Loire Wines Article from the
Financial Times by
Financial Times. This was graciously sent to us by Holly Kimmitt who will be among our group in the
Loire Valley this summer on her third tour with Beaux Voyages.
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'I know about bad wines - I used to make them'
By Jancis Robinson
Published: March 18 2006 02:00 | Last updated: March 18 2006 02:00
Leaning into the wind whistling straight off the Atlantic 80 miles away on to his own particular south-
west-facing butte of the Bonnezeaux appellation in the Loire Valley, Bernard Germain told me proudly:
"In 1996 when I bought Château de Fesles all my neighbours in Bordeaux laughed at me. They were
all investing in Argentina at the time. But thanks to global warming, our time here has come."
Global warming seemed a distant prospect last month, when I can see from the scrawl in my notebook
that I must have been wearing gloves when I took down his words, but he has a point. One of the main
things that has so far held back many wines of the Loire Valley in comparison with the fruit bombs of
the New World has been its relatively cool climate and the fact that many grapes there in the past had
obviously failed to ripen fully. But if average temperatures everywhere are set to rise, then the Loire
Valley's wines will be clear beneficiaries as some stunning reds from 2002 and the heatwave vintage of
2003 so eloquently demonstrate.
In the old days, reds in two years out of three were thin, weedy and tart but in future should settle
nicely this side of ripeness most years while the white wines for which the Loire is most famous are
already much riper - naturally riper rather than thanks to the beet sugar once added routinely to bump
up alcohol levels. The average total acid level in Muscadet, for example, has fallen from more than five
grams per litre to closer to three.
Climate change has played some part in the recent improvement in wine quality in the Loire but
arguably more important has been man's role in the cellar and vineyard, particularly vineyard. Today
among conscientious growers there are real efforts to maximise flavour and minimise the likelihood of
mildew and the rot to which the local white wine grape Chenin Blanc is so prone. This involves fierce
pruning, de-budding, thinning the vine canopies, grassing over vineyards so that less water is
available to the vines, which are therefore less leafy and produce grapes that can be kept on the vine
longer and are naturally riper. The really conscientious producers (still a minority but a growing one)
are careful to pick by hand. These producers, motivated by quality rather than quantity, often go
through the same vineyard several times to pick only those grapes at optimum ripeness each time
rather than relying on a single scalping by machine.
In the cellar the big difference is that sugar beet and sulphur are used so much less. In the bad old
days a typical Vouvray, for example, reeked of the spent match smell of sulphur because it was an
easy way to ensure that a wine full of added sugar would not re-ferment.
"I started making wine with my grandfather in 1978," says Jo Pithon, arguably Anjou's most lionised
producer. "I tell people, I know all about bad wines - I used to make them. In those days we bottled with
125 milligrams per litre of free sulphur. Now I aim for 25 and a sterile bottling."
Two of his Anjou Blanc Secs, dry wines made from Chenin Blanc, a grape dismissed as irredeemably
cheap in places such as South Africa and California, typify the recent wine revolution here. His Bonnes
Blanches vineyard of schist and clay in St Lambert used to produce sweet wines but the old vines here
are now producing a spicy, powerful dry white wine with (an occasionally too powerful) oak influence -
a thoroughly modern wine in fact.
This is the big development, that the producers of the middle Loire - Anjou-Saumur and Touraine -
realise that the future of their signature white wine grape Chenin Blanc will depend on their ability to
produce fine dry wines from it, and oak has played a crucial role in this transformation. Most growers
were up in arms when the likes of Jacky Blot of Domaine de la Taille aux Loups in Montlouis across the
river from Vouvray and Bernard Germain of Fesles started to ferment the local Chenin in new oak
barrels, typically keeping the new wine on the lees. But even I, deeply suspicious of over-oaked wines,
have to compliment them and those like them who are now producing dry Chenins of enormous
sophistication and depth thanks to the extra layers of flavour and richer texture resulting from the stint
in oak. The 2005s in particular are extremely promising.
It was of course necessary to experiment with exactly what sort and size of barrel worked best and
most producers seem to favour the 400 litre size, much larger than the norm in Bordeaux and
Burgundy, for this relatively delicate grape.
On the other hand, some of the most dazzling red wines I tasted on a recent visit to the middle regions
of the Loire had seen no oak at all. If Chenin Blanc is the signature white wine grape of this part of the
wine world, Cabernet Franc is its red counterpart. Cabernet Franc makes more delicate, more fragrant
and typically softer wines than its progeny Cabernet Sauvignon. Since 1994 the talented winemaker
Philippe Vatan of Château de Hureau has used a delicate hand with oak on his Saumur Blanc Sec but
his various luscious bottlings of the red Saumur Champigny show wonderfully precise variation in
terroir influence without any oak at all because, as Vatan puts it: "Oak dries the tannins on the finish,
especially during the first two years, and I don't like it."
If and when wine drinkers tire of the massive alcohol levels and extreme concentration of so many
wines made in hotter climes today, the Loire should be well placed to take advantage of this trend. But
those selling the delicate wines of the Loire outside France have encountered difficulties because the
wines are so different from what has been the fashionable norm - and have been perceived as poor
value. To a certain extent producers in the Loire have been sheltered from the harsh competitive
realities of the international wine market by their proximity to Paris. When so many Parisians regard
the Loire as home, or at least home at weekends, wines such as Saumur-Champigny and Bourgeuil
are extremely easy to sell in and around the French capital.
Outside France, red Chinon has a certain following in the US - perhaps partly because of its easy-to-
pronounce name - but most importers of Loire wines agree somewhat glumly that consumer interest in
Loire wines tends to begin at Sancerre and end at its close neighbour and taste-alike Pouilly Fumé,
both towns many miles upriver of Anjou-Saumur and Touraine. These two aromatic dry whites based
on Sauvignon Blanc continue to be extraordinarily popular and sell almost regardless of quality. But
Sauvignon Blanc is by no means as important to the Loire Valley as Chenin Blanc is.
As Bernard Germain admits: "Chenin Blanc can make the worst and best wines in the world but we
have to find a market for them - too few people know about great Chenin Blanc."
SOME FINE, DRY, NEW LOIRE CHENINS
■Jacky Blot, Clos de la Bretonnière 2004 Vouvray Sec. Rich and smoky on the nose from a difficult
year. The wine needs another year or so to show at its best.
■Domaine Huet, Le Mont 2004 Vouvray Sec. Biodynamic wine with enormous life and tingle. £15.95
Berry Bros, £141.12 a dozen Justerini & Brooks, £12.99 Raeburn Fine Wine of Edinburgh, £12.34
■Bernard Germain, Château de la Roulerie 2003 Anjou Blanc Sec. Incredible that this is 14.5 per cent
– it doesn’t taste it. Very lively and zesty. Averys six for £53.
■Bernard Germain, Château de Fesles, La Chapelle 2004 Anjou Blanc Sec Vines are 55 years old –
very intense and youthful though slightly severe on the finish.
■Jo Pithon, Treilles 2004 Anjou Blanc Sec. From an excitingly steep vineyard painstakingly acquired
parcel by parcel and replanted for the first time in decades.
■Ch de Hureau 2003 Saumur Blanc Sec. Powerful, rich but dry, hints of lime. £11.30 Haynes Hanson &
■Claude Papin, Château Pierre-Bise 2004 Savennières. A good example of the current revolution in
this once-excessively-austere appellation. Full, clean and approachable.
■Eric Morgat, L’Enclos 2003 Savennières. Ready to gulp. Open and layered – very full and unusual.
£11.95 The Wine Society, £13.99 Raeburn, £15.80 Charles Steevenson Wines of Tavistock
More columns at www.ft.com/robinson