France · Loire Valley · Natural Wine · Travel

Loire Valley Trip Report

I’m writing from Paris, after a week in the Loire Valley and before that, a week in Alsace (which informed last week’s Vine Pair column on Riesling, Gewurtraminer, and Pinot Gris from Alsace; read here).

I’m still coming down from the sleep-deprived, adrenaline-fueled high of visiting producers across the Loire Valley whose wines I first tasted when I was a server at Reynard, then sold when I worked in retail, and then wrote about in various articles. I felt that it was time to see their terroir and their cellars, get to know them in situ, and understand the geography of the Loire Valley. It was a week of long drives guided by GPS, muddy walks in rain-soaked vineyards, discussions of weather patterns, tasting and tasting and tasting, and some very special meals. I’m grateful to the vignerons who took time from their busy schedules (after rain, the vines need a lot of attention) to show me their vineyards and cellars.

The 2016 vintage is difficult, as anyone who is following France’s wine regions will likely know. The Loire Valley did not get hail this spring, but it did have frost on the vines a few months ago, and then it rained this month for two weeks straight. Flowering is just happening now, which is late, and many producers have lost between 50-70 percent of their potential grape production. 2015 was a very warm vintage with a high yield, and 2014 was a “classic” vintage with a balanced, warm growing season.

Here, going to mention just a few highlights; more in-depth coverage will come in the months to follow.

Domaine Vacheron

J-L Vacheron_Clos_RSigner

Jean-Laurent Vacheron and his cousin are the 4th generation of vignerons at this certified biodynamically farmed Sancerre domaine, which today comprises just under 50 hectares. In the early 20th century, the domaine produced both wine and goat’s cheese, and had a restaurant as well, but they specialized in wine in the 60s, and planted vines in the fields where the goats had grazed. The move to organic began here in ’93, and to biodynamic in ’97. The Vacheron approach is very much focused on micro-terroir, or soil types; there is a special cuvee devoted to each unique parcel of land. The very worldly and professionally experienced Jean-Laurent took me out in his truck and showed me the fault line where the compacted, flinty Silex soil begins; this type of limestone from the Eocene era constitutes about 20 percent of all Sancerre vineyard land and lends a flinty taste to the Sauvignon. Jean-Laurent showed me the shed where he makes his biodynamic preparations, and we also stopped by a special, tiny parcel called Le Clos des Ramparts, which has some ungrafted (franc de pied) Sauvignon. A special bonus was tasting through a vertical of the “Belle Dame” Silex soil Pinot Noir going back to ’06; it was amazing to see the vintage variation.

Hervé Villemade

Hervé Villemade_RSigner

Upon arriving to Hervé’s domaine in Cheverny, I found his 92-year-old father working in the garden. Later I asked Hervé whether his father ever took a day off, predicting correctly that the answer would be “no.” The second thing noticed was that the walls of the winery are covered with beautiful, large-format photos of Hervé’s harvest workers (taken by a friend of his). It looks like a very, very fun place to do harvest. Most of the Sauvignon and Romorantin vineyards that form part of 22 hectares total are right near the winery, and we put on boots to tromp through their sand and silex soils. Hervé explained that there is only about 60 hectares left of Romorantin in France, which almost made me cry because I love it so, so much; fortunately he has planted some through a massale selection of vines. As the story goes with nearly all grapes that are nearing extinction, people ripped up much of the Romorantin in the 50s and 60s to plan grapes that produce more and are easier to grow, like Sauvignon. Hervé, along with Thierry Puzelat and Domaine Tessier, is experimenting with making wine in quevri, as well as a concrete egg, although generally he ferments in tanks or large neutral foudres, and then assembles the wine before further elevage. This was a fantastic tasting that revealed the age-worthiness of many of Hervé’s cuvees and the overall craftsmanship of his very precise winemaking. If you see his “Les Ardilles,” a blend of mostly Pinot Noir and some Gamay that displays notes of crushed strawberry, lemongrass, and rose, do not hesitate to buy and drink it. His Cheverny Rouge (Pinot/Gamay) is so wonderful and light, with soft tannins. Perhaps the stunner for me was his “Les Acacias” cuvee, made from a 1962 planting of Romorantin: it is dark golden, with intense aromas of stonefruits and lemon, and a rich texture. The kind of wine you should cellar until you meet someone you desperately want to seduce.

Thierry Puzelat

Thierry Puzelat_Rsigner

I showed up at Thierry Puzelat’s domaine in Montils a few days after he’d celebrated his 50th birthday party with friends from all over the world, and he was in good spirits. Clos de Tue-Boeuf is the family property that Therry inherited, which dates back to the 13th century. The site is located about 2 km from the Loire River, on a gentle slope with southern exposure, and clay-silex soil, and holds many old vines parcels, including a 1976 plot of Pinot Noir that Thierry remembers hand-watering with his parents as a kid. Thierry was not always a natural winemaker. For his training, he worked for a first-growth Bordeaux estate, Clos Fourtet in Saint-Emilion, and then spent four years working for Sopexa (a French wine marketing enterprise) in Montreal. Someone told him about Marcel Lapierre, and in 1991 he went to visit the domaine and met other natural vignerons in the Beaujolais region and eventually, throughout France. He worked at Chateau Saint-Anne in Bandol, which is where he began making sulfur-free wines. In 1995, Thierry began converted Tue-Boeuf to organic. With the exception of an entry-level line of juice, Thierry’s wines are basically all single-parcel bottlings focused on terroir, which means they are often blends because the vineyards are co-planted. The 2015 Pinot Noir bottling from the “Les Gravottes” vineyard was one of my favorites from tasting: it is fermented in barriques, after foot crushing and a 10-day semi-carbonic maceration, and the result is light and fresh, high acid juice with notes of crushed cranberries and raspberries.

Noella Morantin

Noella Moratin_Rsigner

Spent an afternoon in the company of this strong-willed vigneron, who trained with Philippe Pacalet and Domaine Mosse, and worked for four years for Junko Arai, before setting out on her own in the late Aughts. Some of the vineyards she now works with are ones that she cultivated during her tenure for Arai; others were inherited from the vignerons of Clos Roche Blanche. I’ve drunk Noella’s wines on many occasions and always found them to have a special suppleness, roundness, as well as a lithe acidity. Perhaps this is due to the extremely long fermentations her wines undergo (one of her 2015s was still fermenting when we tried it in the cellar) as well as the long elevage in used barriques. Noella farms 6 hectares in the town of Pouillé; she used to have more but actually downsized because she emphatically wants to stay very small so as to work closely with the vines. I’m incredibly fond of the “Chez Charles” Sauvignon. Depending on the vintage, it may show some of those classic pyrazine notes Sauvignon is often known for, but what I love most is the perfect balance of acidity, freshness, and structure in this wine. I would cellar one of these babies if I had a proper cellar.

Domaine de l’Ecu

Fred Niger_Rsigner

Mad scientist at work here! Fred Niger, who became an autodidact vigneron after a previous career as a lawyer, is working with several different kids of amphorae, which he plays with to reveal different aspects of the juice. He has the three main soil types of Muscadet in his biodynamically farmed 25 hectares (of which 16 are Melon de Bourgogne): gneiss, orthogenesis, and granite. Tasting through these three wines, it’s quite interesting to see how the different soil compositions affect the final juice. We also sampled the same wine, a Cabernet Franc that goes into a cuvee called “Mephisto,” from several different amphorae, and one barrique, to observe how it develops differently; the final wine is a blend of all these vinifications. Fred’s Melon de Bourgogne wines are great, but his amphorae wines are the stars here. I fell in love with the “Mephisto” and will be bringing back a bottle that someone very lucky will get to drink with me this fall.

Whew, OK, that’s all I can do for now, plus why am I sitting inside writing when I’m in Paris? A bientôt!

 

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