A Lesson in Patience: An Old Loire Dinner
The Loire Valley is home for some of France’s longest aging wines. Spanning over 600 miles, the Loire is a huge region with considerable diversity and over 20 AOCs. This makes understanding the ageability of Loire wines a challenging task. It is not one accomplished in a single evening.
From Melon in the Nantes to Chenin in the middle-Loire and Sauvignon Blanc in the famed Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, ageable white wines abound in the Loire. Add to that the best of Cabernet Franc and there is a huge diversity of wines to explore and to age. The tendency is towards high acid and minerality, though in the last decade wines have become riper and fruitier due both to hotter temperatures and increased use of the ‘trie’ technique, picking grapes in several passes in order to harvest clusters only when they are fully ripe.
While the majority of wine from the Loire is for early drinking in Parisian cafes, the very best are built to age, as proven by the impressive lot of wines we tasted with 15-30 years of age on them. These are unquestionably wines of pedigree, but they yet remain underappreciated and undercollected.
The Soul of the Loire: Chenin Blanc
The Loire’s greatest grape is unquestionably Chenin Blanc. This grape is also responsible for the most age worthy of the region’s wines, with top bottles having the ability to see 50+ years. Chenin anchored our tasting. The range of expressions proved fascinating but also somewhat confusing for the average drinker, who would likely have difficulty figuring out where these wines belong at the table. This makes it all the more important that Chenin is hand sold by the sommelier or the store clerk in order to frame a drinker’s expectations.
Chenin has in many ways been immune to certain trends in white wine making. The obscurity of the grape seems to have resulted in growers maintaining traditional approaches, and embracing the grape’s high acid, lean wines that don’t fully develop for years. Modern technology has increased the quality and accessibility of these wines while young, but it is still old Chenin that offers its true majesty. As a naturally high yielding grape, Chenin yields must be kept down to ensure quality. Fermentation temperatures are also higher in the Loire than in new world Chenin, which avoids the overly tropical flavours you find many new world examples.
But none of this gets at the essence of Chenin in the Loire, which is a grape I find takes time and reflection to understand. For me Chenin’s essence lies in its ability to just not give a damn. Whether this is with naturally high yields, an inability to show well with trendy cellar techniques, against the odds responding well to biodynamics before it was popular, or the fact its true expression doesn’t manifest until at least 10 years in the bottle, and in many cases 20-30, great Chenin’s MO is not easy pleasure for the masses. But if you spend some time with it, delving into all its expressions, young and old, dry and sweet, then you start to understand its singularity. And this is what makes Chenin great.
Old Loire at Dinner
Flight 1 – Savenniere
Nicolas Joly Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 1981: Nicolas Joly is the prophet of biodynamics, both because his dedication to its tenets resembles somewhat a religious fervour, and because he was one of its very first proponents in France. 1981 was Joly’s first fully biodynamic vintage, and the Coulee not only his top wine, but one of the iconic terroirs in the Loire. This wine was bone dry, with very high acid. It is a focused wine with a long finish, but it was surprisingly lacking fullness and some of the secondary notes you expect from Chenin such as honey and wax. I’d be curious to see how this developed with even more years in the bottle. However, while not as exciting as we expected, the wine demonstrated the clear schism in style from early Joly to Joly’s wines today, which are less linear and seem more problematic with respect to flaws. Excellent.
Domaine Baumard Trie Spéciale 2007: I flighted this wine next to the Joly not only because it was Savenniere, but because Andrew Jefford described it as dry. It was not. In fact, it displayed the richness you’d expect of a late harvest wine with some botrytis. That is also Baumard’s style: more ripeness and malo-lactic ferments. Some tasters despised this wine for its richly honeyed orchard fruit nose (which some felt was similar to Alsatian Pinot Gris). On the palate I felt it was unmistakably Chenin, given the tell-tale wooly funkiness that you never find in Alsace. That said, a leading Master of Wine on Loire wine – Richard Kelly – described Baumard’s wine thus: “they sometimes remind me of Alsatian wines as much as of Savennières.” This is a pleasurable wine, that many drinkers with a tolerance for some residual sugar would enjoy. The acid is very high, which balances the wine. However, this was also the most divisive wine of the tasting and I admit that it did not display the terroir I expected. I suspect it needs quite a bit more age to settle. Baumard is one of the top producers in Savenniere, and this wine is considered one of his best. Raised in stainless steel and bottled under screwcap. Very Good+.
Flight 2 – Chinon (Cab Franc)
Not all the wines at dinner were Chenin. The great red grape of the Loire, Cabernet Franc, made a glorious appearance in the form of a 2002 Couly-Dutheil “Clos de L’Echo” Chinon. Though I had not heard of this producer before the tasting, it is, in fact, one of the most famous in Chinon (producing 10% of the total crop in Chinon). Founded in 1921, it is now in its fourth generation of family owners. The family’s patriarch René Couly planted Clos de L’Echo, the domaine’s top vineyard, with Cabernet Franc in 1951. The family is now in the midst of a significant dispute between René’s two sons, who favour different picking times and cellar practices, and who also lay claim to various plots. It seems as though this Domaine might ultimately break into two. The Clos de L’Echo is composed of clay and clay limestone, has southern exposure. No oak is used in the making of this wine. This is a big, leafy Cab Franc with cacao notes and beautiful purity of fruit. The wine is powerful for Chinon, but supremely balanced. In my mind it is near perfect Cab Franc and was one of the stand out wines of the tasting. Excellent.
Flight 3 – Vouvray
Huet Clos du Bourg Moelleux Vouvray 1985: A wine from the year Chenin revived in the Loire, when growers started once again selecting grapes in successive tries, and the first year sweet wines had been made since 1976. Vouvray is one of the most complex white wines in the world. It is also one of the most confusing. Noel Pinguet has described how he doesn’t even know what style of wine he will be making prior to harvest. This is because Chenin from Vouvray is highly climate dependent, and one year’s conditions that are ideal for ‘sec’ bottlings can be completely opposed the following year, which proves ideal for Moelleux. This makes Vouvray wines some of the most expressive of vintage, but also proves a challenge for consumers and even experienced drinkers. Even when buying a ‘sec’ or ‘demi-sec’ cuvee, you cannot always guess how much residual sugar is in the wine.
Huet is, of course, the greatest name in Vouvray – meaning that Huet is responsible for putting Vouvray on the map and elevating it in consumer’s minds beyond any appellation outside Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. The story of Huet is extensive, and impossible to detail in any fullness here. The key point is that Huet has been a leading Domaine for generations, influencing the region like no other. Sadly, the Domaine has seen much internal upheaval lately with Noel Pinguet, and more recently, his protegee Benjamin Joliveau, leaving the Domaine because of philosophical disagreements with the owners to whom Pinguet sold the Domaine for lack of an heir. As such, it is likely the Domaine will change considerably in years to come. That makes bottles like this 1985 all the more special. Huet is biodynamic, though didn’t start conversion until the late 1980’s after this wine was made.
The 1985 stunned everyone with its age – as in, no one suspected it was any older than the early 2000’s given its freshness. I think, with contemplation, however that the secondary notes in the wine clearly showed that it was much older than the early 2000’s. Its freshness was a stunning achievement for a 1985, which is considered a good but not great vintage, and often decried as a little green. For me, the ripeness level was perfect as was the acid balance in the wine. It was not as opulent, ripe and forward as the 2003 Champalou we tasted later, but it had stunning complexity and length. I would not hesitate to buy and drink more of this as it will clearly last at least another 10 years. I enjoy the historical tid-bit that in the 1951 Saccone & Speed catalogue (a London-based merchant), Huet Le Mont was sold for 1 shilling more than Leoville Las Cases. Excellent to Excellent+.
Domaine Huet Clos du Bourg Premier Trie Moelleux 1989: This wine, which was stored in good conditions since release, was unfortunately oxidized. Bruised apple and flabby texture was all that was left. It was a huge shame since 1989 is considered one of the greatest vintages of all time for Vouvray, Clos du Bourg the greatest vineyard, and the ‘Premier Trie’ series of wines are at the top of the Huet quality pyramid. Unrated.
Champalou Moelleux 2003: Champalou is another top producer in Vouvray, though not with quite the same name recognition as Huet. Champalou is very new on the scene, being founded in 1983 by Catherine and Didier Champalou. Champalou is known for making elegant, soft Chenins that seem to magically integrate the often harsh acids of the grape into highly balanced, expressive wines. The holdings span 21 hectares. The Moelleux is made from 45 year old vines and sees extended fermentation in tank. The wine offered sweet apple and supple texture with some honeyed botrytized notes as well. It was clearly from a warm vintage (as 2003 is, though we tasted blind) and actually paired the best of this flight with our roast chicken. It did not have the same level of complexity as the older wines, however – as is to be expected. Very Good+.
Flight 4 – Dessert
Moulin Touche Coteaux du Layon 1995: Moulin Touche is one of the famed traditional producers of the Loire, dating back to 1787. Located in the Coteaux du Layon (in the central Loire), Touche is one of those old-school producers (like Lopez de Heredia or Borgogno) that releases its wines after extended bottle aging in their cellar. As such, the new vintages are usually around 10 years old already. These wines, however, are known to age in great vintages for 50+ years. These wines are vinified with natural yeasts, no cold stabilisation and no oak. Importantly, the ripeness is kept in check and you will not find overly dominant botrytis flavours in these wines. Residual sugar sits at 80-90g/l on average. Interestingly, the wines are picked in slightly unusual tries, with 20% of the grapes harvested around 80 days after flowering (which means underripe fruit) in order to maintain acidity in the final blend. The remaining 80% is harvested about 120 days after flowering (a more traditional late harvest). This 1995 was surprisingly in somewhat of an awkward phase, though I thought the underlying fruit and concentration was impressive. Nutty, brown sugar and developed notes. A long finish, though as mentioned, somewhat awkward at this stage of its development. I would like to revisit this wine in 10 years. Very Good+.
Gerard Boulay Clos de Beaujeu Sancerre 1996: When is the last time you’ve had a dessert Sancerre? Never? Me too. 1996 was a rarity in that Boulay made a Moelleux Sancerre on top of all his dry cuvees. Surprisingly at our dinner the wine came across as very dry: often the perception of residual sugar can lessen with age. However, apparently the wine was quite sweet when younger. The “Clos de Beaujeu” is one of the top vineyards in Sancerre, and Boulay one of the best producers, comparable to the Cotat brothers. This wine is fermented in barrel and unfiltered. This wine proved that dessert Sancerre can age beautifully. I thought this was stellar wine: orchard and tea on the nose – the palate offered apple jelly, a creamy texture and some panna cotta notes. A surprising style and one of the best showing wines of the evening. The Boulay wines are now available close to home through Garagiste in Seattle, who imports the dry wines each vintage. Excellent.
The Loire is a challenge to pin down. It is impossible to encapsulate in one tasting. When old, the wines can be stunningly complex, but also weird, and are often unpredictable. Those in my tasting group were highly surprised by both the 1985 Huet (for its sheer youthfulness) and the 1996 Boulay Sancerre, which as a dessert Sauv Blanc was both an utter rarity (that no one could call blind) but also a beautifully complex wine.
The Loire is also a world unto itself – not just because it creates wines with near unparalleled ageability but also because of the sheer diversity found throughout the region. These aren’t wines you can acclaim without thought and an open mind. They can be notoriously difficult to pair with food, though I suggest that they tend to work very well with the full gamut of Asian food – the secs pairing with Japanese, the demi-sec’s with Vietnamese and Chinese and the Moelleux’s with Thai and Malaysian. Asian food tends to be higher acid than most European food and thus enjoys a wine with similar qualities.
I confess that these are not wines with which I will fill my cellar, but they are wines I will keep purchasing and aging in modest quantities as, when aged and from a good producer/vintage, they are some of the most singular and impressive white wines in the world. Those whose palates gravitate more to these high acid masterpieces could assuredly mass an impressive collection for a very low investment as you can buy world-class white that can age 50+ years for the price of an entry level Bourgogne. Even the Loire’s top producers, particularly of Chenin Blanc, offer incredibly low prices compared to the best producers of Riesling – the other great long-aging white grape.
In conclusion, these are surprising wines that take time to get to know and to come into their own. They require patience not just in the cellar but intellectually, when attempting to understand what they are all about. But that’s precisely what distinguishes good wine from great.
Where to Buy
Current vintages of Huet are available at Marquis Wine Cellars
A scattered mix of Champalou is available at Liberty Wine Merchants
Baumard is now available at the BCLDB
Newer vintages of Joly’s wines, including the Coulee, are available at Kits Wine Cellar
The Couly-Dutheil “Clos de L’Echo” can be purchased through K&L in San Francisco
Gerard Boulay’s wines are now being imported into Seattle by Garagiste