The Emotion of Savennières: The Wines of Thibaud Boudignon

Winemaker Thibaud Boudignon looks me straight in the eye and says, “I want fresh vitality in my wines and an almost brutal minerality,” and I honestly have to catch my breath for a moment, since it’s been some time since anyone spoke to me so directly in my love language.

I gulp and take another sip of his electrically bright Chenin Blanc and concentrate on scribbling notes in my notebook, all the while thinking that I can’t imagine a better description for the kinds of white wines that I find most arresting.

I can say without question that Boudignon’s efforts are, in fact, truly arresting. This young man, a relative newcomer to the tiny Loire appellation of Savennenièrs, is setting a new standard for what Savennenièrs can be.

Boudignon never set out to be a winemaker. In fact, what he wanted more than anything was to be an Olympic champion in Judo. With his bearded, muscled frame and massive hands, Boudignon certainly looks like he’d make a formidable opponent in any contest of strength, but dreams and reality don’t always match up.

“By the time I was 21 I realized I was never going to be a champion,” says Boudignon with a shrug, “so I headed to the south of France to get some work.”

Boudignon’s Clos de la Hutte vineyard with its fractured schist soils.

Boudignon, who lost his mother Françoise when he was only 17, had spent some of his childhood playing in his paternal grandfather’s vineyards in the South of France, and also grew up in Bordeaux drinking Medoc wines at lunchtime with his mother’s father, François.

So when he headed south, he naturally fell into work first in the vineyards, and then in the cellar. Boudignon would eventually make his way to Bordeaux, where he worked at Château Olivier and Château Canon-la-Gaffelière, and then to Australia where he worked at De Bortoli, followed by a stint at Domaine Charlopin-Parizot in Gevrey-Chambertin.

“Eventually I arrived in the Loire, where I was put in charge of Chateau Soucherie,” says Boudignon, who arrived at that Savennières producer in 2007 and soon after realized that he and the estate’s owners had a different vision for where the wines should go.

“I decided in 2009 that I needed to work for myself,” says Boudignon, “but I knew I needed to have money to start something. I stopped being an employee in 2015, worked as a consultant until 2018, and since 2018, I have been focused only on my production.”

A Blanc Slate

After making that fateful decision in 2009, Boudignon began buying grapes in Anjou to make roughly 3000 bottles of Anjou blanc.

“I had three barrels that all tasted different in that first vintage, and I decided to blend them and make it a tribute,” says Boudignon, describing the creation of the Anjou Blanc he named ‘a François(e).’

“When you decide to write your mother and your grandfather’s name on the bottle, you don’t cheat on quality,” he says.

That wine would go on to win Boudignon his first notable acclaim as a vigneron and was snapped up by top restaurants across France. Boudignon took the money he received and reinvested it in his operation, something he has been doing ever since.

Within a couple of years, Boudignon had begun sourcing small amounts of Savennières, prompting him to learn as much as he could about the appellation.

“Do you know that there are roughly 300 hectares of land in Savennières, but only half are planted?” he asks. “I began to think to myself, ‘I wonder what the potential is here?'”

As he was doing research on the appellation, he came across an old reference to a walled vineyard named Clos de la Hutte. “I said to myself ‘where is this place?’ and I began to search.”

Resurrecting a Clos

He would eventually find the wall, but it no longer surrounded a vineyard. So Boudignon used the majority of his savings to buy the land and put a vineyard back in what he is convinced was one of Savennières’ historically significant lieux-dits, or named vineyard sites.

He got his first harvest off the vineyard in 2015.

“Clos de la Hutte is the culmination of everything I’ve done,” says Boudignon. “It is our grand cru, and it is always a monster. Whatever the year, what it produces is unbelievable. It is not impressive but it has power. It is like the gentle swipe of a tiger’s paw. He is not punching you, but you feel the power.”

The Emotion of Savennières: The Wines of Thibaud Boudignon
A view across the Clos de la Hutte with the stone wall in the distance.

Like most of Savenniéres, the six acres (2.5 ha) of Clos de la Hutte consists of shallow topsoil of light clay chock full of bits of the fractured dark schist (known locally as Anjou Noir) that sits beneath it.

This schist represents the metamorphic remains of something called the Amorican Massif, what was once a large Paleozoic mountain range that has been ground down to nearly nothing in the roughly 300 million years since. But the roots of this mountain range remain, offering up the sparkly, flaky rock of their buckled and compressed foundations as places for vines to grow.

These rocky shallow schist soils are the defining characteristic of the Savennières appellation, which is planted almost exclusively to Chenin Blanc (though there are some secret pockets of Verdelho, which is a tale for another time).

Investing In a Legacy

Continuing with his theme of reinvestment, Boudignon built himself a small winery in 2016 to exacting specifications, heavily focused on maintaining conditions in the cellar while keeping the carbon footprint of his operation to a minimum. Because the winery sits on the same schist bedrock as his vineyards, Boudignon couldn’t dig an underground cellar and has settled for a custom system that pulls ambient air into a buried pipe to reduce the energy required to cool it as well as allow precise control of humidity.

Boudignon has structured the building to require what he sees as the absolute minimum of handling from fruit to bottle. “I want to take 100% of the potential of the vines and put that into the wine,” explains Boudignon. “As soon as you cut the grapes you are losing potential. That is why I invested so much in this winery.”

Boudignon works biodynamically but seems content to dispense with all the dogma associated with the approach.

“When Steiner was looking at biodynamics it was about yield and quality, but really, biodynamics is about life,” says Boudignon. “For us, the vineyard is the most important thing. My goal is a healthy vineyard without stress, where the grapes can reach complete maturity. I like relaxed fruit. When the vines suffer things get out of balance.”

“It’s not just the grapes you want relaxed,” says Boudignon, “It’s also about the team. We respect the soil, but we also respect the people we work with, it’s an entire system. These kinds of wines are possible because of the work we all do in the vineyard.”

Boudignon does no analysis of his grapes or his wines through the winemaking process, choosing instead to pick when he thinks things are ripe, which for him is mature but not overripe. He assiduously avoids botrytis, which he believes makes the wine much more prone to oxidation.

Like many winemakers, Boudignon believes the single most important decision he makes every year is when to pick, a moment that is informed by his desire to express everything that his schist soils are capable of showing.

In Service of Minerality, In Search of Emotion

“Since 2018, all I do is eat, think, and sleep Chenin,” says Boudignon, “and the wines have started to be different.”

“I don’t want to produce a wine that has a lot of flavor,” he goes on to explain. “I want a wine that might sometimes be closed when it is young, but which ages well and more than anything else, expresses minerality. Minerality is key.”

“I don’t want the wine necessarily to be impressive on the table,” he continues, “I want the wine to keep the mouth fresh, to make me want to drink and want to eat. Acidity, yes of course, but also minerality. There is a difference. Acidity is vertical. Minerality is ongoing. It pushes and makes the wine long. These days it’s trendy to be focused on pH and numbers, but I don’t believe you can see minerality in terms of a number. You can see minerality when you walk through the vineyard and look at the fruit.”

The Emotion of Savennières: The Wines of Thibaud Boudignon
Another view of the Clos de la Hutte vineyard

Boudignon prefers to harvest as quickly as possible, and get the fruit into the cellar as cool as possible. He presses whole clusters into steel tanks chilled to 37˚F/3˚C, and then moves some of the wine to old oak barrels (and recently some concrete eggs) for fermentation with ambient yeasts. He likes to let the wine do its own thing in the cellar, though he prefers to inhibit malolactic conversion, keeping as much acidity in his wines as possible.

“I haven’t done malolactic fermentation since the beginning,” says Boudignon.  “The Chenin I like doesn’t have malo, and I want to make the wines I like to drink. I think a lot of people pick too early to preserve the acidity they lose during malo, and they aren’t getting full maturity. We keep things cold and then add sulfur in February or March. If the wine happens to go through malo, it’s not a big thing,” he shrugs.

The wines are never fined or filtered.

“I work for the taste,” continues Boudignon, “For the emotion of the thing. I am not afraid of what will happen. It’s like when you are in love with a girl. If you spend all the time being afraid that she will leave you for someone else, you can never really be with her. Maybe I’ll make mistakes, but mistakes are a part of the winemaking process. To make a mistake is not a problem. To keep making the same mistake, that is the problem. I learn from each vintage, and now I have the capacity to see what will happen.”

Farming in the Face of Disaster

From the 18-or-so acres (7.5 ha) he farms, Boudignon produces roughly 3000 cases of wine each year, all Chenin Blanc with the exception of a tiny amount of rosé.

That is when he gets a harvest at all.

In 2017, he and many fellow growers lost their entire crops to frost and hail. In 2019, he harvested merely 30% of his normal yield.

“When you go into your vineyard and see it all destroyed, it is like a bomb going off—in your vineyard and in your mind,” he says. “That is why I had to invest in frost protection. If I cannot protect my young vines, I think I should just stop doing this.”

Boudignon spent 30,000 Euros last year for an electronic frost protection system—a wire that runs along the length of each cordon that emits enough warmth when turned on to keep young spring buds and leaves from freezing. It’s not foolproof, but he showed me tender young leaves that were still clinging to life on vines that had the wires and desiccated dead leaves on those that didn’t.

The Emotion of Savennières: The Wines of Thibaud Boudignon
The warming wire of Boudignon’s electric frost protection, and an emerging bud that was saved.

Boudignon has planted his vineyards with 10 different massale selections of Chenin Blanc, some from Domaine Huet in Vouvray, and others from elsewhere around Savennières. Most of the vines are trained in the guyot-poussard method, a bi-lateral pruning that supposedly increases sap flow and prevents vine disease, but which Boudignon likens to training a bonsai.

In Clos de la Hutte he has also planted half an acre of his vines on their own roots, rather than using rootstock, in an experimental search for more mineral expression.

“I just wanted to see what the difference would be,” says Boudignon, who has started bottling those vines separately, as they do indeed express themselves differently.

Boudignon has also recently begun a new vineyard project in another walled site just down the road from Clos de la Hutte, in a sunnier, windier spot with more sand and even less soil between the sunlight and the schist. These 4.5 acres (2 ha) will be known as Clos de Vandleger.

The Emotion of Savennières: The Wines of Thibaud Boudignon
The recently planted Clos de Vandleger vineyard.

Anticipating Greatness

At 40 years old, Boudignon is entering the prime of his winemaking career, having already turned many heads. Indeed, his success as a young vigneron has brought renewed attention to the Savennières appellation, which he has mixed feelings about.

“People are arriving now in the wine business with Instagram and a lot of money,” he says with a shake of his head. “We have our 7 hectares and we are simply focused on nothing else but quality.”

Boudignon is pleased that he has gotten to the point where the economic pressure to make sales and support the business can take a back seat to the wines and his sense of what they need to show their best.

“Now I can say that people will not taste the wines until they are right,” he says proudly. “It is a responsibility rather than a pressure now.”

Right for Boudignon seems to mean chiseled wines, with resonant complexity, incredible expressiveness, and mouthwatering brightness. And yes, a more than an occasional dose of brutal minerality.

Please sir, may I have some more?

The Emotion of Savennières: The Wines of Thibaud Boudignon
Thibaud Boudignon

“When you are young,” says Boudignon, “You think having experience is something that older people hold over you like it helps them to say that they are important. But when you get older you realize experience is important for understanding, to anticipate. I am not living in fear. When you start your life in sport, you realize your career is very short. The same in wine. Maybe at the end of my life, I will have only 20 or 30 vintages. I don’t want to regret something. That is why I do everything with 100% passion and 100% investment. Everyone will tell you they want to produce the best wine possible, but the question is what do they do in the service of that? What you do is what makes the difference, every moment that you are ready to do what you have to do to get the kind of wine you believe in. When I do that, this doesn’t feel like work at all. In fact, when I do that, everything makes perfect sense.”

Tasting Notes

I don’t think I can recommend these wines highly enough. They now are among my absolute favorite renditions of Chenin Blanc.

In addition to the wines below, Boudignon makes a rosé, which he did not have available to taste when I visited, and which I am quite keen to try. Keep an eye out for it.

The Emotion of Savennières: The Wines of Thibaud Boudignon

2020 Thibaud Boudignon Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon oil, quince, and flowers. In the mouth, explosive acidity offers lemon and grapefruit flavors tinged with acacia blossom and a bit of quince and pear. Mouthwatering, fantastic crushed stone minerality. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2020 Thibaud Boudignon “Clos de Frémine” Savenniéres, Loire Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of flowers, lemon oil, wet stones, and a hint of guava. In the mouth, bright juicy lemon, white flowers, and acacia blossoms all swirl with a silky texture and slightly softer acidity. This wine is detailed, deeply stony, clean, and bright with a long finish. Gorgeous. Aged in 600-liter barrels, with a total of about 10% new oak. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $85. click to buy.

2020 Thibaud Boudignon “a François(e)” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of wet stones and lemon pith with a hint of unripe pear. In the mouth, silky flavors of lemon and a hint of banana mix with pear and beautifully chiseled acidity. Gorgeous lemon pith and lemon oil flavors emerge with hints of flowers that linger in the finish. Silky texture and beautifully saline. This is now a selection of only free-run juice and only the best fruit from the La Gare vineyard from which Boudignon sources his Anjou Blanc. Sees 20% new oak. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.

2020 Thibaud Boudignon “La Vigne Cendree” Savenniéres, Loire Valley, France
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of quince and lemon pith. In the mouth, silky flavors of lemon pith, pear, grapefruit, and lemongrass have a fantastic juicy brightness. The wine features a long, stony finish with a hint of a chalky texture. Deeply mineral. This wine comes from a 1-acre parcel of vines that Boudignon has contracted. No new oak used. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $95. click to buy.

2020 Thibaud Boudignon “Clos de la Hutte” Savenniéres, Loire Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stone, tree blossoms, lemon pith, and grapefruit. In the mouth, incredibly silky flavors of lemon pith, lemon oil, unripe pear, acacia blossom, and quince have a cistern-like minerality with deep stony depths. Incredible acidity, great length. One of the best mouthfuls of Chenin Blanc I have had in a long time. This wine ages in 30% new oak of various sizes for 18 months before spending another year in the bottle before release. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $110. click to buy.

2020 Thibaud Boudignon “Clos de la Hutte – Franc de Pied” Savenniéres, Loire Valley, France
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith and wet stone. In the mouth, gorgeous stony lemon and grapefruit pith flavors are silky and deeply stony. Essential, stripped down, and ethereal, with some hint of greengage plum along with citrus and unripe pear. Stony, stony, stony. This is a special bottling made from only own-rooted vines planted in the stoniest sections of the Clos de la Hutte vineyard. The wine is aged in glass demijohns, “to go straight to the minerality,” says Boudignon. Only 300 bottles are made. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $??

The Emotion of Savennières: The Wines of Thibaud Boudignon

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The Simple Deliciousness of Anjou Blanc

I have long counted myself a fan of dry Chenin Blanc and of Loire Valley Chenin Blanc in particular. However, my experiences with the grape have largely been limited to its most prominent incarnations: the wines of Vouvray and Savennières in particular, with lesser exposure to Saumur Blanc.

That experience quite notably leaves out one of the grape’s main homelands, the rolling green hills of Anjou. So imagine my delight when, on my recent press trip to the Loire Valley, our hosts arranged an afternoon’s tasting of Anjou Blanc held in the courtyard of the beautiful Château de Passavant, a stone castle built in the 10th century (whose walls are shown at top and below).

The main gate at Château de Passavant

The Birthplace of Chenin

Because they emerge from mutations, which then must be propagated by humans who appreciate their unique qualities, determining the birth date of a grape variety proves largely impossible. The best we can manage involves using insights from DNA in combination with historical records to define a range of time in which a grape variety might have been selected and established.

For Chenin Blanc, this range is apparently sometime between the middle of the 9th Century and the beginning of the 16th Century, when we have a definitive mention of the grape’s names (both Chenin and its local moniker of Pineau de la Loire) in historical texts.

Beyond any doubt, however, is the place of Chenin’s birth, and that is in the region we now call Anjou, or more frequently Anjou-Saumur, though each side of that hyphen should be considered a distinct region in its own right.

The Simple Deliciousness of Anjou Blanc
The Anjou AOP, marked in red. Map courtesy of Interloire.

Situated south of the city of Angers, the Anjou region first became famous for its sweet wines made from Chenin Blanc, which were much celebrated in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

The Light Side and the Dark Side of the Soil

Anjou sits just at the edge of a major geological transition in France. Most of the region is characterized by the metamorphic dark schist rocks of the Amorican Massif, the eroded remains of an uplifted Paleozoic mountain chain ground down by time and weather to the point that it barely makes a ripple across the face of France these days.

Where the dark soils of the Amorican Massif end, they are replaced by the white, sedimentary limestone soils and tuffeau of the Paris Basin, the remains of an ancient shallow sea.

The wandering border between these two formations zigzags through eastern Anjou and is responsible for the two most common soil types in the region, confusingly referred to as “Anjou Blanc” and “Anjou Noir.” It takes some effort to remember that the wine Anjou Blanc is grown on both types of soils, each of which has its proponents among Anjou winegrowers, perhaps with the majority believing that the darker schist soils make for more complex wines.

For a long while, the dry wines of the Anjou region were mostly an afterthought, both for producers (who made them with grapes that weren’t good enough for their sweet wines), and for consumers.

Indeed, the humble dry white wines of the region still rarely get a mention in any wine textbook, guidebook, or reference volume. That may be because these wines have been, to quote their brief reference on Jancis Robinson’s website, “distinctly variable.”

But things are changing.

Hipster Dry White

As in many lesser-known wine regions around the world, younger independent producers have managed to find vineyards in Anjou that they can buy or rent without breaking the bank. These young aspirants have set up shop and started to make some very interesting wines, many of them with sustainable and/or low-intervention approaches. Likewise, many historical family estates have seen their younger generations make a distinct shift towards quality and away from quantity.

The result of this evolution can be tasted.

Anjou Blanc now represents a dependably tasty source of dry Chenin Blanc, and the producers in the region are moving on to explore a more detailed conversation about their terroir.

Or, to put it a little more bluntly, producers in this somewhat generic winegrowing region are grappling with questions of their identity and relevance.

The Simple Deliciousness of Anjou Blanc

Some have proposed the definition of “crus” within the roughly 1200 hectares of Chenin that are grown in the Anjou appellation. In fact, the tasting I experienced on my recent trip was designed to showcase these crus, which are not enshrined yet in wine law, but which apparently have local, anecdotal support.

The wines we tasted were grouped together under the following crus: Montchenin, Ronceray, Saint Lambert dont Bonnes Blanches, Secteur Ardenay, Faye d’Anjou, Bonnezeaux-Burnizellius, Saint Aubin de Luigné, Pierre Bise, Aubance Calcaire, Aubance, Martigné Briand, la Tuffière, Huillé, Le Coudereau, Les Rouillères, and Le Puy de Mont.

Unfortunately, far too few wines were available to taste from each of the crus (in some cases a cru was represented only by a single wine), and we weren’t provided enough information about the nature of each of these sites to assist in drawing any distinctions among them. We weren’t, for instance, even provided with the insights as to whether the soils of each cru were of the blanc or noir variety, though the inclusion of words like “calcaire” (the French word for limestone) or “blanches” (i.e. white) in some of the cru names provided something of a hint.

My evaluation of these wines from the perspective of quality and taste resulted in no clear thematic winners or losers among these crus or presumed soil types, which led me to believe that it would be of little help to you in organizing my notes below by cru. I’ve instead just listed the wines that I thought were worth paying attention to, and as I often do, I have not bothered to share with you the wines that scored below 8.5 on my approximate scale.

The ideas for how to make distinctions among the white wines of Anjou clearly need some further definition, but in the meantime, it’s safe to say that Anjou Blanc is better than it has ever been, and still improving. The best examples have the vibrancy and energy (though perhaps not the richness) of Vouvray, and some offer the complexity and cut of good Savennières.

Anjou Blanc offers good value for the money at the moment, especially in Europe, where bottles often sell for 12 to 18 Euros. With transportation costs, import duties, and Three-tier markups, they seem slightly less affordable here in the US, though compared to top-end Savennières, which now can top $80 a bottle, they are a relative bargain.

I encourage you to seek them out. I certainly will be.

The Simple Deliciousness of Anjou Blanc

Tasting Notes

Many of these wines are hard to find online, but I have provided buying links for those few I was able to track down.

The Simple Deliciousness of Anjou Blanc

2014 Chateau de Passavant “Montchenin” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of struck match, butterscotch, and lemon. In the mouth, extremely saline flavors of lemon pith, candied lemon rind, and a touch of butterscotch have a very nice bright acidity and a stony underbelly. There’s a hint of chalkiness in the finish. Farmed and made biodynamically, Demeter certified. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $34. click to buy.

2020 Château de Plaisance “Ronceray Zerzilles” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of struck match and sweet yellow flowers, with a hint of vanilla. Bright candied lemon and wet pavement flavors have a bright floral quality and deep stony backdrop. Good acidity and length. Farmed and made biodynamically, Demeter certified. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $36. click to buy.

2020 Raymond Morin “Ronceray Château Bellerive” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of struck match, yellow flowers, and lemon zest. In the mouth, bright zesty lemon juice and pith dominate, with excellent acidity and softer, but still-present underlying minerality. I love this wine’s salinity. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??

2018 Domaine Patrick Baudouin “Le Cornillard” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
pale gold in the glass, this wine smells beautifully of acacia blossoms. in the mouth, bright and juicy lemon rind and acacia blossom flavors are alive with intense acidity and gorgeous minerality. Very bright, delicious, and suffused with what I can only describe as “yellow” flavors. Organically farmed. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $48. click to buy.

2020 Domaine des Fontaines “Cuvée Landry” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of salty lemon and white flowers. In the mouth, salty lemon pith and grapefruit flavors mix with a hint of Asian pear and a light tannic grip. Excellent acidity and brightness, with that saline quality lingering in the finish, make for a totally mouthwatering package. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30.

2020 Domaine des Forges “L’Audace” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of struck flint and lemon rind and wet stone. In the mouth, lovely saline flavors of candied lemon rind, grapefruit, sweet flowers, and deep stony minerality swirl and tingle across the palate. Bright with acidity and totally mouthwatering. Outstanding. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30.

2020 Domaine de la Clartière “Terres De Paillé” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of acacia blossoms, citrus zest, and wet stones. In the mouth, bright citrus pith and candied citrus flavors have a nice salinity, bright, juicy acidity, and a wonderful stony minerality. Score: around 9. Cost: $25.

2020 Domaine des Hardières “Les Petits Gars” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of wet stones and citrus pith. In the mouth, zippy lemon and lime juice mix with citrus peel and a touch of pear. Excellent acidity. Organically farmed. Score: around 9. Cost: $30.

2018 Chateau de Fesles “La Chapelle” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and white flowers, with hints of lime zest and pomelo. In the mouth, pomelo and green apple flavors mix with pear and citrus zest. Excellent acidity and a hint of tannic grip. In organic conversion. Very tasty. Score: around 9. Cost: $40.

2019 Domaine Drost “Franc De Pied” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wintersweet blossoms and candied lemon. In the mouth, bright lemon and wet stone flavors mix with floral notes over top of a nice stony underbelly. Good acidity and length. Delicious. Farmed and made biodynamically, Demeter certified. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2018 Château Pierre-Bise “Les Rouannières” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of struck match and candied lemon. In the mouth, bright lemon rind, candied lemon, acacia blossom, and stony minerality make for a delicious package. Good acidity and a nice silky texture, plus a hint of tropical fruit. In organic conversion. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2018 Domaine de Huillé Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of honey, wet stones, and buckwheat. In the mouth, softer, filigreed acidity enlivens flavors of citrus pith and zest with some nice floral overtones. Very nice minerality. Pretty. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2020 Domaine du Belvédère “Le Puy De Mont” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and citrus pith. In the mouth bright citrusy flavors mix with wet stones and vibrate with excellent acidity. There’s a light tannic grip to this wine as well. Very tasty. Score: around 9. Cost: $50.

2019 Chateau de Brossay “Les Neprons” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, guava, and a hint of vanilla. In the mouth, the wine is round with sweet aromatics. Softer acidity, with hints of nougat lingering in the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2020 Domaine Ogereau “Bonnes Blanches Sec” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and citrus zest. In the mouth, bright citrus and apple flavors have a nice zippy brightness thanks to very good acidity. There’s a nice citrus tang through the finish. Organically farmed. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

The Simple Deliciousness of Anjou Blanc

2018 Le Clos Galerne “Moulin Brûlé” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of pineapple and some tropical fruits and blossoms. In the mouth, bright lemon and pineapple flavors have a nice bright acidity and minerality behind them. The Pineapple flavors bring with them a hint of that pineapple tingle on the tongue along with a touch of bitterness and a hint of alcohol. In organic conversion. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $60.

2017 Château de Bois-Brinçon “Les Saules De Montbenault” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lime and green apple and a hint of oak. In the mouth, lime zest and grapefruit mix with Asian pear and wet stones. Nice minerality along with a hint of chalky texture and very good acidity. Farmed organically. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2018 Domaine Bodineau “Héritage” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of oak and nougat. In the mouth, vanilla and crème anglaise mix with pear and wet stones and a touch of bitterness. Good acidity, but some heat in the finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??

2020 Château du Fresne “Chevalier Le Bascle” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus and sweet cream. In the mouth, soft and round citrus and sweet cream flavors have a nice zesty citrus finish. Decent acidity but on the softer side. I’d like this to have more cut. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $35.

2020 Domaine de Saint Maur “845” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lime blossom, wet stones, and honey. In the mouth, round lime and lime blossom flavors mix with Asian pear and grapefruit. Softer acidity. Surprisingly greenish in character. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??

The post The Simple Deliciousness of Anjou Blanc appeared first on Vinography.

The Flavor of Luxury: What does Cristal Taste Like?

I occasionally have strangers regularly confess to me, with more than a little embarassment, that they don’t really like Champagne. Whenever I hear this, I experience an overwhelming sense of empathy. For a long time, early in my wine-drinking explorations, I didn’t like Champagne either. But I eventually learned that my problem wasn’t that I didn’t like Champagne. My problem was that I had never had a really good one.

Personally, I’d bet that there are an awful lot of people out there in the world dutifully celebrating with $20 to $35 bottles of Champagne but not really understanding what the fuss is all about. They open their orange-labeled bottles, think it tastes ok, but not great, and wonder why people like me speak about Champagne as one of the world’s greatest wines, blah, blah, blah.

The problem is that really good Champagne is just so damn expensive. Too expensive, really. In a world where most people consider it a serious splurge to pay $50 for a nice bottle of wine at a local wine store, paying $60 to $100 for a seriously nice bottle of Champagne is not easy to stomach. Nevermind paying $300 or more for a bottle.

It wasn’t until I started going to larger public and industry trade-and-media tastings that I got to experience some of the world’s top Champagnes, and I had that light-bulb moment. I can still remember the “Oh, damn…” experience of tasting Dom Perignon or Krug Grand Cuvee for the first time, and realizing just how amazing great Champagne can be.

All of which brings me to today’s topic, the extremely famous Champagne named Cristal.

I believe my first taste of Cristal was probably at the annual Wine & Spirits Top 100 Tasting more than a decade ago. Up until that point I knew of it only by reputation, in particular for being featured in Rap and R&B lyrics. Thank you, Jay-Z.

Despite my interest in wine, Cristal existed more for me in the realm of pop culture than it did in any sort of wine framework. Not unlike, if you’ll forgive the Lorde reference, a Maybach automobile. I’ve never seen one, certainly never driven one, but vaguely know they’re a peak of luxury.

I’ve never bought a bottle of Cristal myself (and I’m not likely to do so for the foreseeable future) so my tastes of the stuff have all been at wine tasting events, until a couple of months ago when a bottle of the 2014 showed up on my doorstep as a press sample. And, well, here we are.

The Flavor of Luxury: What does Cristal Taste Like?

The History of an Icon

Champagne Louis Roederer can trace its history back to the year America declared independence from Britain. In 1776, the Dubois family founded Dubois Père et Fils, and operated for nearly 60 years before it was inherited in 1833 by a young Louis Roederer, who changed the name and began a family legacy of producing Champagne that continues into its seventh generation today.

Roederer would be notable purely for its continuous family ownership in today’s era of corporate luxury goods portfolios, but it clearly stands apart from almost every other top Champagne producer for a whole host of reasons.

For starters, Roederer actually owns and farms its own vineyards, the only one of the great Champagne houses to do so for the majority of its production. Only one of Rogederer’s wines is made from purchased fruit, the rest come from the house’s 593 acres of vineyards spread amongst the grand cru and premiere cru villages of the Champagne region.

The Flavor of Luxury: What does Cristal Taste Like?

What’s more, Roederer farms nearly 200 of those acres biodynamically and most of the remaining acres organically, an approach which is still both uncommon and difficult in Champagne. Many acres are plowed only by horse.

Roederer is also the only leading Champagne house that maintains its own vine nursery which it uses to propagate a massale selection of its best vine material. The winemaking team, led by chef du cave Jean-Baptise Lécaillon, divides the house’s vineyard holdings into 410 distinct parcels, each of which is farmed and vinified as an individual.

The Flavor of Luxury: What does Cristal Taste Like?
Tsar Alexander II, AKA Mr. Cristal.
Image: Wikipedia

Roederer has been a leading Champagne house for more than 150 years, which is perhaps why in 1876 Tsar Alexander II of Russia asked Roederer to create a special bottling for him and him alone. In response, the house created Cristal, named for both the inherent qualities of the wine itself, as well as the distinctive transparent lead-crystal bottle selected to mark the product as special.

Presumably the Tsar got to enjoy a couple vintages of this wine before he was assassinated by a hand-thrown bomb in 1881 on his way to a ceremonial military function. Let’s hope so anyway.

The first incarnation of Cristal expired rather too quickly. But it would be reborn sixty four years later as the winery’s top product in a 1945 commercial bottling bearing the same name and a beautifully transparent glass bottle.

It has been made ever since.

What You Are Drinking When You Drink Cristal

Cristal is usually made from the Roederer’s 45 most precious, chalk-driven parcels in the villages of Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Verzenay, Avize, Verzy, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Aÿ, and Mareuil-su-Aÿ. These 45 specific parcels are reserved for Cristal each year, though others may make it into the blend as vintage conditions allow. Roughly a third of these parcels are vinified in large oak foudres, while the rest ferment in steel tanks.

The wine is usually prevented from going through malolactic fermentation, and is a blend of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with Pinot Noir usually making up 60% or more of the blend. The varietal proportions, just as the specific parcel selections, shift slightly to accommodate the vintage, guided by the nearly constant tasting of Lécaillon and his team between December and March after each harvest.

For many prestige cuvées at top Champagne houses that are made up of multiple vintages, the art of blending is a balance between current vintage wines and older reserve wines, aiming to reproduce a consistent house style, but not so with Cristal, which ends up being an expression of something much more singular.

Each element of the final assemblage is an expression of a slice of Champagne terroir in the same, single vintage. Lécaillon and his winemaking team work to put together the highest expression of what their best plots can achieve in a given year.

Once assembled, the final blend undergoes its secondary fermentation in bottles and ages on the lees for a minimum of 6 years, and then another 8 months after disgorgement and dosage. It receives usually 6 or 7 grams per liter of dosage.

For all the time spent on its lees, Cristal remains a chiseled expression of the region’s limestone soils as expressed by Pinot and Chardonnay. The vintage determines just how open, expressive, and generous the wine will be in its youth, often with significant variation in personality from year to year.

Noted Champagne expert Peter Liem has called Cristal “perhaps the most misunderstood wine in Champagne,” because he believes that the wine must be aged for 10 to 20 years after release to reveal its true complexity.

My own limited tasting experience aligns with that point of view. The 2014 that I tasted below is frankly, too young to drink, and does not yet possess its full breadth and depth, while the 2009 I tasted out of double magnum recently was just beginning to hit its stride.

Few people can afford to pay $300 for a bottle of champagne at a store, let alone two to three times that price in a restaurant. But if you can, you can also afford to wait, and drink these wines when they are actually ready to tell you their full story.

The wine world sadly only gets more rarefied as time goes on. I have a greater propensity to spend money on wine than most, yet I am far from being able to afford some of the world’s greatest wines, including this one. That said, top Champagnes like Cristal are much more affordable than top Burgundies, and are made in quantities that allow mere mortals to find and buy them much more easily than many other upper-echelon wines.

I consider myself quite lucky to have tasted Cristal the few times I have, and I expect to continue to feel the same way for rest of my upper-middle-class life. There’s a part of me that hopes to never forget that there was a time when Cristal only existed for me in the lyrics of a song.

Here are some notes on various vintages of Cristal, most tasted within 1-2 years of release, with the exception of the 2009, which I tasted recently.

Tasting Notes

The Flavor of Luxury: What does Cristal Taste Like?

2014 Louis Roederer “Cristal” Brut Champagne, France
Pale gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet stone, citrus pith, and sarsaparilla. In the mouth, a somewhat soft mousse delivers flavors of crushed nuts, dried lemon peel, pomelo and sea air, with a tangy finish of kumquat and pink Himalayan salt lingering for a while. This was a challenging vintage, with a cold, wet, and rainy finish to the season. While clean and appropriately crystalline, this wine is still a bit angular, tight, and even a bit shrill, and will likely improve with some additional bottle age. I’d expect in 5 to 10 years it will be spectacular. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $300. click to buy.

2012 Louis Roederer “Cristal” Brut Champagne, France
Palest gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of oyster shells, sea air, and warm brioche. In the mouth the wine has a very fine mousse of bubbles and a beautiful elegance as lemon zest, wet stones and lightly savory brioche flavors linger with a hint of aromatic sweetness in the finish. Wonderfully balanced with an incredible poise. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $300. click to buy.

2009 Louis Roederer “Cristal” Brut Champagne, France
Pale gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of seawater seaweed and toasted brioche. In the mouth the wine is gorgeously saline, as a velvety mousse floats flavors of white flowers, toasted bread, crushed nuts, and a hint of melted butter across the palate. There’s an incredible, regal length to this wine, and this beautiful tension between the sweet aromatics of flowers and and incredible savory toasty goodness that keeps the saliva glands on overdrive. Each mouthful leaves you wanting more. Tasted out of double magnum. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $350. click to buy.

2004 Louis Roederer “Cristal” Brut Champagne, France
Light gold in the glass, with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of yeasty lime zest and wet stones. In the mouth the wine is very dry, with a silky mousse and saline, crisp, mineral flavors that have but a whiff of citrus zest to them. Quite focused, as usual, and taut. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $400. click to buy.

2002 Louis Roederer “Cristal” Brut Champagne, France
Light gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of lemon juice and toasted sourdough bread. In the mouth the wine has a classic profile of lemon juice, sourdough toast, and Ritz Crackers. Nicely balanced, beautifully saline, and utterly delicious. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $450. click to buy.

Images courtesy of Champagne Louis Roederer.

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Let’s Talk About Bruno: The Simply Delicious Savoie Wines of Bruno Lupin

I followed Google Maps through the little Haut-Savoie village of Frangy and up a steep hillside into the vineyards, eventually to be deposited at the end of a gravel driveway labeled with the number where the internet suggested I’d find the tiny winery of Bruno Lupin.

Emerging from my rental car, I was greeted by a genial old man who despite his smile, wanted to know what the hell I was doing in his driveway. At least, that’s what I thought he was (politely) asking me in French, a language I cannot be said to speak, only to butcher.

The next 2 minutes of conversation were the stuff of so many slapstick comedy routines involving two parties earnestly trying to understand each other in the absence of a common language. Eventually, I gathered that I had indeed found Lupin, but instead of Bruno, I had the pleasure of addressing his father, Francois. I had arrived at his childhood home, still occupied by the elder Lupin, in the midst of a very old vineyard planted by and named for Francois’ father Jean, whom everyone called Pepe.

From this small, steep plot of Altesse, Bruno Lupin (and his father before him) has long made a flagship bottling of deeply mineral, silky, seductive wine that sings of the region’s morainic clay-limestone soils and crisp pre-alpine sunlight.

Eventually, through a combination of hand gestures and a trickle of comprehension squeezed from my broken French, I gathered that the younger Lupin I had come to see that morning would be awaiting me just down the hill at the site of his modest winery and tasting room, converted from an ancient chicken coop and feed store in the center of town.

Deep Roots

The Lupin family has been associated with the little village of Frangy for more than a century, but when Bruno Lupin came of age he had no intention of working in the family wine domaine. Instead, after his Enology studies in Beaune, he went to work for Cave de Genève, a large co-op winery in Switzerland, where he assumed the role of Chief of Vinification and spent almost 15 years making very large quantities of wine with a high degree of sanitation, precision, and repeatability.

In 1998, at the age of 35, Lupin returned to his hometown to take over from his father, after it became clear that neither his brothers nor his sister were going to keep the family business running. In the process, he left behind nearly everything he had been doing from a winemaking perspective in Switzerland, save perhaps a keen attention to detail.

“In Switzerland we produced a lot of different wines, and the company lost itself in diversity,” says Lupin. “When I decided to come home I wanted to keep things simple.”

Lupin immediately began phasing out all herbicide and pesticide use in his family’s 15 acres of vineyards and left behind all interventions in the cellar save temperature control, occasionally preventing malolactic conversion, and the addition of sulfur dioxide when needed to keep his wines fresh.

For the past 25 years, Lupin has been focused almost entirely on one plot of land and one grape, the variety Altesse that many believe may have originated in the region. This long history with the grape is perhaps one of the reasons that Frangy is a cru—one of only 4 villages in the Savoie region that are allowed to attach their names to bottles of Roussette de Savoie, the local AOC designation for Altesse.

Lupin’s plot sits at the heart of a hillside named Les Aricoques, which has been associated with some of the highest quality Altesse made in the Savoie for a very long time.

“Altesse requires an incredible amount of attention,” says Lupin. “It has a lot of vigor, and so if you want the highest quality you have to work extremely hard in the vineyard.”

Let’s Talk About Bruno: The Simply Delicious Savoie Wines of Bruno Lupin
Bruno Lupin amongst his Altesse.

Lupin’s seeming mastery of the variety has put him much in demand as consultant, troubleshooter, and overall expert in the region. Recently a non-profit decided to resurrect an historic vineyard bordering nearby Lake Annecy, and brought on Lupin to head up the effort.

Simple Wines, Complex Flavors

As with many vignerons of a similar persuasion, Lupin spends as much time and effort as possible ensuring he harvests pristine fruit. In addition to his organic farming regimen, he utilizes homemade buckthorn-bark tea sprays, the tannins of which he says fortifies his vines against mildew and helps him reduce his copper sulfate usage.

Lupin also takes pains to diversify the ecosystem of his vineyards. He encourages trees to grow on his vineyard borders, allows vegetative growth between his rows, and has retained a small copse of trees in the center of his hillside, which remains home to rabbits, birds, badgers, and the occasional fox.

His grapes are harvested by hand and brought into the winery where they are whole-cluster pressed gently with a pneumatic press into either his old enameled tanks or the newer, temperature-controlled stainless tanks he’s been buying as funds allow. The oldest vines from the Pepe vineyard end up in an unusual concrete tank in the form of a trapezoidal icosahedron (20-sided volume) with a horizontal egg-shaped chamber at its core.

The wines ferment with ambient yeasts, and then generally age in tank, except for a couple of cuvées that spend time in wood, including some old acacia barrels. While the Cuvée du Pepe from his oldest vines is allowed to go through malolactic conversion, most wines are not. Lupin seeks to conserve the chiseled acidity that Altesse can deliver in the face of a warming climate.

Along with this interest in acidity, Lupin prefers to ferment nearly all of his wines to dryness, which sets him apart from many of his fellow vignerons, who prefer to leave a bit of residual sugar to balance what they see as the austerity of the Altesse variety.

The 10% of his vineyard planted to Mondeuse Lupin treats much the same as his whites, with the addition of 2 weeks or so of semi-carbonic maceration and then aging in old oak casks before being bottled unfined and unfiltered.

“My Mondeuse is not the same as other people’s,” says Lupin. “I have a white wine terroir after all. I prefer lighter tannins and more fruit, a style that can be drunk early instead of having to be laid down for a while.”

“It’s important for me to make a wine that me and my family will like,” says Lupin. “When I believe in my product, people will taste my wines and they will be convinced, or not. I’m not looking for a cliché wine. My goal is to produce the best wine possible and let the quality speak for itself. I have only two grapes, so I keep it simple.”

Simple in conception does not mean simple in expression, however. Lupin coaxes a remarkable dynamic range out of his wines, at once both deeply mineral as well as ripe with flavors of fruit and herbs. Lupin may be economical with his words when it comes to describing his wines, preferring terms such as simplicity or finesse, but it’s clear that he thinks quite carefully about each of his wines and what he wants them to express.

A quote by Paul Claudel hangs from an ancient basket press in Lupin’s cellar: “Wine is the teacher of taste and, by training us in the practice of inner attention, it is the liberator of the mind.”

Wines of Sentiment

While simplicity is clearly a guiding principle, that doesn’t mean Lupin doesn’t like to experiment.

“I stay with the bread and butter, a stable production,” he says, “but then maybe there are little offshoots. I make a little rosé, or more sentimental wines.”

At one point he and his wife Suzy, who manages the compact little tasting room adjacent to the winery, decided to begin the tradition of a night-harvesting party. Vintage permitting, Lupin leaves a portion of his grapes on the vine that will be harvested at the first full moon following his normal harvest. Family and friends are invited out under the stars, and with much merriment and requisite drinking, the remaining grapes are harvested and then make their way into a wine named Cuvee de la Pleine Lune.

Let’s Talk About Bruno: The Simply Delicious Savoie Wines of Bruno Lupin
The night-harvested wine that celebrates friends and family.

Lupin also recently began making a skin-macerated, orange version of Altesse fermented whole cluster in a tank with punchdowns that is positively brilliant and should be hitting the market shortly.

In 2015 he also began making a very unusual rendition of Altesse, half of which is aged in cask for 5 years su voile, under a blanket of flor yeast in the style of dry Sherry. The entire production of this wine was sold to a single merchant, and it wasn’t made again until 2020, so it may be a while before you come across a bottle.

Even though Cremant de Savoie must by law be made from the better-known Savoie grape Jacquere, that doesn’t sit very well with the folks in Frangy, who have been making sparkling wine from Altesse for perhaps more than a century, and don’t care to grow what they consider an unsuitable variety for their chillier meso-climate. Bruno was granted an exception to continue making his 100% Altesse Cremant de Savoie until 2020, but he says that will be the last vintage. If he decides to make sparkling wine moving forward, he’ll have to label it Vin de France.

The Anvil Overhead

When I visited Lupin last summer, the region had just been hit with crazy storms, including torrential rains and a bunch of hail in various places, causing mildew and rot to go rampant, and this after spring frosts that were particularly damaging for some. Lupin winced visibly when estimating the impact on his vineyards.

“If I am lucky, I will make enough wine to cover my interest payments,” he said. “We just have to hope this is an exception and not the trend. It’s worrying.”

The Savoie region has been hammered by adverse weather events in recent years, with significant hail damage in the 2018 and 2019 vintage. This past spring brought particularly hard frosts across most of France, including in the Savoie.

Just over a week ago on June 5th, the vineyards of the Chignin-Bergeron region were struck by a massive storm that left drifts of hailstones more than a foot deep in some places, decimating many vineyards. In a region full of small, family-run producers like Lupin, the distance between making a living and complete insolvency remains quite small.

“All I can do is try to keep back some stock of wines,” says Lupin, “So that I always have something to sell.”

Beyond that, few options exist for those who don’t have a lot of money to spend on vineyards elsewhere (to hedge their risk), or pricey technology such as electric frost protection that can only hope to mitigate the damage.

All the more reason, then, to talk about these wines, and encourage people to seek them out and support producers like Lupin, despite the wines being somewhat obscure and difficult to find.

Lupin’s wines are imported by De Maison Selections, but can be tricky to find online. I’ve provided links below for any and all I could.

Tasting Notes

2019 Bruno Lupin Cremant de Savoie, Savoie, France
Palest straw with medium-sized bubbles, this wine smells of peaches, white flowers, creme anglaise, and ripe apples. 6 g/l dosage, but I would have guessed higher. In the mouth, faintly sweet apple and white floral flavors have a nice bright crispness. Crémant legally is required to be Jacquere, but Bruno was given a special exception to use Altesse until 2020. This is the last bottling that is 100% Altesse. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.

Let’s Talk About Bruno: The Simply Delicious Savoie Wines of Bruno Lupin

2019 Bruno Lupin Roussette de Savoie Cru Frangy, Savoie, France
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of green apples, dried herbs, and flowers with interestingly a faint tobacco note. In the mouth, bright apple and Asian pear flavors mix with herbal notes. Excellent acidity. 100% Altesse. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2019 Bruno Lupin “Cuvee du Pepe” Roussette de Savoie Cru Frangy, Savoie, France
Pale straw in the glass, this wine smells of pastry cream, apples, and yellow herbs. In the mouth, silky flavors of Asian pear, white flowers, and wet chalkboard have an exciting vibrancy. In the mouth, the wine has incredible length, with citrus pith and yellow herbs lingering for a long time in the finish. 12.5% alcohol. Wonderfully crisp and bright. 100% Altesse made in concrete egg. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $29.

2019 Bruno Lupin “Cuvée Les Barriques” Roussette de Savoie Cru Frangy, Savoie, France
Pale straw in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, a touch of honey, and a hint of oak. In the mouth, bright stony flavors of citrus pith and dried yellow herbs mix with a hint of Asian pear and white flowers. The oak usage here seems to lean out the wine a bit, making it somewhat stonier and crisp, with a tiny hint of toasty wood in the finish. Spends six months in used Francois Freres barrels. 100% Altesse. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2018 Bruno Lupin “Cuvée de l’Acacia” Roussette de Savoie Cru Frangy, Savoie, France
Palest greenest gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and wet stones with the barest hint of gunflint that might easily get it mistaken for a Chablis. In the mouth, bright lemon pith and lemon oil mix with crushed stones and electric acidity. Silky white flowers and deep minerality. Gorgeous. There’s a precision to this wine that is positively thrilling. 100% Altesse. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

2020 Bruno Lupin Rosé of Mondeuse, Savoie, France
Palest coppery pink in the glass, this wine smells of raspberries and citrus peel with sweet floral notes. In the mouth, raspberry and watermelon rind mix with citrus peel and wonderfully stony minerality. There’s a faint tannic grip to it and excellent acidity. Quite delicious. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2019 Bruno Lupin Mondeuse, Savoie, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black raspberry and aromatic herbs. In the mouth, lithe herbal, black raspberry, and mulberry flavors are wrapped in a faintly muscular skein of tannins over a wonderfully stony core of bright berry fruit with faint aromatics. Excellent acidity. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $27.

2019 Bruno Lupin “Cuvee de la Pleine Lune” Altesse, Savoie, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and dry tobacco. In the mouth, intense Asian pear, honeysuckle, dried yellow herbs, and wet stone flavors have a nice intensity. These grapes are left on the vine until the next full moon after the main harvest, and then family and close friends go out at night, drink wine, and harvest these rows with headlamps. The resulting wine is higher in alcohol and a bit richer, but still dry and delicious. 100% Altesse. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2020 Bruno Lupin Orange Altesse, Vin de France
Light amber in the glass, this wine smells of marijuana and other dried herbs. In the mouth, gorgeous faintly tannic citrus peel. Dried herbs, dry tobacco, wet stones, apricot skin. Fantastic acidity. 100% Altesse spends 15 days on the skins. Bruno only made about 500 bottles. 12.8% alcohol. Not yet released or named, it will have to be labeled Vin de France as extended skin contact is not approved by the Savoie appellation. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??

2015 Bruno Lupin “Alt 1550” Altesse, Vin de France
Light to medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of oak and citrus pith and herbs with a crushed nut quality. In the mouth, lightly tannic textures surround a core of nutty, dried citrus peel, very dry, dried herbs, and a hint of vanilla, but doesn’t taste sherried or highly oxidized. 50% of this wine ages under flor for 5 years. 13% alcohol. The entire production of this wine was purchased by a single merchant. It was next made in 2020 and has yet to be released. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $n/a

Let’s Talk About Bruno: The Simply Delicious Savoie Wines of Bruno Lupin
Suzy and Bruno Lupin.

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Same Chenin, Different Pleasures: Tasting Vouvray and Savennièrs

I don’t suppose that it’s an uncommon experience, but I definitely came back from my recent press trip to the Loire knowing that I’m not drinking enough Chenin Blanc. Before leaving, I counted myself a fan of the variety, often ordering it off of wine lists at restaurants, but I don’t own that many bottles from the Loire, and I haven’t been in the habit of buying them regularly. But that’s going to change.

Vouvray and Savennières are two of the Loire’s appellations dedicated only to Chenin Blanc. While a number of Loire Valley appellations feature both red and white wines from different grape varieties, Vouvray and Savennières make only white wines, and only from Chenin. While Savennières is best known for (and is dominated by) its dry wines, both regions produce dry, semi-sweet, and sweet wines, while Vouvray also makes sparkling wines.

Vouvray from the air

They share the same grape variety, but these two regions on the northern bank of the Loire River produce dry white wines of a distinctly different character, in part due to their very different geologies.

It’s always tricky to generalize, but I would say that the wines of Vouvray come across as slightly richer, with a little more weight and heft in the glass, while Savennières has a stonier, lighter quality. Whereas I tend to taste pear, quince, and lemon in Vouvray wines, I tend to get more grapefruit notes and less quince in Savennières.

The trip I attended in late April for the Val de Loire Millésime event afforded me the opportunity to taste a number of wines from each appellation side-by-side. Also, because I arrived a little early for the junket, I got the chance to spend a day wandering around Savennières and make a couple of producer visits, which I’ll end up writing about in due course.

Same Chenin, Different Pleasures: Tasting Vouvray and Savennièrs
A walled Savennières vineyard

In the meantime, I thought I’d share my notes on some of the better wines I tasted from each region as part of my official visit, and a little bit about these two unique centers of Chenin Blanc production.

Vouvray

Same Chenin, Different Pleasures: Tasting Vouvray and Savennièrs

The long, long, Loire Valley is typically divided into four primary regions, the largest and most central of which is Touraine, which is centered around the city of Tours. Nestled just to the east and north of Tours is the appellation of Vouvray (marked in orange above).

Vouvray (and indeed, much of the surrounding region) is characterized by its sedimentary soils that the French refer to as tuffeau, or chalky limestone. Formed 90 million years ago when the region was a large shallow sea, the sandy, fine-grained limestone of what is known as the Paris Basin is slightly different than the true chalk found in Champagne or England, but has many of the same properties when it comes to water retention and overall chemistry.

Vouvray sits right at the farthest edge of what might be considered any real marine influence sweeping up the Loire Valley, and tends to therefore have more of a continental climate, with warm summers, colder winters, and sometimes rather inconvenient storms. The variability in the climate tends to result in significant vintage variation among the wines. When the weather is fine, the region’s wines sing, from the complex dry and sparkling wines to the botrytis-richened sweet wines.

The region probably hosted vines in Roman times but has definitely been growing wine more or less continually since the Middle Ages. According to Interloire, the trade association representing the breadth of the Loire Valley, there are approximately 160 different producers of Vouvray, farming around 5000 acres of vines.

Most producers make their dry whites according to a similar protocol: pressing whole clusters of grapes (picked earlier before the grapes shrivel or botrytis sets in) into steel tanks to ferment, usually with ambient yeasts, and then often aging those wines in older oak barrels. Some producers choose to block malolactic conversion, but most let it happen naturally.

Tasting Notes

Same Chenin, Different Pleasures: Tasting Vouvray and Savennièrs

2020 Careme Vincent “Clos de la Roche” Vouvray Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of wet stones, white flowers, and lemon pith. In the mouth, saline flavors of lemon pith, white flowers, and Asian pear have a deep stony depth, and a wonderful lemon pith and lemon oil finish. Long and juicy and delicious. Certified organic. Score: around 9.5. Cost: €27.

2020 Jean-Marc Gilet Domaine De La Rouletière “Les Perruches” Vouvray Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of white flowers, lemon pith, and pear skin. In the mouth, lemon pith, white flowers, a touch of quince, and deep stony minerality are bright with deliciously juicy acidity and a faint salinity. Very tasty. Certified organic. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2018 Domaine Du Petit Trésor “Belle au naturel” Vouvray Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon oil, white flowers, and pears. In the mouth, wonderfully saline flavors of lemon pith, lemon oil, quince, and white flowers have a faint tannic grip and a deeply crystalline stony minerality. There’s a long pear-skin finish with a bit of a grip to it. Sadly bottled in a much heavier bottle than it needs to be. Certified organic. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: €12.

2019 Domaine Champalou “Le Portail” Vouvray Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of struck match and lemon oil. In the mouth, lemon oil and Asian pear have a nice bright grip to them, welded to a deeply stony wet chalkboard minerality. Just a hint of salinity lingers in the finish. Certified organic. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $42. click to buy.

2020 Vignoble Alain Robert “Les Charmes” Vouvray Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones, lemon oil, and a hint of white flowers. In the mouth, lemon oil and Asian pear mix with a hint of quince and grapefruit with fabulously bright acidity and deep stony quality. Light tannic grip, long citrusy finish. Excellent. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: €7.5.

Same Chenin, Different Pleasures: Tasting Vouvray and Savennièrs

2020 Domaine Huet “Le Haut-Lieu” Vouvray Demi-Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon and quince. In the mouth, faintly sweet flavors of lemon and quince mix with white flowers and wet stones. Certified organic and Demeter biodynamic. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2020 Vigneau Christophe Et Stéphane “Silex” Vouvray Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon zest and a touch of white flowers. In the mouth, lightly sweet flavors of lemon, grapefruit, quince, and wet stones have a nice long finish with just a touch of heat. Certified organic. Score: around 9. Cost: €12.

2019 Earl Damien Pinon “Le Clos Tenau” Vouvray Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
A light greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of quince and lemon curd. In the mouth, flavors of quince paste, lemon curd, and a touch of vanilla are rich but with excellent acidity and a nice stony minerality to match, making for a silky, weighty, but still-freshly-bright package. In organic conversion. Score: around 9. Cost: €13.

2020 Domaine De La Robinière “Bel Air” Vouvray Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of honey and candied lemon rind. In the mouth, bright lemon and pear flavors have a lovely tannic grip and deep stoniness to them. Citrus pith lingers in the finish with a hint of salinity. Score: around 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2020 Breussin Denis Vouvray Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of oak and vanilla, wet wood, and lemon peel. In the mouth, lemon peel and ripe quince flavors are welded to a deeply stony quality with a light tannic grip and excellent acidity. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $19. click to buy.

2017 Domaine du Viking Vouvray Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith and pear. In the mouth, deeply stony lemon and grapefruit flavors are tinged with quince and the strongly tannic grip of pear skin. Stony and bright. Needs some time to open up. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: €12.5.

2020 Brisebarre Philippe “Vignoble Brisebarre” Vouvray Sec, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon, vanilla, and a hint of pear. In the mouth, lemon, grapefruit and a pear-quince flavor also has a hint of buttery pastry. Good acidity and stoniness. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

Savennières

Same Chenin, Different Pleasures: Tasting Vouvray and Savennièrs

Roughly 80 miles to the west of Vouvray, and just west of the city of Angers, lies the tiny village of Savennièrs (pronounced sauce-en-yay). Home to only a few dozen producers, Savennières spans only about 740 acres in total, with roughly only half of that planted to vines.

Its geology couldn’t be more different than that of Vouvray. Savennières is known for its soils of shiny mica-schist, a metamorphic rock that is part of the Amorican Massif, a large area of uplifted stone that resulted from upwellings of magma from the earth’s crust. As this magma swelled upwards somewhere between 400 and 600 million years ago, it heated the rock above it, turning the sandy ocean-bottom sediments into schists.

Since its uplift, the massif has been eroded down so that the landscape doesn’t look much different than that of Vouvray, but the underlying soils are quite separate, and undoubtedly have some influence the character of the region’s wines.

Most Savennières winemakers follow a similar winemaking protocol to their colleagues in Vouvray, with some younger winemakers experimenting with aging only in steel or in concrete eggs.

Tasting Notes

Same Chenin, Different Pleasures: Tasting Vouvray and Savennièrs

2020 Domaine Thibaud Boudignon “La Vigne Cendree” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon and grapefruit and a hint of resinous butterscotch. In the mouth, intensely bright lemon and grapefruit flavors mix with a hint of pear and deep stony minerality. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $92. click to buy.

2019 Patrick Baudouin “Bellevue” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Pale yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus peel, nut skin, and a hint of flintiness, and a touch of quince. In the mouth, fantastic saline flavors of citrus oil, grapefruit, and wet stones have a gorgeous brightness and citrusy snap thanks to excellent acidity. That resinous struck flint note lingers for a long time in the finish Outstanding. Certified organic. Score: around 9.5. Cost: €35.

2019 Domaine Belargus “Gaudrets” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of struck flint and lemon oil. In the mouth, saline flavors of struck flint, smoky, grapefruit, pear, and long stony finish. Fantastic acidity, salty deliciousness. Deeply crystalline. In organic conversion. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2019 Domaine Du Closel “Clos Du Papillon” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of grapefruit oil and a hint of vanilla. In the mouth, bright pear and citrus oil flavors are juicy and delicious and very stony, with a light tannic grip and long mineral finish. Certified organic. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

Same Chenin, Different Pleasures: Tasting Vouvray and Savennièrs

2019 Fournier-Longchamp Domaine FL “Chamboureau” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of nutty citrus and a hint of pear. In the mouth, bright lemon and grapefruit flavors mix with a touch of nougat and deep stony minerality. Fantastic acidity and freshness. With a light tannic grip. Certified organic. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $33. click to buy.

2018 Terra Vita Vinum “Bigottière” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Pale yellow gold with a hint of green, this wine smells of wet stones, citrus pith, and white flowers. In the mouth, deeply stony notes of wet chalkboard mix with citrus pith, white flowers, and very delicate aromas of pear flesh. Lovely filigreed acidity and deep mineral purity. Certified organic. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $48. click to buy.

2020 Château De Plaisance Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus pith, grapefruit, and a flinty smoky quality. In the mouth, bright citrus pith, grapefruit, Asian pear, and light daikon flavors have a clean stoniness that is quite deep. There’s a light chalky tannic quality to the wine, with a pomelo pith finish. Demeter biodynamic certified. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2019 Raymond Morin “Chateau De Varennes” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers with a hint of struck flint. In the mouth, wonderfully bright flavors of citrus oil, grapefruit, pear, and pear skin have a nice flintiness and tannic grip. Deeply stony and bright. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: €15.

2019 Château du Breuil Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of grapefruit pith and pear. In the mouth, grapefruit, pear, and lemon oil flavors are juicy and bright with deep stony qualities, wet chalkboard minerality and texture, and a long citrus oil finish. Delicious. Certified organic. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

Same Chenin, Different Pleasures: Tasting Vouvray and Savennièrs

2018 Domaine Des Baumard “Clos Du Papillon” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus oil and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, bright tangy pear and pear skin flavors mix with citrus oil and a hint of quince paste and nuttiness. In organic conversion. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2020 Domaine Taillandier Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Pale yellow-gold with a hint of green, this wine smells of vanilla and candied grapefruit with a hint of Asian pear. In the mouth, Asian pear and lemon oil mix with a hint of dried honey and notes of dried citrus peel lingering in the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: €21.

2020 Domaine Du Petit Metris “Clos De La Marche” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of grapefruit oil, grapefruit pith, a hint of flintiness, and a touch of apple. In the mouth, green apple, grapefruit, and Asian pear flavors mix with a touch of pear skin and a nice wet stone underbelly. Good acidity. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2020 Domaine Des Forges “Clos Du Papillon” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of a touch of oak, pear, and citrus oil. In the mouth, citrus oil, vanilla, pear, and grapefruit mix with a nice stony underbelly. Light tannic grip. Long finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2020 Domaine Ogereau “Clos Le Grand Beaupréau” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Pale yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of pear and citrus. In the mouth, citrus and pear and a touch of quince mix with a nice stony underbelly. Certified organic. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2019 Chateau Soucherie “Clos Des Perrières” Savennières, Anjou-Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon oil, Asian pear, and grapefruit. In the mouth, silky flavors of grapefruit and wet stone have a delicate filigreed acidity. The flavors are a bit soft and imprecise, but still pleasurable. In organic conversion. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

Same Chenin, Different Pleasures: Tasting Vouvray and Savennièrs

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A Boatload of Flavor: Tasting Some Smaller Loire Producers

A couple of weeks ago I resumed something that has been a regular periodic activity of mine for more than 15 years: traveling for wine. More specifically, I embarked on my first press junket in more than 20 years to attend a wine event that I was supposed to join in April of 2020, and that, like so many events, has been postponed multiple times in the past 24 months.

Put on every year by InterLoire, the regional organization in charge of promoting the Loire Valley, Val de Loire Millésime is a convocation of journalists and members of the trade brought together to learn and experience the breadth of what the Loire Valley has to offer. This event happens in conjunction with the Concours de Vins du Val de Loire, the region’s annual wine competition.

The evening of our third day, we attended a wine tasting that was remarkable in two respects. The first was that every single wine at the tasting was worthy of attention. This was particularly notable given the nature of these large regional press events, which usually have to include wines from all of their constituents, regardless of quality or reputation.

The second thing that made this tasting notable was that it was on a boat.

It turns out that the second fact was responsible for the first. The tasting wasn’t just on any boat, it was on BarcoVino, the floating wine bar in Angers, France that is my new favorite wine bar in the world. And instead of simply renting out the venue, the Val de Loire Millésime organizers did something clever. They asked the owners of BarcoVino to select a bunch of wines from their (excellent) list, and then they invited all those producers to come pour their wines for us.

The result was a near-perfect event for wine geeks like me. Gorgeous setting on the river (with the Angers cathedral and old city walls rising up to catch the evening light), fabulous wines made by small, thoughtful producers, and great food in the form of charcuterie, cheeses, bread, and other small snacks prepared by BarcoVino.

A Boatload of Flavor: Tasting Some Smaller Loire Producers

If you ever find yourself within striking distance of Angers, I highly recommend a stop at BarcoVino for a few hours of serious drinking tasting.

In the meantime, here are the wines we tasted that evening and what I thought of them.

Tasting Notes

Sparkling and White Wines
A Boatload of Flavor: Tasting Some Smaller Loire Producers

2020 Domaine Vincendeau “Loire Gold” Crémant De Loire, Loire Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of nutty herbs and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, the wine is deeply stony, with flvors of citrus pith, herbs and a touch of lemongrass all borne on a soft mousse. Excellent acidity. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $36. click to buy.

2018 Domaine Vincendeau “Le Carré Du Puits” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of poached pear and dried herbs. In the mouth, flavors of baked apple and quince have a distinctly tannic grip to them and a deep stony underbelly. Notes of herbs linger in the finish. 100% Chenin Blanc. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??

2018 Domaine Les Grandes Vignes “La Varenne De Combre” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of smoky herbs and roasted nuts. In the mouth, gorgeously bright saline flavors of lemon and grapefruit mix with a flinty quality. Fantastically juicy with acidity and stony minerality. Delicious. Spends one year on its fine lees in an amphora. 100% Chenin Blanc. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.

2020 Les Sables Verts “Les Rouères” Saumur Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale blonde in color, this wine smells of bright quince and lemon aromas. In the mouth, incredibly juicy flavors of lemon pith, membrillo, and grapefruit burst on the palate with a hint of salinty and fantastically bright acidity. Lovely crackling minerality. 100% Chenin Blanc ages for 12 months in an old oak foudre. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??

2021 Mathieu Cosme “Le Facteur Su’L Vélo” Vouvray, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet stone and lemon pith. In the mouth, lemon pith, wet stones, grpefruit, and pear flavors have a nice hint of salinity and a dash of peach aromatics. Excellent acidity and depth. Delicious. 100% Chenin Blanc. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2020 Mathieu Cosme “Le Facteur Su’L Vélo” Vouvray, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of wet stone, flowers and lemon pith. In the mouth, wonderfully saline flavors of lemon pith grapefruit and Asian pear have a faint tannic grip. Excellent acidity and minerality. 100% Chenin Blanc. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

A Boatload of Flavor: Tasting Some Smaller Loire Producers

2019 Mathieu Cosme “Le Facteur Su’l Vélo – Bénasse” Vouvray, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flower, citrus pith, and vanilla. In the mouth, vanilla and citrus flavors mix with pear and a hint of lemongrass as the wine flows silkily across the palate but with a nice stony underbelly. Great acidity. Grown on limestone soils. Spends 12 months in oak. 100% Chenin Blanc. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2019 Terra Vita Vinum “Grandes Rogeries” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of smoky lemongrass and citrus pith. In the mouth, the wine is positively explosive with flinty lemon pith, grapefruit, and a crackling, crystalline saline quality that is positively mouthwatering. Incredible acidity and deeply stony depths are accompanied by a light tannic grip on the palate. Grown biodynamically on rhyolite soils, this single plot of grapes ages for 18 months in a combination of barrels and amphorae. Only some of the juice goes through malolactic conversion. 100% Chenin Blanc. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $34.

2020 Domaine Ogereau “Saint Lambert” Coteaux du Layon St Lambert, Anjou, Loire Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and white flowers. In the mouth, honey, asian pear, and white flowers have a clean, bright mineral quality to them. This wine tastes basically dry, though the aromatics let you know in the end that it’s a little sweet. Made from a selection of lightly botrytized fruit. 100% Chenin Blanc. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2020 Domaine Ogereau “Bonnes Blanches” Anjou Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Palest gold in color, this wine smells of quince, flowers and vanilla. In the mouth, the wine has a round fullness, with flavors of vanilla, quince, grapefruit, and citrus pith. Very good acidity and a light tannic grip. 100% Chenin Blanc. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2019 Domaine Aux Moines Roche Aux Moines, Savennières, Anjou, Loire Valley, France
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of bruised apples and herbs. In the mouth, savory yellow herbs mix with apple and pear flavors with a decent acidity and nice clean minerality. 100% Chenin Blanc. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $38. click to buy.

2021 Domaine Arnaud Lambert “BrézéClos De Midi” Samur Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale blonde in color, this wine smells of vanilla cream and pear. In the mouth, that creamy sensation contninues with lemon puth, grapefruit, and pear flavors. Excellent acidity and brightness. Made without any added sulfur. Spends 6 months in tank. 100% Chenin Blanc. Score: around 9. Cost: $30.

2021 Manoir de la Tête Rouge Tête D’Ange Saumur Blanc, Loire Valley, France
Pale blonde in color, this wine smells of apples and pears. In the mouth, bright pear, apple and lemon pith flavors have a nice snap thanks to good acidity. Somewhat straightforward, but good flavors. 100% Chenin Blanc. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $23. click to buy.

Red Wines
A Boatload of Flavor: Tasting Some Smaller Loire Producers

2019 Domaine Arnaud Lambert “Clos Tue Loup” Saumur Rouge, Loire Valley, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of earth, plums and wet leaves. In the mouth, soft, plushy tannins wrap around a core of plum, cherry and earth that has the bright sour tinge of plum skin. Notes of dried flowers and the freshness of green herbs linger in the finish. Juicy acidity. Very tasty. 100% Cabernet Franc. Score: around 9. Cost: $39. click to buy.

2018 Manoir de la Tête Rouge “Enchantoir” Saumur Puy Notre Dame Rouge, Saumur, Loire Valley, France
A medium hazy garnet in color, this wine smells of plum and dried flowers. In the mouth, there’s a rustic honesty to this wine, whose fleecy tannins wrap around a plummy core of earth and plum skin. Made from vines planted in 1959, and ages for 12 months in amphorae with no added sulfur before bottling. 100% Cabernet Franc. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $38. click to buy.

2020 Les Sables Verts “Les Poyeux” Saumur-Champigny, Saumur, Loire Valley, France
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of nut skin, spices, plum and dried flowers. In the mouth, the wine has great freshness even as fleecy tannins wrap around a core of plum, dried flowers, herbs, and the bright tang of plum skin. Grown on clay studded with limestone. 100% Cabernet Franc. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??

2019 Domaine Grosbois “Clos Du Noyer” Chinon, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, plums and herbs. In the mouth, the wine is incredibly smooth and supple, with powdery tannins that wrap around plum and earth and dried herbs. Dried flowers and herbs linger in the finish but the wine has a great stony, mineral depth to it that is fantastic. Excellent acidity and length. 100% Cabernet Franc. Score: around 9. Cost: $52. click to buy.

2020 Domaine Grosbois “Gabare” Chinon, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of earth, plum, and plum skin. In the mouth, cherry plum, and nut skin flavors are buffed by leathery tannins and scented of green herbs. Very good acidity. 100% Cabernet Franc. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2018 Domaine Amirault “Le Fondis” Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of herbs, dried flowers and plums. In the mouth, flavors of plum and earth are nestled into smooth, velvety tannins, and there’s a slight saline quality to the wine. Made from 63 year-old vines grown in deep gravelly soils cut into terraces, this wine undergoes carbonic macertion in old barrels, which are rotated like a rotofermenter. 100% Cabernet Franc. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2020 Domaine Amirault “Ferme Des Fontaines” Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Medium to dark garent in the glass, this wine smells of plum and earth. In the mouth, juicy plum and plum skin flavors mix with nuttier more herbal notes as soft tannins caress the edges of the palate. Great acidity and length, and a lovely stony depth. Aged in concrete tanks buried in the earth for 9 months. 100% Cabernet Franc. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2017 Domaine Les Grandes Vignes “Les Cocainelles Village” Anjou Rouge, Loire Valley, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of earth, plum, and wet leaves. In the mouth, earthy flavors of dried flowers, dried herbs and plum have a nice acidity and quite savory depth. Destemmed and spends one year in oak. 100% Cabernet Franc. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2020 Terra Vita Vinum “Chant De La Pierre” Anjou Rouge, Loire Valley, France
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers and mulberries. In the mouth, flavors of blood oranges, raspberry and sour cherry are dusted with faint powdery tannins and notes of dried herbs linger in the finish. Great acidity and length. Grown on schist and quartz. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

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Chiseled Brilliance: The Wines of Domaine de Chevillard

There’s a certain formula for excellent artisan-scale wines from the so-called “old world” that I have run across many times in my travels and tastings. It’s not a positively guaranteed bet for great wine, but more often than not, it yields wines that are worth paying attention to.

The formula goes something like this:

  1. A family farm gradually transitions to growing vines from what is often a generations-old mixed farm; or the family simply has a long history as only a grower, often selling grapes to a cooperative.
  2. A member of the younger generation gets the winemaking bug and dives into the industry, perhaps studying enology, but definitely working harvests around the world to learn their craft.
  3. Returning home after hands-on experience and the chance to taste some of the great wines of the world, and sometimes working for another local producer for a short while, this young winemaker works with diligence and dedication to turn their family legacy into estate-bottled wine for the first time.

In my experience, perhaps the key element of this progression that will ensure the quality of the result is the winemaker’s time spent abroad. Variations on this formula that do not involve significant exposure to the world’s fine wines don’t seem to reliably produce a quality result.

Obviously, vineyard quality affects the outcome, as do the personalities and character of the people involved, but it’s a pretty good formula in my experience.

It’s one that the young, Savoie-based Matthieu Goury and his Domaine de Chevillard fit to the letter.

Matthieu Goury in his cellar in St-Pierre-d’Albigny

Goury’s family, which have lived and farmed in the Combe de Savoie valley for generations, own about 4.5 acres of vineyards. But since beginning his domaine in 2015 (at step 3 of the formula above) Goury has yet to make a single wine from his family’s vineyards because they have been leased to someone else. He’s looking forward to getting them back under his control in 2023, but in the meantime, he’s put together about 25 acres worth of parcels (some of them with vines dating to the early Sixties) spread around nearby villages from which he’s been making wine for the past 7 years. The majority of his vineyards are in St-Jean-de-la-Porte, Fréterive, and St-Pierre-d’Albigny, with two little plots in Apremont and Abymes and a shared plot in Monthoux.

After studying winemaking in Beaune, Goury spent time working in Australia, Canada, and the Rhône Valley before returning home, counting Chapoutier, Jaboulet, and Jasper Hill among his employers during that global tour.

Goury believes his time spent in the Northern Rhône was the most important to his understanding of his craft. “Here in the Savoie we’re much more similar to the Northern Rhône than we are to the Jura,” he says, dismissing a common point of comparison. “They have a main red and a white, Syrah and Viognier, and we have Mondeuse and Jacquere. And did you know that Mondeuse Blanche is one of the parents of Viognier?”

Goury named his domaine after the tiny village where his grandparents live, and in which Goury purchased a stone farmhouse dating to 1703, where he lives with his wife and children upstairs, while making wine in the extremely compact (read: cramped) stone cellars downstairs.

Goury works in a pretty traditional way in both his vineyards and cellar, farming organically (with forays into biodynamics), hand harvesting, destemming his red grapes, and using rather antiquated processing equipment, including the ancient basket press you see above that he inherited from his grandfather.

“I like to work with wild yeasts, and I want everything to ferment to 100% dryness,” says Goury. “We let malo happen on its own, whenever it happens. If something ends up with residual sugar, I won’t bottle it.”

Given the choice between overripe grapes and needing to add a little sugar, Goury would always prefer to chaptalize, which he has done on occasion. Apart from that, Goury tries to do very little in the cellar, preferring to work with gravity and disturb the wines as little as possible, giving some of his cuvées extended aging on the fine lees, and further aging in the bottle before release.

Chiseled Brilliance: The Wines of Domaine de Chevillard
The tiny cellar dating to 1703

One of Goury’s wines, the Le Berillion Mondeuse, ages for 2 years on the fine lees and then another six years in the bottle before being made available for sale. He’s currently selling the 2015 vintage of that wine, which comes from an exceptionally steep (50% slope) hillside planted in 1966 that locals refer to as the slope of death, or “coteaux de la mort.”

“I’d like to keep all my Mondeuse for six years before release,” says Goury, “but that’s economically very difficult.”

Chiseled Brilliance: The Wines of Domaine de Chevillard

Goury produces a fairly large portfolio of bottlings for an ostensibly one-man operation, including a Chardonnay, several Jacquères, two Roussettes de Savoie (using the grape Altesse), several Mondeuse bottlings, and a Pinot Noir. More recently, Goury leased a vineyard just around the corner from his home that is planted to Gamay, from which he is now making an additional wine.

Goury’s wines show an exceptionally deft touch for a young winemaker with only an 8-year track record at his own domaine. Despite his minimalist approach in the cellar, the wines are clean, bright, and surprisingly refined, especially given the ease with which Savoie reds in particular can slide into rusticity. At their best, these wines display a truly chiseled brilliance that cuts to the very heart of what the Savoie does so well.

I was first introduced to the Chevillard wines by Jon Rimmerman of Garagiste Wines in Seattle, one of several importers of Goury’s wines into the United States. Goury, in fact, exports roughly 70% of his production outside of France, making them (or at least some of his bottlings) among the easiest to find Savoie wines in the US market. If you’re looking for an introduction to the charms of Savoie wines, you’d be hard-pressed to find an easier place to begin than the wines of Domaine de Chevillard.

Chiseled Brilliance: The Wines of Domaine de Chevillard
Matthieu Goury standing in his Gamay

Tasting Notes

2018 Domaine de Chevillard Chardonnay, Savoie, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith and wet stones. In the mouth, bright lemon pith and lemon zest flavors mix with grapefruit and a hint of apples. Long in the finish, a whiff of honey. Fantastic acidity and deep mineral character. Only 5 barrels made. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: ??

2018 Domaine de Chevillard Jacquere, Savoie, France
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of yellow flowers and cherimoya. In the mouth, flavors of yellow plum, herbs, and sourish crabapple have a juicy brightness thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a touch of bee pollen on the finish which is accompanied by a very chalky, stony dryness to the wine, leaving the distinct impression of having inhaled rock dust. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $28. click to buy.

2018 Domaine de Chevillard “Apremont” Jacquere, Savoie, France
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of white flowers and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, deeply mineral flavors of citrus pith and white flowers have a fantastic resonant acidity and deep stony minerality. Notes of lemon and lime pith linger in the finish along with wet pavement. Vines are 100+ years old. Exceptional. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $33 click to buy.

2016 Domaine de Chevillard Roussette De Savoie, Savoie, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemongrass and a hint of membrillo. In the mouth, spiced applesauce and membrillo notes mix with deep stony wet chalkboard minerality and hints of green apple. That spiced note lingers in the finish. 12.5% alcohol. 100% Altesse. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2018 Domaine de Chevillard Roussette De Savoie, Savoie, France
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of pomelo pith and unripe apples. In the mouth, liquid stone flavors of green apple, pomelo pith, and crushed rocks have gorgeous, racy acidity and a light tannic grip that lingers in the finish. Fantastic tension here. 100% Altesse. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50.

2018 Domaine de Chevillard “Monthoux” Roussette De Savoie Cru Monthoux, Savoie, France
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of dried apples, citrus pith, and honey. In the mouth, stony flavors of green apples, dried apples, dried honey, and dried herbs with a faint astringent character like pear skin, all have a deeply stony aspect and vibrating acidity. This wine is grown on a south-southwest exposure below the Massif du Chat. A small 5-hectare plot is the entirety of this cru. 12.5% alcohol Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??

2018 Domaine de Chevillard Pinot Noir, Savoie, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of barnyard and forest berries. In the mouth herbal and barnyard notes have a smoky quality that mixes with berry fruit, and a touch of river mud. There’s a faint spiciness that lingers in the finish along with an alfalfa character. Vines were planted in 1962. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??

2017 Domaine de Chevillard Mondeuse, Savoie, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of slightly meaty blackberry and herbs. In the mouth, faintly salty bacon fat, dried herbs like thyme and sage, and forest berries are wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins. Great acidity and deep stony depth. The tannins here are pretty muscular and keep a tight grip on the palate. Somewhat rustic, from a year of frosts and difficult harvests. 12% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2018 Domaine de Chevillard Mondeuse, Savoie, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and boysenberry with floral overtones. In the mouth, a touch of saddle leather mixes with boysenberry and black cherry fruit flavors tinged with dried herbs. Fine-grained but muscular tannins have a putty-like quality as they grip the palate. Floral notes in the finish. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $53. click to buy.

2016 Domaine de Chevillard Mondeuse, Saint Jean de la Porte, Savoie, France
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of mixed dried herbs, thyme, and sour cherries. In the mouth, deeply herbal notes of thyme, sage, and other dried herbs mix with black cherry and sour cherry with a hint of salinity that makes the mouth water. Fabulous acidity and faint, muscular tannins with very fine grain. Regal and delicious and deeply mineral. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $55 click to buy.

2017 Domaine de Chevillard Mondeuse, Saint Jean de la Porte, Savoie, France
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dried herbs, blackcurrant, and boysenberry. In the mouth, faintly saline flavors of blackcurrant and sour cherry mix with dried thyme and other herbs. A muscular fist of tannins gradually puts the squeeze on the palate as the herbal and dried floral notes linger in the finish. Fantastic acidity and deep stony quality. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55 click to buy.

2018 Domaine de Chevillard Mondeuse, Saint Jean de la Porte, Savoie, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and a touch of smoky earth. In the mouth, earth and dried herbs mix with dark cherry and sour cherry flavors wrapped in a thick fleecy blanket of tannins that gain strength as the wine finishes. Needs a bit of time. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2016 Domaine de Chevillard “Le Berillion” Mondeuse, Saint Jean de la Porte, Savoie, France
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers, cassis, and black cherry. In the mouth, faintly saline flavors of black cherry, mulberry, and cassis mix with dried flowers and dried herbs and crushed stones under a fleecy blanket of thick, fine-grained tannins. Deeply earthy and stony, with fantastic acidity. Won’t be released until 2022 at the earliest. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2017 Domaine de Chevillard “Le Berillion” Mondeuse, Saint Jean de la Porte, Savoie, France
Dark garnet in the glass this wine smells of dried herbs, dried flowers, and a hint of smoked meat. In the mouth, faintly salty meaty flavors of dried flowers, cassis, and black cherry mix with dried herbs. Muscular tannins wrap around the savory core of the wine, with a deeply stony earthy character and great acidity. Won’t be released until 2023. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2018 Domaine de Chevillard “Le Berillion” Mondeuse, Saint Jean de la Porte, Savoie, France
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, dried herbs, smoked meat, and cassis. In the mouth, somewhat massive, muscular tannins begin to dry the mouth immediately and wrap their massive mitts around a core of dried herbs, meaty cassis, and dried flowers. Excellent acidity, but the intense tannins needs some time, which is perhaps why this wine won’t be released until 2024. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

Chiseled Brilliance: The Wines of Domaine de Chevillard
The Domaine de Chevillard tasting lineup in Goury’s kitchen

Barrel Samples

Matthieu was kind enough to offer me a taste of some more recent wines during my visit this summer.

2019 Domaine de Chevillard Jacquere Barrel Sample, Savoie, France
Palest gold in color, this barrel sample smells of grapefruit pith and unripe apples. In the mouth, white flowers, pomelo pith, and unripe apples have a deep stony quality and crystalline aspect, as fantastic acidity and deep minerality linger through a long finish that tastes of green apple skin. Score: around 9.

2019 Domaine de Chevillard Roussette De Savoie Barrel Sample, Savoie, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of sea air, unripe apples, and a hint of lemongrass. In the mouth, green apple skin and grapefruit pith flavors are shot through with a faint salinity. Deeply stony, liquid rocks character here, too, with slightly more balance than the (very good) 2018. Outstanding. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2019 Domaine de Chevillard “Apremont” Jacquere Barrel Sample, Savoie, France
Palest gold in color, this wine smells faintly of struck flint and citrus pith. In the mouth, lean citrus pith and citrus oil flavors have a deeply mineral, chalky quality leaving the mouth slightly dry as lemon pith and lime juice flavors linger in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2020 Domaine de Chevillard “Les Abymes” Jacquere Barrel Sample, Savoie, France
Palest gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of citrus pith and white flowers. In the mouth, citrus pith and a touch of brown sugar give this wine a slightly rounder character than the Apremont bottling, with a deeply mineral aspect and long citrus pith and wet chalkboard finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2019 Domaine de Chevillard Pinot Noir Barrel Sample, Savoie, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of wet earth and forest berries. In the mouth dried herbs, forest floor, and forest berries mix with citrus peel and a touch of pink peppercorn. Thick, fleecy tannins grab the edges of the palate. Hints of bitterness linger in the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2019 Domaine de Chevillard Gamay Barrel Sample, Savoie, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of cherry and boysenberry. In the mouth, wonderfully bright citrus peel acidity mixes with the tart sour cherry and boysenberry flavor under a gauzy haze of tannins. Mouthwatering, with a faint salinity. Quite pretty. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2019 Domaine de Chevillard Mondeuse Barrel Sample, Savoie, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of wet earth and black cherries. In the mouth sour cherry, black cherry, and a touch of cassis are wrapped in a heavy suede-like blanket of tannins and shot through with a faint salinity. Wonderfully stony, and deep, but needs some time before it will truly blossom. Score: around 9.

2019 Domaine de Chevillard Mondeuse Barrel Sample, Saint Jean de la Porte, Savoie, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of cassis and boysenberry fruit with a hint of dried flowers. In the mouth, muscular tannins wrap around a crunchy core of boysenberry and cassis flecked with dried herbs and dried flowers. Excellent acidity and deeply mineral qualities. Score: around 9.

2019 Domaine de Chevillard “Le Berillion” Mondeuse Barrel Sample, Saint Jean de la Porte, Savoie, France
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of cassis and dried flowers. In the mouth, dried herbs, cassis, and black cherry flavors mix with sour cherry and dry earth. Deeply stony with excellent acidity. The fine-grained but heavily muscular tannins have a firm grip on the palate and linger with notes of potting soil in the finish. Won’t be released until 2025. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

The post Chiseled Brilliance: The Wines of Domaine de Chevillard appeared first on Vinography.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

Some truly great wines sneak up on you, sip after sip, taste after taste—deepening, resonating, and ultimately resolving into your own realization that you are experiencing something profound. More commonly in my experience, however, great wines hit you like a lightning bolt, with a silent detonation that snaps every iota of your attention to the wine itself.

That’s what it felt like the first time I tasted the wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers, perhaps more than 10 years ago. I remember the moment well. I was sitting at a dinner table on the lawn at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, and two seats away from me sat the famed importer Martine Saunier, to whom I had been introduced a few minutes before. As we settled into our table, Martine retrieved two bottles from her oversized handbag and plunked them on the table.

The labels intrigued me from the very start, with their slightly amateurish label design and funky fonts. At the time, I had no idea where they came from. IGP Vin des Allobroges meant nothing to me. “Where the hell is Allobroges?” I thought to myself. Eventually, our attendant sommelier came by and opened them up, and then, at my first sip, the heavens themselves opened up, and I was hopelessly smitten for life.

Yes, I am a sucker for wines that taste like liquid stone. And few wines in the world manage to taste and smell more like pulverized stone than these, which are unquestionably among the very best that are produced in the little region of France known as the Savoie.

A classic U-shaped glacial valley in the Savoie

Nemesis of Ice

Few things can resist the power of a glacier that knows where it’s headed. When ten million tons of ice are headed your way, even at the creeping pace of a few centimeters per day, you get out of the way or you are ground to dust. Some of the world’s most spectacular u-shaped valleys are testament to this incredible power. Yosemite. The Fjords of Norway. Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland.

Occasionally, however, there are times when instead of obliterating, the ice embraces, flowing around and over a bit of stone instead of wreaking its slow pulverization.

Often, these snags of stone will become the sites of recessional moraines, buildups of soil and glacial effluvia that are left behind as the ice melts and the glacier seems to retreat back up the valley it has carved towards the cirque of its birth.

The glaciers that carved the Tarentaise valley started their grinding about 2 million years ago, and finished their retreat only about 10,000 years ago, leaving behind the beautiful valleys of the French Alps, and stunning lakes such as Geneva and Annecy.

And in a place that would eventually be called Cevins, in an otherwise beautifully scoured u-shaped glacial valley, as a glacier turned to water a small spur of solid schist gathered the stones and soil that the ice would no longer hold. Over time, a village sprang up in the shadow of the hill that rock and earth created, and the local residents, likely citizens of the Roman Empire at the time, planted grapes in the fractured schist soils. The vines were tended, some for better some for worse, and eventually, the townspeople placed a small chapel at the summit, dedicated to Notre Dame des Neiges, “Our Lady of the Snows.”

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

The Organic Visionary

Like many small-scale vignerons of his generation, Michel Grisard grew up on his family’s mixed farm, which produced wine as well as produce, eggs, and meats. The Grisard family, though, was perhaps a little deeper into wine than most, as they also ran a vine nursery, providing plants for new vineyards in their area.

 After studying Agriculture at university, Grisard joined the family business only to have his father pass away a year later, leaving Michel to run the nursery and winery. Once joined by his brother in the family business, Grisard decided his future lay elsewhere, and in 1982 he left to work with the small acreage of Mondeuse he had planted himself, renting the St-Christophe Priory in the village of Fréterive to use as a cellar.

Grisard’s approach to viticulture was quite traditional at first, in keeping with his university education, replete with herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, and fertilizers galore. However after meeting biodynamic consultant François Bouchet in 1994 through Michel Chapoutier, he quickly became the first biodynamic producer in the Savoie region and was certified organic three years later, and never looked back.

Soon after, thanks in part to having sold his wines to restaurant Paul Bocuse in Lyon, Grisard’s wines became quite sought-after.

As part of his explorations of nearby terroirs, Grisard eventually came across a tiny little town with a hillside full of derelict vineyards and crumbling stone terraces. The precarious slope over the little town of Cevins had been left out of the Savoie AOC region, in part because the narrow valley receives less sun than other areas of the region, and was thought to offer too much challenge in ripening grapes.

For Grisard, the unusual schist soils, steep southerly exposure, terraced plots, and a seemingly ancient history of wine growing were too much to resist.

Grisard created a company, solicited investment, bought or rented the majority of the land on the hillside, and between 1998 and 2002 he planted nearly 13 acres across the hillside with Mondeuse, Persan, Altesse, Jacquere, and perhaps some of the region’s first plantings of the little known Mondeuse Blanche.

As the first plantings began to yield fruit, Grisard made the wines under his Prieuré St-Christophe label, but as this unique hillside matured, it became clear that it needed its own identity.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
A steep bowl near the top of the Cevins hillside

The End of a Journey, Beginning of a Calling

In the early 2000s, winemaker Brice Omont was working at a big production facility in Champagne, but while his hands were busy, his heart was somewhere else. He was both spiritually and literally searching for somewhere to make wine. He thought he might eventually end up in the Loire, given his interest in organic and biodynamic winemaking, but he made several trips to Anjou the surrounding areas and didn’t find what he was looking for.

Then some friends suggested he look at the Savoie. “I said ‘oh, you mean vin de raclette? I don’t think so,’” recalls Omont, referencing the Savoie’s (unfortunately still lingering) reputation for cheap, ski-resort swill. “I was prejudiced. But eventually, I took a vacation in 2003 and came to the region, thinking that I would just have a look.”

During his visit, he stopped off at the local Ministry of Agriculture office and explained that he was interested in organic winegrowing. “They said to me if that’s what you’re interested in, there is only one person for you to speak with. His name is Michel Grisard.” 

“I called Michel Grisard and I visited,” continues Omont. “I tasted his wines and…” he shrugs. “Wow. The Mondeuse, the Altesse. I realized immediately the brilliance of his approach. His wines were superior to every Savoie wine I had ever tasted. So I talked with him, I told him I was looking for a place to make wine, and he told me that a young vigneron he had been working with had recently left.”

Grisard then went on to describe a small hillside of schist in the Tarentaise valley.

“I came back to Champagne, and I told myself, ‘This is it. It’s not the Loire, it’s the Savoie.’ And I knew that if I didn’t do this that I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

One week later, Omont was back in the Savoie, gazing up at the little hill of vines with a tiny white chapel at its summit.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

Ardoisiers Against All Odds

“On my first day,” says Omont, “I thought that this was no problem. The second year I realized what kind of a hill it was that we had to climb. It was very high, and very difficult, and I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to do it. We didn’t have the means at our disposal to achieve our ambitions.”

The bank agreed. When Grisard and Omont went looking for more money, no one was willing to give them a loan. “I told Michel it was a shame, but it looked like we needed to win the lottery in order to make it work,” says Omont. “Three years later we were completely out of money.”

Omont describes calling their first and best customer and breaking the news that the banks had turned them down. “He said to me, ‘What is the plan?” And I told him we didn’t have one. That we were done.”

Click the images in the gallery below for larger views.

But that customer called 10 other customers—some retailers, some restaurateurs and some consumers—and as a group they came back to Omont and told him to open a bottle of wine, and when he did, they said they would collectively co-sign for a loan, and that they would all come to help whenever the winery needed a hand.

“I pinched myself because I couldn’t believe what was happening,” says Omont. “The bank did not understand, but these people did. They had a passion for wine. Many people told me we were crazy to do this, that we’d lose control and that these people would run everything. But these people wanted no salaries, no investment returns. They just said, ‘take your time, don’t worry, do it the best way. We are just happy to drink it. If you want to give us some bottles, we’ll be happy,’ but no more than that. It’s the opposite of this kind of jungle economics you hear about. There are times when you’re scared of humanity. And then there are times like that where you just shake your head and say, ‘Fantastic.’”

Most of the investors remained silent partners, but eventually, two became advisors to Omont and Grisard, helping them think through the structuring of a healthy business, to plan for expansion, and in 2010 helped them secure the somewhat ramshackle building with a rare underground cellar that Omont located in the village of Freterive,

Around this time, Omont and Grisard had a falling out, and Grisard, who would retire from winemaking altogether in 2014, stepped away, leaving Omont solely in charge.

Soon after Omont joined, the wines were given their own identity, named after the slate (ardoise) roofs of the small vineyard huts that dot the hillside.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

A Song of Schist and Clay

Ardoisiers farms 38.3 acres of vineyards located in two primary places, the fractured schist hill of Cevins and several plots surrounding the villages of St-Jean-de-la-Porte and St-Pierre-de-Soucy, which feature the typical Savoyard mix of clay and fractured limestone tumbled from the cliffs of the Combe de Savoie. From these two areas, the domaine has historically made five wines, named primarily for the soils in which they grow.

The Argile Blanc is a blend of Jaquère, Mondeuse Blanche, and Chardonnay farmed from 4 different locations around the village of St-Pierre-de-Soucy, some of which include some schist in addition to limestone. Some newly acquired vineyard plots that include some Roussanne plantings mean that a fourth grape may soon join the blend.

Its red counterpart, Argile Rouge, is mostly Gamay, with Mondeuse Noir and Persan, and comes mostly from around St-Jean-de-la-Porte.

The Schiste white wine, an unusual blend of Jaquère, Roussanne, Pinot Gris, and Mondeuse Blanche comes from the hill at Cevins, as does the 100% Altesse wine named Quartz.

The red blend named Amethyste is also overseen by Our Lady of the Snows, and features a blend of Mondeuse Noir and Persan.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
The mica-schist stone of Cevins.

The simplicity of Ardoisiers winemaking will come as no surprise to fans of biodynamic and organic wines. Harvests by hand proceed slowly, and the variety of exposures across his sites means that a month or more can pass between the first grapes harvested and the last.

I thought wines that were so good meant I had to know a thousand things to get them right. But in the end it’s just easy. You just have to take care of your grapes.

Omont uses whole clusters, presses his whites gently, and ferments with ambient yeasts, adding no sulfur until just before bottling. If the wines take 3 months or even 6 months to finish their fermentation, Omont is happy to let them do their thing. Malolactic conversion occurs naturally, and the wines age in enamel tanks or in used oak barrels. After the 2004 vintage didn’t go through malolactic, Omont has worked to reduce his use of sulfur to a minimum.

“I take my time. You have to let fermentation construct the layers of aromas in the wine. And the wines need time,” says Omont. “In the end, it is not complicated. When I started I told Michel that I wanted to do pump-overs. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Let it go.’ I thought wines that were so good meant I had to know a thousand things to get them right. But in the end, it’s just easy. You just have to take care of your grapes.”

Omont farms without pesticides or herbicides, applying compost to the vines, occasionally some copper and sulfur, and some (though not all) of the biodynamic preparations, choosing to pay more attention to his vines than any particular regimen of treatment.

But no matter how well he cares for his vines, there’s one thing Omont can’t control.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
A steep section of the hill at Cevins

Climate Insurance

“Ten years ago, we had nine good years, and then one bad year,” says Omont. “Since 2018, we have had one bad, one good, one bad.”

Indeed, the week before I arrived in the Savoie in mid-July, the region had been hit by serious rainstorms, not to mention some frost in the spring, leading Omont and many vintners to estimate mildew-driven crop losses approaching 50%.

“We need to make sure that if I invest to make improvements to the building, and if we continue to sell our wines overseas, that we are OK. If tomorrow we lose 80% of our production, we are dead,” says Omont. “We have to prepare for the worst.”

In formulating his strategy for climate survival, Omont took inspiration from some winemakers in the Jura, where he saw small established players going to other parts of their region and leasing vineyards as a hedge against weather calamities.

“In the next ten years, we will for sure have more difficulties,” says Omont, “so I am preparing now to make more stock.”

In 2018, Omont debuted a Jacquère named Silice Blanc, and in 2020, he made a Silice Rouge from Mondeuse Noir. Both are labeled with the name “Maison des Ardoisiers” and are made with grapes purchased from organically farmed vineyards that Omont has identified and contracted around the Savoie.

As the wines of Ardoisiers have seen increased demand, these new wines are an attractive proposition that allows more people to try Omont’s wines, but without him feeling like he is sacrificing quality for the sake of commercial scale.

More importantly, the diversification of his vineyard sites has already proved out Omont’s strategy. “With this year’s rain and frost, we’d be dead without Maison des Ardoisiers.”

Custodian of a Voice

At 45 years old, and with just over 17 harvests at Ardoisiers, Omont is in the prime of his winemaking career, and the wines reflect his confidence and the understanding of both the grapes and the sites he has to work with.

One day I will die, and this terroir will continue. Have I listened correctly to the terroir? Have I expressed correctly the terroir? I am lucky enough to have the chance to do that.

“My biggest regret is that we didn’t build a library of these wines,” he says. “I know these wines will last 10 or 15 years or more, but at the beginning, I had no choice. When someone called and asked for more bottles, I was happy to help them.”

Altesse in particular, says Omont, has the capacity not only to age but to develop and improve with time. Like Riesling, Semillon, Assyrtiko, or Catarratto, Altesse begins with chiseled acidity and deep stony qualities, but it gains a fleshy weight and an attractive buttery, saline richness over time, undergoing a transmutation that seems almost magical.

Persan and to a lesser extent, Mondeuse Noir, also have the ability to develop attractive secondary and tertiary characteristics with age. “People say Persan ages like Pinot, and Mondeuse ages like Syrah,” says Omont.

Eventually, perhaps, Ardoisiers will be able to hold some bottles back, but with a production of only a few hundred cases for its top wines, that will be slow going.

In the meantime, Omont seems content with his progress, and quite comfortable with the direction he is headed.

“We are just messengers,” says Omont. “One day I will die, and this terror will continue. Have I listened correctly to the terroir? Have I expressed correctly the terroir? I am lucky enough to have the chance to do that.  Each vintage, I ask myself, did I do a good job expressing what this place has to say?”

For those of us who love to hear the whispers of magical places and taste the majesty of a landscape in the glass, the answer is an unqualified yes.

* * *

I am particularly indebted to Wink Lorch and her tremendous book Wines of the French Alps for some of the background information about Michel Grisard that I have included above.

Tasting Notes

In case it is not obvious from the above, or the scores below, these are some of my absolute favorite wines in the world, and (at the risk of making them harder to get for myself) they come with my highest recommendation.

2020 Maison des Ardoisiers “Silice Blanc” Jacquère, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Palest gold in the glass with almost no color, this wine smells of green apples and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, green apple, grapefruit, and a hint of white flowers are bright and juicy with fantastic acidity. Great wet chalkboard minerality. These grapes come from the limestone studded soils of Apremont. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.

2020 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Argile Blanc” White Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apples, wet stones, and white flowers. In the mouth, deep stony flavors of green apples, white flowers, and citrus pith are welded to wet pavement. Incredibly stony and delicious. A blend of Jacquère, Mondeuse Blanc, and Chardonnay. Comes from 4 locations around the village of Saint Pierre de Soucy which feature limestone studded clays referenced by the wine’s name. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Schiste” White Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of star fruit and a bit of unripe greengage plums, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, gorgeous star fruit, wet chalkboard, lime flower, and lime zest flavors are wonderfully mouthwatering with faint salinity. Mouthwatering and stunningly mineral. Like drinking stone. Comes from the vineyard on the hill below the Our Lady of the Snows chapel, along the Rue des Ardoisiers in Cevins. A blend of Jaquère, Roussanne, Pinot Gris, and Mondeuse Blanche. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Quartz” Altesse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus pith, warm hay, dried herbs, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, grapefruit pith, dried herbs, and wet stones swirl in a wonderfully deep stony cistern of flavor and mineral expression. The crushed rock quality continues in the finish with some pithiness and a hint of lemongrass. These grapes are also from the Cevins vineyard. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $120. click to buy.

2012 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Quartz” Altesse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of melted butter and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, saline flavors of lemon oil, wet pavement, and seawater take on a shimmering ethereal quality that is simply and irresistibly mouthwatering. Rich on the one hand, and then also light and zingy on the other, this wine is utterly compelling. This bottle demonstrates what happens to Altesse with some age: it fattens up and to the searing liquid stone minerality it adds a layered buttery caramel quality. Boom. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $120. If you can find it, buy it.

2020 Maison des Ardoisiers “Silice Rouge” Mondeuse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of boysenberry and aromatic herbs like lavender and pennyroyal. In the mouth, stony bright flavors of boysenberry and dried sage are suffused with a cloud of powdery tannins that fill the mouth and leave a chalk-dust minerality lingering on the palate. Fantastic acidity. This is the only wine at Ardoisiers that is destemmed. After a week of maceration, this wine is fermented and aged in steel tanks. 10.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Argile Rouge” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of berries and bramble, green herbs, and a hint of sawdust. In the mouth, gorgeously bright acidity makes flavors of mulberries, redcurrant, and plum mix with the faint bitter sourness of plum skin. Wonderful tangy flavors and faint herbal notes are welded to wet pavement minerality and a long finish. Whole bunches of 65% Gamay, 25% Mondeuse Noir, and 10% Persan macerate for 10 days before fermentation. Ages in large oak foudres for about 9 months before bottling, and then released the following year. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2018 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Amethyste” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberries, and aromatic green herbs. In the mouth, saline flavors of mulberries, sour cherry, and herbs swirl and crackle with phenomenal acidity and stony minerality, with the saline notes making for a mouthwatering finish for minutes. Incredibly delicious. Stony faint tannins. A blend of Persan and Mondeuse Noir that I could drink all day long. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $105. click to buy.

2016 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Amethyste” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried sage and other herbs with sour cherry, mulberry, and dusty road notes. In the mouth, deeply mineral flavors come through a haze of chalk-dusty tannins and a core of sour cherry and mulberry fruit tinged with hints of citrus peel crackles with mouthwatering acidity. Wonderfully long, juicy finish. Outstanding. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $105. click to buy.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
Winemaker Brice Omont and the lineup of Ardoisiers wines

The post When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers appeared first on Vinography.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet

Can you taste integrity? Spend enough time thinking and talking about wine, especially great wine, and inevitably you have to move beyond the merely tangible. Wine is more than just geology, chemistry, and botany. Like any human craft, honed over lifetimes and generations, it begins to contain something of us, to reflect something of the human spirit behind it.

All of which is why my answer to my opening question is unquestionably yes, just as you can taste honesty or love in the bottle as well. Sometimes subtle, sometimes electric and deeply powerful, the sensation of these (things? forces? principles? ideas? energies?) isn’t extremely common in my experience, even for those who drink selectively with deliberation and care. Their perception in wine, like a psychedelic experience, depends heavily on set and setting. We easily bring as much to wine as we get from it.

I recently got a deliciously heavy dose of bottled integrity on my visit to the Savoie region of France. On a crystalline-bright morning, I found myself wandering one of the more remarkable vineyard sites I have ever visited, listening to a very young man speaking (and acting, and farming, and winemaking) with a level of conviction and vision that are rare in winemakers twice his age.

On every wine trip I take, I hope to encounter at least one producer whose story and wines make the whole trip worthwhile. My visit to Domaine Curtet, was definitely one of those moments.

Florian Curtet hasn’t been in the world of wine for long. At a mere 30 years of age, he’s basically just a few years out of school. A local Savoyard, originally from Annecy, he studied enology in Beaune before returning to Annecy to continue his studies of Agriculture, in part with an internship that found him working with the well-known organic producer Jacques Maillet.

Florian Curtet in the vineyard.

Maillet was good friends with fellow Savoie producer Gilles Berlioz and with different harvest dates between their estates, Berlioz and Maillet were in the habit of helping each other out occasionally during harvest. One day Berlioz brought with him a young woman named Marie who had recently come to two important realizations. The first was that she wanted to make a life for herself in wine. The second was that the Savoie was where she wanted to make her home. And after meeting the young man working alongside Maillet, she would soon come to a third realization.

As they say, one thing led to another. Florian and Marie fell in love, and George Maillet decided he wanted to retire. Lacking any interested heirs, Maillet asked Curtet if he wanted to take over his property. Being handed 12.3 acres of perhaps the most immaculate organic vineyards in the area was more than fortuitous for the Curtets, who leaped at the chance to pursue their dream of a domaine to call their own.

Their first vintage was 2016, the same year their first child, Lily was born.

Both Florian and Marie believe strongly in their approach to winemaking and winegrowing, which is remarkably clear-sighted and unique, given their youth.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet

The Forest Vine

Curtet believes strongly in the synergy between grapevines and their surrounding ecosystem. Having purchased a set of what most people would have considered pristine organic vineyards, he is busy returning them as close as is practically possible to what he believes is their natural state. But instead of anchoring on the concept of a holistic farm with animals, plants, and people working without outside inputs (as biodynamics often does), Curtet chooses to focus instead on something that might best be described as… wilderness.

“My philosophy is not organic or biodynamic,” explains Curtet. “It is the philosophy of the green place. Green is carbon, it’s nurturing the soil. If you nurture the soil, you will have good fruit. My work begins with and continues constantly to understand how nature functions. It’s important to see how a forest [ecosystem] functions, and when you see that, you realize that agriculture, as we practice it now, is crazy. It’s the opposite of the forest. In the forest, you have leaves and branches and plants all falling to the earth and it’s never turned over. You see the fertility, you smell the mushrooms. The soil is dark. It is soft. The soil of the [average] farm is not like this, it is very poor, and yet we’re eating this poor fertility all around the world. Geology doesn’t create soil, vegetation does.”

I started by doing the opposite of what I was taught in school.

Curtet prunes during the winter, but other than that, he does no canopy management. Not content to have his vineyards merely surrounded by trees, Curtet has planted hundreds of trees in between the rows of his vines, around and among which he expects his vines to eventually climb and twine. In the meantime, he’s cobbled together branches in places to make what can only be described as arbors that he hopes the vines will climb. The vines are encouraged to sprawl, creep, and flop to the point that they can be difficult to distinguish from the chest-high mix of cover crops that populate the rows. He plans to keep the fruit in the 3- to 6-foot zone, while letting the vines wander where they will, fulfilling what he says is his obligation to let the plant express itself.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Tree seedlings planted mid-row in the vineyard.

“For me, it is important each year to produce and protect a lot of leaves,” says Curtet. “The field must be green. Green is diversity, a sign of life, energy, and growth. Green means roots are at work down in the soil, which will bring balance to the grape.”

When I asked him where these ideas came from he shrugged. “I started by doing the opposite of what I was taught in school,” he says. “I tried to do it my own way. No one told me or taught me to do this. I read some books, I visited some organizations, went to visit some winemakers some farms who were doing things differently.”

“It’s all about how you think,” he continues. “For me, plants, if you respect them, they will respect you. If you understand nature, you don’t have problems. But in school, they teach you that you will have problems, and then you come up with expensive solutions. School, for me, was not objective. Schools depend upon the money of the people who are selling you products or the tractor. There are forces at work there that are about harnessing people into a commercial culture, making them slaves of that culture.”

A Personal Vision

Standing in Curtet’s vineyards, it’s a little hard not to feel a sense of joy and delight, perhaps not unlike watching a group of very young children at play with their imaginations and nothing more than the random items they find around them. The vines and their surrounding vegetation are bursting with life and simply doing what they do, blissfully growing as best they know how. Not being particularly given to mystical, metaphysical, or spiritual expressions, I nonetheless can’t deny the vibrant energy evidenced by the riot of green life on display.

Dry farming is, like many places in France, de rigueur in the Savoie, and surrounding vegetation plays a key role for Curtet in ensuring his vines have enough to drink throughout the year on his unusual (for the Savoie, which is mostly limestone and glacial till) decomposed sandstone soils.

Things have become very commercial, and now there’s an industrial organic culture, where basically all you have to do is not use systemic pesticides or herbicides and you qualify

“Plants create moisture,” says Curtet. “Without vegetation, there is no morning dew. You don’t have water returning from the air to the soil. Trees also pull water up from into the shallower parts of the soil, nurturing plants with shallower root systems. I believe most water problems in the vineyard can be fixed with vegetation.”

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
The “molesse” sandstone soils of Curtet’s Le Cellier des Pauvres Vineyard.

Curtet farms roughly what might be considered biodynamically, with no herbicides or pesticides, and up until recently he has maintained his Organic/Bio and Demeter certifications as a way of generally signaling what his wines are all about. But with the coming vintage, he says he has decided to drop the Demeter certification.

“These labels and certifications are less and less restrictive these days,” he says. “Things have become very commercial, and now there’s an industrial organic culture, where basically all you have to do is not use systemic pesticides or herbicides and you qualify. And now with biodynamics, Demeter says they want a farm to be autonymous but then they allow people to buy treatments from outside. If you’re biodynamic, for instance, you can go in the vineyard with a tractor whenever you want. It’s crazy. I don’t respect this philosophy, so I don’t use the name biodynamics anymore.”

Interestingly, Curtet doesn’t believe in compost piles, which he says heat up to the point that it kills some of the life within the compost.

“They’re sterilizing life,” he says, “if you’re putting that compost on the vineyard then you’re putting something not very dynamic in the soil.”

Place Not Variety

In the two vineyard plots that he works, Curtet has planted or grafted a massale selection of Jacquere that he has gathered from what he considers all the best sites in the Savoie, along with a number of other white varieties including Gringet, Altesse, Mondeuse Blanche, Molette, and Savagnin, many of which will be harvested for the first time in 2021. These are all planted in a 7.4-acre vineyard named Le Cellier des Pauvres (The Cellar of the Poor). In a 4.9 acre vineyard named Les Vignes de Seigneur (The Vineyard of the Lord), he also has some very old Mondeuse (a number of vines more than 100 years old) as well as Gamay and Pinot Noir.

Curtet says that at some point he’s interested in farming all the immediate genetic relatives of Mondeuse, as if there’s something about having a complete family tree growing in one place that provides a sense of completeness and harmony. At the moment, the scientific jury is still out as to whether Mondeuse Noir is the child or the parent of Mondeuse Blanche.

Despite making several single-varietal bottlings in his first few vintages, Curtet says he has decided to make only two wines moving forward, a white field blend (he feels confident harvesting all his white varieties simultaneously and co-fermenting them) and a red blend assembled after fermentation (as Mondeuse and Gamay ripen at very different times).

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Curtet’s two wines

Curtet says he never plans to make more than the roughly 2000-2500 cases he produces each year, though some of the trees that he has planted in the vineyards are heritage apples, and he has plans to make cider, in part a nod to his wife’s Brittany heritage.

Simple but not Natural

When it comes to winemaking, “I don’t use any artifice in the cellar,” says Curtet. “I only use sulfites at bottling. I don’t want mouse [taint], it tends to make customers not happy.”

Curtet ferments with whole clusters (preferring what he says is a slower, “less dynamic” fermentation that way) and ambient yeasts in large concrete tanks, where the wines age without racking until they are ready for bottling.

“I don’t have oak, I don’t want oak,” says Curtet. “I want the expression of soil and grape, not the ‘style’ of oak. I prefer the wine to live in larger volumes, too. I think it produces more harmony, diversity, and balance.”

For purely economic reasons, Curtet’s first few vintages have aged for only 9 months in tank on the lees, but Curtet says he will be moving to 18 months of elevage soon, as he feels two winters in the cellar will make the wines “more finished.”

At first, Curtet was making his wines in a rented facility while keeping his eye out for a property reasonably close to his vineyards. A couple of years ago, he spotted one, and now he and Marie have a small farm in the town of Châteaufort where they have built a modestly functional winery, remodeled a stone cellar into a little tasting room, and are busy rebuilding an old farmhouse for their family to live in.

Small is Beautiful

“Our philosophy is to be small,” says Curtet. “If you are big, you have a lot of people working for you, and you don’t know your own work. My work is to be in the vineyard and in the cellar, to meet my customers or journalists like you. We take time to do that, and to reflect on our system of culture.”

In addition to Florian and Marie, the estate’s workforce consists only of Florian’s sister, who has been working with them for the past couple of years, and an occasional additional harvest hand. While his sister helps out in the vineyards when there is work to be done, Curtet says her main job is to “develop the commerce within 100 kilometers.”

Part of Curtet’s “small” philosophy involves an attempt to sell 50% of his wine close to home. “There’s a lot of carbon and pollution involved in selling farther,” he says. “Now with all the problems in the world we are trying to sell differently in addition to working differently.”

Paying off the Philosophy

I walked the vineyards, explored the cellar, and heard all of this before I had ever had a single sip of Curtet’s wine. And I must say, that when I finally did sit down opposite Florian in the little whitewashed, vaulted stone room they use to welcome guests, I was nervous. After being so impressed with Curtet’s clarity of thought, so dazzled by the vitality of his vineyards, and so charmed by the scale and dedication of his operations, I was dreadfully scared that the wines might not measure up. Or simply that they might not be to my taste.

But I am happy to say that they both handsomely paid off my anticipation while deepening my appreciation for Curtet’s vision. Were they the most amazing wines that I tasted while in the Savoie? No. But they were really damn good. And as an expression of Curtet’s ideas and skill they were an incredible beacon suggesting possibly profound things to come from this little family estate.

I’ll put it bluntly. I don’t think I’ve met 30-year-old vigneron with more promise or conviction in my life, and I can’t wait to see what Curtet and his wife will have managed to produce in 10 years, when their vineyards look more like wild orchards, and his new plantings have some more complexity that comes with maturity.

Mark my words, this is just the beginning of something truly great. And if, indeed, you want to know what integrity tastes like, just go find yourself a bottle of Domaine Curtet.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Florian and Marie Curtet

Tasting Notes

2019 Domaine Curtet “Tonnere de Gris” White Blend, Savoie, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of apples and chamomile and bee pollen. In the mouth, bright lemon and apple and grapefruit flavors have an electric, dynamic quality with bee pollen and lemon oil and gorgeous acidity. There’s NOT a heavily mineral core here, which is what you might expect from these grapes grown on limestone. A roughly equal blend of Jacquere and Altesse. 11% alcohol. Tonnere means lightning. Gris refers to the soil. Bottled lightning, indeed. Score: between 9 and 9.5.  

2019 Domaine Curtet “Frisson des Cimes” Red Blend, Savoie, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wild berries and herbs, with a floral perfume resembling something like walking through a flower garden in summer. In the mouth, gorgeously bright berries, herbs, and flowers make a seamless whole that is remarkable. Faint, velvety tannins hang in the background and caress the palate while fantastic acidity keeps the berries, herbs, and flowers vibrant and juicy on the palate. A blend of Gamay, Mondeuse, and Pinot Noir. Fermented in concrete with 1 month of maceration of whole bunches, no pump-overs or punch-downs. 11% alcohol. Cime is the outline or shape of the mountain. Frisson is the “sensation of being on the crest,” according to Curtet. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

Unfortunately, these wines are not yet available in the United States, and earlier vintages are all but sold out. The US importer for Domaine Curtet is Martine’s Wines.

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Vinography Unboxed: Week of 11/22/20

Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

This past week included wines from all over the place. But let’s start quite close to home, at least for me. Urban Legend Cellars is a small operation working out of the “wine ghetto” on the island of Alameda, near Oakland. Run by the husband-and-wife team of Steve & Marilee Shaffer, who are “recovering” engineers from Silicon Valley who decided they wanted to make wine. They purchase grapes from a wide range of sources, and make a number of wines, including this Vermentino, from the Clements Hills sub-AVA in Lodi. It’s quite fresh and tasty, and might easily convert anyone to Vermentino’s charms.

A little farther afield I’ve got a cracking Chardonnay from J. Christopher Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which illustrates perfectly why people are so excited about Oregon Chardonnay. It’s crisp and citrusy, and gorgeous.

You could say the same thing about the Dr. Loosen Riesling from the famed “spice garden” vineyard, Ürziger Würtzgarten, in Germany’s Mosel River Valley. One of Germany’s more famous sites for Riesling, made by one of Germany’s more famous names makes for a scintillating example of the form.

Let’s move on to reds.

Before I dive deep into a pool of Syrah, I’ve got a Pinot from J. Christopher winery that will be of interest to anyone who likes their Pinot Noirs more on the savory, earthy side.

I was recently sent a number of Côtes-du-Rhônes, which were a lovely reminder of how I really should be drinking more of them. All were compelling, from the lean dark fruit flavors of Stephane Ogier’s rendition, to the more savory, brooding qualities of Delas Frere’s interpretation.

But my favorite example of Côtes-du-Rhône comes from Clos Bellane, a small organic producer that sits at more than 1200 feet of elevation on steep, limestone slopes outside the village of Valréas, which sits in the northern part of the southern Rhone wine region.

Vigneron Stephane Vedeau purchased the Clos Bellane estate in 2007 and is making really remarkable wines there, as this, his entry-level wine, demonstrates. It’s wonderfully aromatic, incredibly fresh and bright, and just a delight to drink. And at between $16 and $20, it’s a shockingly great value.

Back on this continent, I was really delighted to see just how fresh the Owen Roe “Ex Umbris” Columbia Valley Syrah was in its expression of boisterous blackberry fruit. A bit father south in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, Troon Vineyard is making whole-cluster fermented Syrah where you can really taste the influence of the stems, making for a savory interpretation of the grape.

Lastly, I’ve got one of the regal wines of Taurasi, the Piano di Montevergine from venerable producer Feudi di San Gregorio. This wine comes from the estate’s oldest plantings of Aglianico at an elevation of around 1300 feet above sea level in the Irpina region of Campania, not far from Mount Vesuvius. Even at 8 years of age, this wine is still a bit of a monster when it comes to tannins, and needs some air to mellow, as well as perhaps some more time in the bottle. In my personal experience it is a wine that rewards significant aging, especially if you appreciate the leather and dried flowers scents that Aglianico can offer with some time in the bottle. Now, however, the Piano is a bit forte, if that’s your speed.

Tasting Notes

2019 Urban Legend Cellars “Gill Creek Ranch” Vermentino, Clements Hills, Lodi, Central Coast, California
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of poached pear in sweet cream. In the mouth, bright pear and pastry cream flavors have a slight tinge of lemongrass and chamomile. Silky textured, this wine has a very nice acid balance and crisp finish with a hint of orange peel. 13.1% alcohol. 168 cases made. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $24.

2018 J. Christopher “Olenik Vineyard” Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus pith and white flowers. In the mouth, the wine is quite floral, with a gorgeous quartz-like crystalline quality and juicy lemon and lemon pith flavors, and a touch of green apple. Very elegant and poised with just a hint of salinity in the finish. . 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2018 Dr. Loosen “Ürziger Würtzgarten Spätlese” Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of tangerine zest and white flowers with a hint of lemon cucumber. In the mouth, gorgeous exotic citrus flavors mix with honeysuckle and rainwater minerality, all sizzling with excellent acidity. Lightly to moderately sweet, but definitely in my sweet spot. 8.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2016 J. Christopher “JJ” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry fruit shot through with a hint of barnyard funkiness. In the mouth, pure bright cherry and raspberry fruit has a nice zing thanks to excellent acidity. There’s some bitter cedar and herb notes lingering in the finish along with that faint hint of manure. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.

2018 Clos Bellane Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Valréas, Rhône Valley, France
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of rich cherry fruit. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy flavors of cherry mix with incredibly aromatic herbs like wild thyme and lavender even as a crystalline stony quality makes the whole red and black fruit concoction glint and shimmer on the palate. Barely perceptible tannins. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2017 Stephane Ogier “Le Temps Est Venu” Côtes-du-Rhône, Rhône Valley, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dark cherry fruit and a touch of forest floor. In the mouth, juicy black cherry flavors are shot through with dried sage and other dried herbs making for quite a savory impression. Very faint powdery tannins creep about the edges of the mouth, while a faint bitter herb and orange-peel note lingers in the finish. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2018 Delas Freres “Saint-Esprit” Côtes-du-Rhône, Rhône Valley, France
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, cassis, and potting soil. In the mouth, flavors of black cherry, cassis, and wet earth have a wonderful freshness to them thanks to excellent acidity and a faint green herbal kick that meshes with a definite stony quality. Dark and brooding, yet without feeling heavy, and quite delicious. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $15. click to buy.

2018 Owen Roe “Ex Umbris” Syrah, Yakima Valley, Washington
Medium to dark purple in color, this wine smells of rich blackberry fruit with a hint of woodsmoke. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy blackberry and cassis flavors are positively electric on the palate thanks to fantastic acidity. Faint, powdery tannins dust the palate while notes of licorice emerge on the finish. Excellent. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2018 Troon Vineyard “White Family Selection” Syrah, Applegate Valley, Southern Oregon, Oregon
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of wet earth and chopped herbs. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and cassis flavors are shot through with a cedary, incense quality, thanks no doubt to the whole cluster fermentation, which seems to have imparted a sort of woody note from the stems. Excellent acidity and freshness, with tightly wound, muscular tannins that flex through the finish. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2012 Feudi di San Gregorio “Piano di Montevergine – Riserva” Aglianico, Taurasi, Campania, Italy
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of leather, dried flowers, and licorice. In the mouth, massive, billowy tannins envelop a core of black cherry, licorice root, and dried flowers, even as earthier, darker notes rumble about in the basement. Good acidity, but still massive even with 8 years of age. Give it some air, or better yet, another 5 years in the bottle. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.

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