John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part II

Part II – Vouvray-Jasnières-Coteaux du Loir

In this series, follow John Szabo and his terroir-hunting partner, Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Zacharkiw on an excellent adventure through the Loire Valley. If you are just tuning in, you can read the background piece here, and then Part I of the travelogue here.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Tuesday September 11th

A Tour of Tours

6:00 pm: We arrive at the “Grand Hotel” in downtown Tours, a stone’s throw from the Train Station. It’s loud and bustling, a big change from the rural tranquility of Sancerre. I’m almost run over by a city bus as we’re pulling our gear out of the back of the van. We’ll be staying in Tours just for the night to meet with René-Louis David of InterLoire for dinner in a local seafood restaurant, but for travelers to the region, the city makes a great base camp for wine touring. Vouvray, Montlouis, Chinon and Bourgeuil are all within easy striking distance, not to mention many of the Loire’s famous chateaux: Chambord, Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau, and Ussé, among others.

“La Chope” 25 bis, Avenue de Grammont, Tours

8:00 pm: René-Louis picks us up at the hotel and drives us the short distance to our dinner restaurant. Bill, Ian and I are all famished, and the sight of lobsters, oysters and crayfish are enough to make one faint. We sit and the menus and wine list are passed about. I spot a couple of interesting bottles, including a very fine dry Montlouis from Jacky Blot’s Domaine de la Taille aux Loup that I once imported into Ontario with Vinifera. We agree, and the bottle is ordered.

Train Station in Tours

Train Station in Tours – my hotel view

The discussion with René-Louis soon turns to exports and commercial strategy – he is, after all, head of InterLoire. He brings up Sam Harrop, a British master of wine who had been engaged by InterLoire to help “fix” the more generic sauvignons of Touraine and create more export traction. I had heard of this project before, and my initial reaction to it, as towards the idea of flying winemakers in general, was one of horror. No doubt that the overall basic quality level can be raised by the applications of more rigorous standardized winemaking techniques, with fewer outright disasters. But the flipside of standardized techniques is standardized wine. At a time of hyper-competitive wine markets worldwide, when everyone is fleeing sameness in order to find their “unique selling proposition”, it seemed a bad idea to turn the Loire’s sauvignons into one homogenous mass of squeaky-clean, techno wines with no stories to tell other than what type of yeast had been selected to ferment the must. I ask René-Louis how the project was going. “Pas très bien”, was the response.

After dinner we stroll down to the Old Quarter of town, a medieval square lined with timbered buildings that now house pubs and restaurants, to finish the night with a glass of eau-de-vie. The local university students are out in numbers and we’re treated to several choruses of French drinking songs and a rugby scrum or two. Tours is considered the epicenter of the French language, where students from all over the world come to study and learn French without any accent. It’s nonsense, of course, as everyone has an accent, but we don’t argue. It’s 1:30 am by the time we get back to the hotel and it’s time for bed.

Wednesday September 12th

9:00 am: After a half hour’s drive from Tours, heading back east along the north bank of the Loire, we arrive in the town of Vouvray. Along the way I spot dozens of caves carved right into the sides of the steep tufa stone escarpment that follows the river. These are the famous troglodyte caves; the ancient homes of cave dwellers found throughout the region. Today, some have been converted into stylish modern homes, others into hotels or restaurants. Some sit empty, reminders of a different time. The soft, chalky tufa-limestone is easy to excavate, in fact, most of the other buildings in the region are made from the white stones carved from the caves. The caves also make for excellent wine cellars as they stay a constant 12ºC year round, with high humidity that’s perfect for barrel ageing – higher humidity means less evaporation, and less of a share for the angels (though a little less comfortable for living).

Domaine Huet, Vouvray

Our driver Edith, who’s from Saumur further downriver, is not familiar with either Vouvray or Domaine Huet so in short order we’re lost, and decide to use the force to find our way. Of course, there are no signs. After driving through town, up the escarpment and back down, I spot a sign for Le Haut Lieu, a name I recognize from Domaine Huet labels. We follow the road up to the plateau above the river; there are vines all around and an old farmhouse, but no Huet. At a fork in the road, Edith finally gives up and calls the estate. The trouble is, she can’t explain where we are (“…ah, next to the vineyards and the stone building…”). I can just make out the voice on the other end of the line, which is becoming increasingly frustrated (…mais il y a des vines partout…”). There’s lots of air sucking sounds; more signs of annoyance. We’re eventually re-directed back down through town, and told to take the 2nd left from the main road, past the supermarket, another left beyond the school, up a stone wall-lined road. For the love of wine, let’s invest in some signage. Bill is typing away on his laptop in the back and doesn’t care; I’m getting annoyed. It’s already 9:15 and I haven’t tasted any wine yet today. Fifteen minutes later we finally find Domaine Huet, which, as it turns out, is only about 200 yards away from the place we had stopped to call for directions. Reminder to self: get the data plan next time and use iPhone GPS.

Domaine Huet

Arrival at Domaine Huet!

We’re greeted a little coldly at first by winemaker Benjamin Joliveau, who has recently taken over as head winemaker from Nöel Pinguet, the original Gaston Huet’s nephew and well-respected winemaker for the three decades prior. But Ben had worked several vintages with Pinguet, and the same viticulturalist, also chez Huet for the last three decades, is still in charge of the vineyards, so no major changes are expected. Benjamin warms up as he realizes we’re not a couple of old, red nosed wine hacks. He had planned a cellar tour and tasting, which we quickly modify to a vineyard tour and tasting. It’s into the pick-up truck and we head back up to Le Haut Lieu to get a handle on the appellation.

The Vouvray AOC sits on a more or less flat plateau with some gentle slopes a few hundred feet above the Loire River on the north bank. The bedrock is obviously the chalky limestone tufa that we had seen during the drive along the river, along with some silex mixed in some spots, with a clay-based topsoil. The further away from the river you travel, heading north along the plateau, the deeper the clay topsoil becomes, and the less interesting the wines, explains Benjamin. There’s about a 1km strip of high quality potential vineyard land between the escarpment edge and where the vines give way to cereal crops; the heavier clays beyond cause too much vigorous vegetative growth in grapevines. This fact was already known and understood as early as the 4th century, when St. Martin de Tours established a monastery in nearby Marmoutier and planted the region’s first vineyards. St. Martin remains one of the most important patron saints of winemakers around the world today.

We’re at the point along the Loire where you start to feel the Atlantic influence; the fully continental climate of the Centre Loire gives way to a semi-continental-maritime mix that’s just about right for the late ripening Chenin Blanc, a grape which is harvested on average a couple of weeks later than the sauvignon of Sancerre. I pick a few grapes off the vines in Huet’s Clos du Bourg vineyard, our first stop, and they’re indeed still shrill and green, at least 3 weeks away from optimum ripeness.

From our vantage point we look across the river to the south shore and the appellation of Montlouis, which used to be considered part of Vouvray in the 19th century, though split in the early 20th C to gain its own appellation in 1938. Montlouis is snuggled between the River Cher and the Loire itself, which means more humidity, rain, and harder frosts than in Vouvray. Though also based exclusively on Chenin Blanc and stylistically similar, there’s often a little more botrytis in Montlouis, which results in off-dry wines. There are some superb examples, like Jacky Blot’s and François Chidaine’s, but Montlouis has never achieved the same degree of fame as Vouvray.

There are some 2,200 hectares of vines planted in Vouvray, of which 70% is dedicated to sparkling wine, a much higher percentage than I imagined. Benjamin laments that the majority is of moderate quality or worse, destined for sale in one of France’s many hypermarchés in the “value” category. There are nonetheless still a handful of quality-focused producers, such as Domaine du Clos Naudin (Philiipe Foreau), Domaine des Aubuisières, Château Gaudrelle, Domaine Champalou and Domaine Huet.

Aside from sparkling, Vouvray comes in still versions ranging from sec (dry), through sec-tendre (barely-off dry), to demi-sec and moelleux. The best expression depends naturally on what you like best, but I find that the sec-tendre or even demi-sec versions offer the best balance, similar to top Mosel rieslings that invariably show better when there’s a pinch of residual sugar to balance the searing acids frequently encountered.

Chenin, especially when the secondary malolactic fermentation doesn’t happen (it has been traditionally suppressed in Vouvray even if many producers now allow it to happen), can have a biting green, harsh acidic edge that benefits from the softening of a touch of residual sugar. The moelleux wines, harvested late when the grapes have shriveled, or in some years (though certainly not all) been affected by noble rot, can be glorious; honeyed, mysterious orchard fruit-scented, with waxy, wet hay and bruised apple flavours. The top examples are timeless and can live on for decades. It’s usually nearly impossible to identify the vintage when tasted blind. A favorite trick of sommeliers is to pull out a 30 year-old bottle of Vouvray moelleux, then watch and snicker as the tasters all guess closer to ten years of age.

Benjamin Joliveau

Benjamin Joliveau in Le Haut Lieu

We leave the attractive walled-in Clos du Bourg vineyard and travel a short distance to Le Haut Lieu and Le Mont, two adjacent vineyards, though dramatically different in terms of soil composition. Le Haut Lieu lies on heavier clays, while Le Mont has a considerable proportion of silex mixed into the clay. The difference in the glass, as we soon find out, is equally dramatic.

The vines look battered; it’s been a bloody tough vintage all throughout the Loire, with excessive rain and lots of disease pressure followed by drought. The life of the vigneron is fraught with events well beyond one’s control. Domaine Huet has been farmed biodynamically for over a decade now, perhaps the first Vouvray estate to do so, but the cost of biodynamics in a year like 2012 is plain to see: yields are down significantly; there’s little fruit left hanging on the vines.

We arrive back at the domaine and take a quick walk through the cellars. In the end, they’re certainly worth a look: dark, humid, black mold-covered caves with high humidity and a distinctive smell that I liken to the scent of fresh white button mushrooms: clean yet earthy and deep. I’m struck by how much these cellars remind me of the cellars in Tokaj, Hungary, and then further struck by the resemblance between chenin blanc and Tokaj’s great white grape, furmint, which also comes in a range of styles from sparkling, to dry still wines, and all the way up to lusciously sweet, botrytis affected elixirs. It’s no wonder that Domaine Huet’s current owner, US-based financier Anthony Hwang, was drawn to both Vouvray and Tokaj (Hwang also owns the highly regarded Királyudvar estate in Tokaj), they are kindred spirits.

We start the tasting with Huet’s excellent 2007 pétillant. It’s not fully sparkling like champagne, but rather gently effervescent. It’s made in the ancestral method, meaning that the still-fermenting wine is bottled and sealed when there’s still about a couple dozen grams of sugar left. Yeasts continue working in the bottle and the carbon dioxide produced remains trapped inside, resulting in a wine that has about half (3 bars) the pressure of fully sparkling wine. Huet’s pétillant spent another 4 years in bottle before the dead yeast cells were expelled in the standard way, called disgorging. The wine is delicate, slightly salty/mineral, refined. There’s that characteristic chenin blanc bitterness on the finish, too, though a very pleasant bitterness, like sucking the skin of an apple or a nectarine. What a great breakfast wine. I’m dreaming of a piece of chalky goat’s cheese.

Benjamin then lines up the three dry cuvées from 2011, which I ask to taste side by side: Le Haut Lieu, Clos du Bourg, and Le Mont. They’re all 100% chenin blanc, made in the same, non-interventionalist fashion, with wild yeast ferment, and aged in neutral 500l demi-muid barrels. Le Haut lieu is quite open and fruity, the fruitiest of the three – this is from the heavier clay soils. Minerality is not the main feature, and the finish is short. Although the wine is still very good to be sure, it’s clear that this site will never produce the domaine’s top wines.

Le Clos du Bourg, a 6 hectare plot sitting almost directly on the limestone tufa, delivers a softer, fleshier, more voluptuous style of chenin. It has what Benjamin describes as sucrosité, an implicit sweetness even though it contains virtually the same level of residual sugar as Le Haut Lieu (8 vs 7 grams/liter; anything under 9 grams is considered “sec” under appellation regulations). Then I inhale deeply over the glass of Le Mont. A chalky minerality subtly emerges. I jot down “the most mineral aromatics” in my notebook. The palate is likewise flinty and stony, with terrific tension and an almost saline finish. There’s that silex again, delivering the same wicked minerality we observed in Sancerre and Pouilly.

We repeat the site-specific tastings up the scale from demi-sec to moelleux, then moelleux première trie, the first selection made in the vineyards to harvest the best, most concentrated bunches. I’m stuck by the differences imparted by the vineyards, and by the variation from year to year; this is truly a region where vintage matters. Benjamin has Bill and I guessing residual sugar levels in the sweet wines, another favorite game of winemakers and wine tasters. On the first one, we’re way off, guessing mid-twenties for a wine with over 50 grams of sugar. That’s the beauty of great sweet wine – chenin, riesling, tokaji – they’re sweet without tasting too sweet or cloying. Acids swoop in on the finish to clean things up and leave your mouth cringing with saliva, so that the wines almost taste dry.

On the second round, not to be fooled again, I guess twice as much sugar as I was actually thinking, figuring at least I’d go over this time. Wrong again. I’m still at only half the actual level. Maddening. Bill, who had disappeared into the washroom, comes back and guesses exactly what I had guessed. We’re both humbled.

Time’s slipping away and we’re quickly sliding into our usual routine of being half an hour behind, so we say au revoir to Benjamin and climb into the van with Edith for another back-country driving adventure. We’re heading north overland to the obscure, tiny appellations of Jasnières and Coteaux du Loir, and more chenin blanc.

Domaine de Bellivière, Jasnières, Coteaux du Loir

12:00 pm: We’ve driven through the French countryside for an hour and a half, for a journey that was supposed to take under an hour. We pass fields of wheat and corn, drooping sunflowers that have lost their shine and look dejectedly toward the ground awaiting the coming winter, small villages, and rows of poplars and plane trees. Strangely, no vines. This is now northern France according to most textbooks; once you’re north of the Loire, away from its moderating influence, vineyards vanish and other crops take their place. Just a bit further north still and you’re in apple country, which to a sommelier means cider and calvados.

Coteaux du Loir vineyard

Coteaux du Loir vineyard

Edith is lost again. She’s sweet, but ill prepared to ferry two terroir hunters to the furthest reaches within the Loire’s viticultural embrace. Down what seems like a semi-abandoned cart path we finally spot an old wooden sign with an arrow pointing up the hill to Domaine de Bellivière, our destination. We follow the narrow road up and over the crest of a hill and across a field of wheat, and then down the other side to a hamlet of about 6 houses. There’s a fork in the road. No signs. Sucking noises from Edith. We turn right and follow a twisting road into the next village. No vines, no tanks, no old barrels used for planters lining the street. Not looking promising. We turn around and travel back to our only point of hope and certainty, the Bellivière sign at the bottom of the hill. Edith throws up her arms, sucks some more air in noisily, and pulls out her cell phone to call the domaine. There’s more difficulty describing our location (“…by a fork in the road at the bottom of a hill…”).

When she finally gets her bearings, she turns the van around with a little more self-assurance and heads back up the hill and across the field of wheat again. This time at the fork we turn left.Domaine de Bellivière does have a tiny sign at the end of their driveway, leading into the courtyard of what appears to be the largest house in this modest hamlet. We’ve arrived, though a little more than half an hour late. We’re greeted by Madame Nicolas who informs us that her husband and son are out working in the vines – there’s been little down time this vintage, one of the most difficult in recent memory.

Eric Nicolas is the man behind Domaine de Bellivière, a former oil industry executive who traded in his comfortable but unsatisfying life to study winemaking in Montpellier. Nicolas, after all, is a poet and a thinker at heart, and was suffering in the world of big oil. After completing the course, he and his wife began to look for a property to purchase in Provence. They scoured the region but found nothing suitable. The prices were impossibly high, driven more by property speculation than winegrowing potential. And besides, the vibe wasn’t right. “We didn’t like the frenetic energy of the area”, recalls Nicolas.

Then some friends shared a bottle of Jasnières, a tiny, chenin blanc-based appellation in the northern Loire that’s obscure even for locals. But the Nicolas’ were intrigued by the wine: it was crisp, stony, firm, authentic. They investigated. Since Eric was born in northern France, Jasnières seemed a little closer to home. The style of the region’s wines also appealed, and land was affordable. The Nicolas’ purchased their estate and moved in. The year was 1995.

By the following year they already had wine to sell – in fact I just drank my last bottle of 1996 Bellivière Jasnière “Les Rosiers” this past summer, a bottle that had been sitting in my cellar for nearly a decade and a half. It was beautiful. It seemed surreal to meet the man who had made this mysterious wine, purchased in the very early days of my wine career, so many years later.

It didn’t happen overnight, but Nicolas slowly began converting the vineyards to organic and then biodynamic farming. It was a reasoned process, driven by constant questioning and searching for answers. Nicolas recalls the fiercely hot 2003 vintage in France. Malolactic fermentations went through spontaneously for the first time, unexpectedly, and left the wines unbalanced, with too little acid. But as a natural winemaker at heart, Nicolas didn’t want to have to play around with chemical adjustments. So the following year he set about finding a way to build acid structure in the vineyards, in the grapes, so that if malolactic fermentation were to happen again, the wines would remain balanced. He hit upon biodynamic viticulture as the solution to producing grapes with an ideal natural balance of components, and hasn’t looked back since.

Madame Nicolas and Bill

Madame Nicolas and Bill

We arrive up in an estate parcel of Coteaux du Loir vineyards and park under a large old oak tree. There’s a beautiful view of the vineyards and valley below where the Loir River runs; that’s Loir without the “e”, a tributary of the larger Loire, which gives its name to Jasnière’s sister appellation, the Coteaux du Loir. Both AOCs consist of about 120 hectares planted to vines, though likely no more than half of the annual production actually gets bottled under either appellation. Many families here still farm vineyards and make wine for home consumption; there’s no need to involve the appellation authorities in their business, even if the vineyard sites and grapes would qualify them for AOC designation. It’s interesting to note that before phylloxera there were closer to 3000ha in the Coteaux du Loir; the zone never fully recovered.

I spot Eric’s son first rolling up a row of vines on a tractor at the far end of the slope. He’s a solid boy in his mid-teens with a ruddy, outdoors sort of complexion. His father Eric then comes into view behind, tall, blue-eyed, with wild, white hair that makes him look more a mad scientist than typical French vigneron. He’s quiet but not at all awkward, just confident and content, with the almost fatalistic nature that any farmer must develop in order to survive.

Talk quickly turns to soils, of which there are 17 different types across both appellations. Like other parts of the Loire, it’s mainly variations on the theme of clay, with more or less chalk and silex.

The son parks the tractor under the tree and we all pile into Madame Nicolas’ blue station wagon and head back down to the farmhouse. They’ve planned a classic French country lunch of charcuterie followed by a rustic blanquette de veau, all of which sounds magical to my rumbling stomach. The farmhouse itself is straight out of French Country Living magazine. It must be ancient, since nobody today builds such spacious and airy rooms with high ceilings held in place by massively thick wooden beams. The fireplace would be large enough to roast Bill, a thought that fleets across my mind. I get an immediately comfortable and welcoming feeling, as though we were old friends invited over for Sunday lunch. And as though cued by my thought, Nicolas’ young daughter comes into the living-dining room and kisses Bill and I both on the cheeks, like uncles she might have seen just last week.

Bill - Nicolas' farmhouse

Nicolas’ farmhouse fireplace

Before the food is brought to the table Nicolas steps into the room carrying a metal basket holding a half dozen bottles, some opened with the corks stuck in halfway, others that have yet to be uncorked. We sit down at the heavy wooden table in front of the fireplace to taste through the bottles, beginning with the cuvee made from the youngest vines, the 2011 Jasnières Les Rosiers.

Nicolas separates his parcels according to vine age. To him, “old vines” means vineyards planted before 1945; there was little planting between the post-war period up until the 1970s, the dark days of Jasnières and Coteaux du Loir. Yet there has been renewed interest in the region since the end of the 1990s, and plantings are once again on the rise. Nicolas himself has planted several new parcels since moving into the region, and since 1999, all plantings have been made the old fashioned way, by selection massale, selecting bud wood from old vineyards and propagating it, rather than purchasing clones from nurseries, a labour-intensive process that he believes will ultimately confer more disease resistance (since the mother vines are fully accustomed to local conditions), as well as greater complexity from the genetic diversity passed on from old vines. He’s also experimented with super high-density plantings, up to 11,200 vines per acre, as well as own-rooted vines, without the American rootstocks that have been customary since the end of the 19th century to combat phylloxera. His latest experiment will be to grow vines directly from seed. “The results, however”, he says with his customary, comfortable resignation, “will take some time to observe”.

The Rosiers is austere and mineral, seemingly bone dry (it’s the cuvée that I had in my cellar, so I can attest to it’s age-worthiness). Next up is the 2011 Coteaux du Loir “L’Effraie”, made from 35 year old vines grown on silex soils. It has a pinch of residual sugar, but it’s noticeable only in the riper, rounder, fleshier texture. The grapes seem to be riper, and the finish lingers on beautifully. Then comes the 2009 Coteaux du Loir Vieilles Vignes Eparse, made from 70-90 year old vines also grown in predominantly silex soils. This is gorgeous on the nose: very ripe, subtly but unmistakably mineral, with an intriguing hint of anise. The palate is densely packed with well-knit flavours of white flowers and honey, fresh quince and more sweet green herbs.

The next wine, 2009 Jasnières Calligramme, is named for the visual poetry of Apollinaire written for his sweetheart in the trenches of the Great War, another nod to Nicolas’ poetic leanings. This is also from the old vines, now beginning to show a touch of bottle maturity: waxy, honeyed, floral, with the characteristic chenin blanc touch of bitterness on the finish.

By now the food has arrived. The blanquette hits the table in a heavy cast iron casserole and the steaming vapors fill the room with savoury, earthy smells. We eat and talk and drink some more. We taste the 2010 versions of Calligramme and Vieilles Vignes Eparse side by side. The former is tight and unyielding, the latter, looser, more open, but chalk-full of mineral silex flavour on the finish. Bill uses some inappropriate analogies to describe the difference between the two wines, which draws some nervous laughter from the family.

We finish the meal with a rare light red made from Pineau d’Aunis, once a popular variety in the Loire that originates from around the town of Saumur further west. It’s light and peppery and tart red fruit-flavoured, in other words, delicious. I look over at Bill and he’s smiling too. Reluctantly we check the time and realize that we’re half an hour behind schedule. After some warm good-byes, we’re back in the van with crazy Edith, en route to Rabelais’ hometown and source of some of the world’s best cabernet franc, Chinon.

Stay tuned. Part III of John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure will be published soon. In the meantime, you can access the earlier blogs and a list of recommended Loire Valley wines below.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

John’s Loire Valley Picks
John Szabo’s Loire Valley Adventure – Intro
John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part I