RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: September 2018

The Sauvignon Blanc trip

This week we enjoyed two days of visits with an American couple wanting to explore the Sauvignon Blanc wines of the Loire Valley. We were delighted to put together this custom tour featuring one of our favourite grape varieties, in the region where it originated and has its finest expression.

Sauvignon grapes awaiting picking

In France, Sauvignon Blanc is grown in the maritime climate of Bordeaux as well as the continental climate of the Loire Valley. The climates of these areas are particularly favourable in slowing the ripening on the vine, allowing the grape more time to develop a balance between its acidity and sugar levels. This balance is important in the development of the intensity of the wine’s aromas. Winemakers in France pay careful attention to the terroir characteristics of the soil and the different elements that it can impart to the wine. The chalk and Kimmeridgean marl of Reuilly, Sancerre and Pouilly produces wines of richness and complexity, while areas with more compact chalk soils produces wines with more finesse and perfume. The gravel soil found near the Loire River and its tributaries impart spicy, floral and mineral flavours while in Bordeaux, the wines have a fruitier personality. Vines planted in flint along the Cher tend to produce the most vigorous and longest lasting wines.

Our clients selected a fine hotel in Amboise as their base and we collected them each day to begin our discovery of the region. First stop was Francueil, where we were able to witness the grape harvest arriving and tour the wine-making facilities of the growers co-operative. As we were to hear throughout our trip, quantities are cruelly low, while quality is above average this year. The combination of frost, hail and mildew during this growing season has not been seen since 1991, and crops are down to 20-30% of normal.

This co-op has been in operation since 1926 and is now the largest in the Loire. We were introduced to the recently retired winemaker who still comes in to help out for the pleasure of it, after working at the cellar for 42 years.

The labeling machine at La Gourmandiere, Francuei

We were able to taste a range of interesting wines at Francueil, several with awards to their names. One of our favourites was their “Tete de Cuvee” AOP Touraine Sauvignon which has a silver medal in the World Sauvignon Wine Competition this year. We were also interested to taste the brand new appellation Touraine Chenonceaux and enjoyed this very much. Although 27 villages either side of the river Cher are allowed to produce wine under this name, there is currently only a tiny area in production and the growers are determined to produce wines of the highest quality here.

After a lunch at a restaurant in Montrichard we moved on to the famous  Monmousseau wine cellars outside the town where more Sauvignon was tasted, both local and Sancerre from the eastern edge of the region on the river Loire. Their Cheverny contains 70% Sauvignon & 30% Chardonnay and made an interesting comparison. We were allowed to go off on our own and explore the tunnels where they store their sparkling wines but with around 15km of passages we were lucky to find our way back in one piece!

From here we went on to the co-op at St Romain sur Cher where their three Sauvignons cannot help but please and have won a clutch of awards. Our journey back to Amboise was through delightful countryside and ancient stone villages.

The next day we drove an hour and a half up the Cher, passed Vierzon to Quincy, an appellation of 240 Ha growing only Sauvignon and a hidden gem producing high quality wines. We spent the morning tasting many of them, both traditional still wines and those produced from vines 40 years old or more. The growers have invested in windmill-like fans which start up automatically and, in theory at least, protect the vines from frost. This year was extreme and much damage was done, but perhaps they were protected in part by this system.

Visting the Touraine cellars

Lunch was taken in Valençay, where we also took a look at the stunning chateau and its walled, soth facing vineyard. Tastings of Valençay wines were made at the co-op and at Chateau de Quincay, who produce both Valençay and Touraine wines, making an interesting direct comparison.

Our final breathless visit was across the river at a favourite vineyard where we saw the grapes coming in and were invited to help with the hand picking. My clients had a train to catch however, but we were able here to add the last piece to the Sauvignon puzzle, tasting late picked, sweet wine from last year’s crop.

Sweet, dry, still, sparkling; Sauvignon Blanc has it all and in a range of styles dictated by the nature of the soil and climate, in addition to the desires of the winemaker. This was a fascinating trip and a deep insight into the heart of a single grape variety.

Advertisements

Cork thoughts from abroad.

Sierra de Grazalema National Park , Andalucia, Spain

Sierra de Grazalema National Park , Andalucia, Spain

On a recent trip to Spain we explored the Sierra de Grazalema National Park and the Los Alcornocales Nature Park in Andalucia. Grazalema is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of 53,411 hectares of rugged limestone mountains, while Los Alcornocales is 167,767 Ha of spectacular sandstone peaks and gorges, with a unique flora and fauna, and seemingly endless forests of cork oak. Despite being in southern Spain, it is wet, very wet, and water has played a large part in shaping the landscape.

Cork Oaks (Quercus suber)

Cork Oaks (Quercus suber)

The cork oak forests, some of the most extensive in the world, are a valuable resource both for the local farmers who harvest the bark and the wildlife which live amongst them. The production of the Iberian pig, adapted to a pastoral setting where the land is particularly rich in natural resources, is deeply rooted to this Mediterranean ecosystem and contributes decisively to its preservation. The forests are an important resting place for overwintering birds migrating from the north and the home to a large range of raptors, including Eagles, Vultures, Buzzards and Kites. The forests also shelter the critically rare Iberian Lynx and other shy mammals.

A mixture of planted and natural forest trees, the cork oaks (Quercus suber) are exploited using traditional methods, carefully pealing the bark from mature trees once every decade.

Stack of drying cork bark

Stack of drying cork bark

It is a skilful and labour-intensive process involving teams of five men. The sections of bark are transported out of the mountains, often by donkey, and brought to an area to be stacked and dried in the sun before processing and forming into wine corks. Spain sells about 3 billion corks each year, making it the second largest producer after Portugal.

Cork oak trees harvested of their bark this summer.

Cork oak trees harvested of their bark this summer.

There has been much talk over the years about the problems of cork taint in wine and of the desirability of alternative closures. In the early 1980’s a compound called TCA was identified as the principle cause of tainted wine and corks were widely blamed as the source of this. It has since been discovered that any use of Chlorine as a steriliser risks the creation of this compound, which gives ”off” flavours to wine. After a very slow start, research funded by the cork manufacturers and government agencies has resulted in improved processes, greatly reducing the problem.

Today, over 80% of the 20 billion wine bottle stoppers used each year are natural cork, 12 % are plastic corks, screwcaps are dominant in New Zealand with around 7% of the total, and 1% of closures are glass stoppers. The humble cork is still very popular and manufacturers have come up with a range of corks for different markets.

Vouvray and other fine wines.

A small group of clients recently asked for a very special tour via their American travel agent and we were pleased to oblige. Staying at the Chateau de Fontenay near Bléré, a lovely home dating from 1780 complete with its own 10Ha of vineyards, they were hoping to visit and buy wines at some of the best producers in the Loire Valley.

We started our tour at Chenonceaux to taste Touraine and Touraine Chenonceaux wines with the patriarch of the appellation, Alain Godeau of Caves du Père Auguste. Six generations of the family have produced wine on this site, situated on a low ridge facing south down to the river Cher and the famous chateau de Chenonceau. They cultivate 42 acres of land, including the vines owned by the chateau (which can be tasted and bought there).

All the wines produced here display a delightful fruitiness, nicely balanced by an acidity typical of the region. My own favourite is the Chenonceaux Sauvignon blanc, but many clients talk highly of the rosé, the slightly sweeter Chenin blanc, or any of the other wines in their range. Tour and tasting completed and purchases made, we moved on.

Next stop was Montrichard, with its castle constructed in the 11th C by Foulques Nerra, Count of Anjou, rebuilt in the 12th century but dismantled in 1589 on the orders of Good King Henri IV. Paul Buisse has his cellars in the limestone cliffs above the river Cher and just along from the castle, where a range of fine wine are aged in the caves.

A fourth generation winemaker, Paul Buisse himself has recently retired but the company has been taken over by Pierre Chainier, another local company who themselves come from a long line of Bordeaux and Cognac winemakers dating back to 1749.

With the joining of these two companies the range of Loire Valley wines offered is very wide and includes both local Touraine’s and wines from further afield: from the far west of the Loire comes a dry Muscadet, made with 100% melon de Bourgogne, while Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé wines (Sauvignon blanc) are produced at vineyards four hours’ drive up the river to the east. At the halfway point on the Loire, delightful fruity and tannic reds are made in Chinon, Bourgueil and St. Nicolas de Bourgueil. Their Vouvrays are also rather good. It’s a big region, as I’m always telling people!

The tour here includes underground production facilities cut into the limestone cliffs, storage and aging cellars and a charming troglodyte room used for group visits and tastings. One of their cellars slopes steeply up through the cliff and is used to store a reference collection of ancient vintages.

Wines at Paul Buisse never let you down and we had the opportunity to taste a wide selection before my clients bought a number of cases, including some of those lovely reds, in particular a Chinon from 2003 produced for the one hundredth anniversary of the company in 2005.

We had hoped to go next to Jackie Blot in Montlouis sur Loire but they were unable to receive us on this occasion. The highlight of the day was yet to come however and in order to be in position for our next appointment we made our way through the countryside and down to the Loire Valley for lunch at Vouvray. At le Grand Vatel restaurant we were able to taste a rather fine Bourgueil from Jackie Blot to accompany our meal, which itself was rather lovely. Unfortunately we were watching the clock and hurrying throughout, so we really did not do it justice.

Ouvouvrayr afternoon appointment was at the Domaine du Clos Naudin and we were treated to a wonderful tasting deep in the caves. The cellars are located in the same road as Domaine Huet, one of the other great Vouvray producers, but while Huet have over 30 Ha and is owned by an American businessman, Clos Naudin is 11 Ha and still in family hands.

Owner Phillipe Foreau greeted us and took us into the caves carved out of the rock by his Grandfather and Father in the 1920’s, just across the road from their house. Do not expect to be able to drop in here for a casual tasting without an appointment; they are busy people, but very welcoming to serious buyers and wine enthusiasts.

This is a very busy period on the vineyard. Cultivation of the soil is by machine and by hand as no weedkillers are used here. It is also the period when foliage is removed to reduce vine vigour and allow more light and air to get at the fruit. No insecticides, pesticides or artificial fertilisers are used on the property although they will spray against mildew if necessary, so they are very vigilant at this time of the year.

The large majority of Vouvrey’s are sparkling wines and these can be very fine indeed, as we were soon to find out. In the case of Clos Naudin, and of Huet, still wines, ranging from (relatively) dry whites through to luscious sweet wines, account for 60% of production. The sweetest are produced only in the best years: no sugar is ever added.

We started our tasting with sparkling wines and found their 2007 Brut Reserve (€17.60 a bottle) simply superb. Very fine bubbles from long cellar aging, a taste of white fruit, biscuits and butter, to drink on its own, with salmon or scallops.

The still wines were also much appreciated and we admired the hundreds of oak barrels against the limestone walls of the cave, holding and aging the stock of this gorgeous liquid. Purchases included a dry 2012, ideal with fish and shell fish, and a selection of increasingly sweet wines from 2010, 2009 and the quite remarkable, luscious 2003. I love these sweet Chenin blanc wines; never sickly, they are real wines with delicious overtones of pear, apricots and other fruits. They are produced by late harvesting of hand selected grapes, which in some years are affected by the famous “noble rot”. These are wines which will age and keep for decades. If you do not like sweet wine – try these and expect to be converted.

Our Domaine du Clos Naudine selection.

Our Domaine du Clos Naudine selection.

Phillipe proved to be passionate about his wines, keen explain the qualities and characteristics of each of them and to suggest appropriate dishes to pair with them. He is a perfect ambassador for this elite level of the Vouvray appellation.

We left the Domaine du Clos Naudin with some reluctance but drove around the vineyard lanes to get a feel for the place. Large areas of land close to, but well above the river Loire are planted with vines. Sadly, not all the wine sold is of the quality of that which we sampled today. The top quality growers are undoubtable worth seeking out and continue to fly the flag for some of the best wines that this fine wine region can produce.