetness.
Franck Veillat, our host, predicts that 2018 will be a great vintage. They just finished harvesting the botrytised grapes on October 25. Similar to Sauternes and Barsac, there is a river that flows through the AOC which produces the moisture conducive to Noble Rot.
The winery’s goal is to produce a wine that reflects the terroir. Franck was very proud of their top vineyard site, Coteau des Treilles, that he insisted we drive out to the vineyard. Impressive indeed: a vineyard on a rock mountain from an ancient volcano.
Our tasting of their top wines included: Mozaîk 2016, a blend of parcels, a bone dry Chenin Blanc, delicate floral and citrus aromas, deep yellow gold color, with a rich texture; Pierrebise 2015, beautiful aroma of ripe apples, with 5 grams of sugar or .5RS, dark yellow color, this wine needs aging, carries an AOC Anjou; Coteau des Treilles 2013, deep yellow gold color, ripe fruit aroma, with a minerality that caused one person to say it was ‘like biting a rock!’ Only 3,000 bottles are produced of this high acid wine; 4 Vents 2015, deep yellow gold color, AOC Coteaux du Layon, rich texture from the botrytised grapes, 100 grams of sugar/liter; Quarts de Chaume 2013, deep yellow brown color, aroma of botrytised grapes, an unctuous wine with 200 grams sugar/liter.
Domaine de la Soucherie
This privately owned winery is housed in a chateau dating to 1880. The owner is Roger Béguinot, a former Parisian who fell in love with the estate. The winery cultivates a total of 28 hectares, mostly Savennières with a bit of Quart de Chaume, all Chenin Blanc.
Our lunch was paired with wines that Richard, our dynamic host, believed would compliment each course. The appetizer was rillauds, a local dish of pork and the main course was Gigot de poulet, stuffed with mushroom. To accompany the food, we were served the following wines:
Anjou Blanc 2017, all Chenin Blanc with white stone fruit aroma, delicate flavors and balanced acidity, bone dry but rich and lush, aged 6 months in large barrels and 10 months in tanks; Savennières 2015, aged 9 months in barrels and 9 months in tanks with additional bottle aging, a blend of 3 different terroirs, a delightful butterscotch aroma; Rosé d’Anjou 2017, this is one of 3 types of rosé produced in the area: Rosé de Loire, driest, Rose d’Anjou with a bit of sweetness and Cabernet d’Anjou, ironically the sweetest of the three; Anjou Villages 2015 “Chant aux Loups” from a 1 hectare plot with 45 year old vines, made from Cabernet Franc, more vegetal than fruity, even leathery; Coteaux du Layon Exception 2015, a well balanced sweet expression (100 grams sugar/liter) of the Chenin Blanc grape.
Domaine du Closel at Chateau des Vaults
Our best visit of the day, primarily because our hostess, Evelyne de Pontbriand, the current owner, has had this old estate in her family for generations.
Evelyne is a great promoter of the Chenin Blanc grape and established the Chenin Blanc Academy to educate the world about Chenin Blanc.
She is also a consummate educator who explained in clear terms how and why terroir is so important in the Loire Valley. Her English is impeccable, having lived in the US for a period of time. She knows how much American wine lovers like to educate themselves and she did a wonderful job helping us to better understand the ins and outs of Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley.
She also pointed out that although France has 9,000 hectares of Chenin Blanc, the leading producer of the grape is South Africa, with 19,000 hectares. We learned that Chenin is actually part of the same family as the Savagnin grape of the Jura. Both grapes have a thick skin, are harvested late in Savennières and the Jura and are slightly botrytised yet viinified as dry wines.
Her estate is very small, producing 40,000 bottles in a good year. However in bad years the quantity decreases: in 2016 only 12,000 bottles were produced and in 2017, the year of the April frosts, only a mere 1,100 bottles. Historically, every 10 years, the Loire Valley had 2 bad vintages. 2018 should be a very good year, despite the severe drought.
We tasted 5 of her best wines: Rosé 2015, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, orange hue with a very fruit forward, almost aggressive aroma of red and black berry fruit, a bone dry wine made for food; Savennières ‘La Jalousie’ 2015, distinct citrus, grapefruit aromas, aged for 1 year in tank with a yellow gold color, the oily texture comes from the one year of contact with the lees, grown on shist; Savennières Les Caillardières 2015, grown on shist and sand, 45 year old vines, spent 1.5 years in big barrels, with an aroma of grilled apples and almonds, round and smooth mouth feel; Savennières Clos du Papillon 2016, grown on soil of stone magma, it spent 1.5 years in barrel, delicate aroma of spices, camomile,much more ‘tense’ aka acidity is pronounced; Clos du Papillon 2006– this wine screams ‘give me food!’, deep gold color, aromas of ripe apricots, butterscotch, tastes a bit like Cognac, grapes were slightly botrytised at harvest, hence the distinct richness of this wine.
There are 3 Grand Crus in this area: Savennières,Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. The 2 latter
regions are on the south shore of the Loire, in the AOC Cotesaux du Layon and produce sweet wines. Across the river on the north shore is Savennières, which produces dry wines, although frequently the grapes develop botrytis. This is so reminiscent of Bordeaux, where you have Graves with nine dry white wines, and Sauternes and Barsac, just down the road and known for their delicious sweet wines.
One final tidbit we learned from Evelyne: Savennières is a slate plateau with fissures called coulées running perpendicular to the river with superb sun exposure and ideal growing conditions, the most famous being Coulée de Serrant and her Clos du Papillon, which she shares with Florant Baumard, another great producer of the AOC. Coulée we learned is French for flow and comes from the volcanic flow that occurred thousands of years ago.
We had one last visit in this area: the estate with the name FL, initials of the names of the 2 owners Fournier and Longchamps. Unlike the other wineries we visited with long histories, this estate is barely 12 years old. It is a testament to the confidence that outsiders have in this area because this modern estate was a huge investment. The wine making facilities and the visitors’ center are state of the art and the wines were remarkably good.
Production is 120,000 bottles annually and they practice organic and biodynamic farming. We learned that the entire AOC of Savennières has only 400 acres and 30 producers.
We tasted 3 wines: Les Bergères AOC Anjou Blanc 2016, another great example of a dry Chenin Blanc; Chamboureau AOC Savennières 2010, with aromas of vanilla, slight petrol, from a single vineyard site, very pronounced mineral aromas and taste, spent 18 months in barrel and can age 10/20 years; Les 4 Villages AOC Coteaux du Layon 2011, deep yellow color, aroma and taste of ripe apricot and peaches, 150 grams sugar/liter, aged 16/18 months in oak barrels, only 9,000 produced of this precious nectar from a great vintage.
I hope I’ve convinced wine lovers to look for wines from this area of the Loire before they are ‘discovered’ and become super expensive.