“Chenin Blanc is so much in demand that it’s being grown in parts of the Loire better known for Cabernet Franc.” — Jason Wilson, Vinous
I recently wrote an offer for the 2018 Saumur-Champigny Les Mémoires produced by Thierry Germain of Domaine des Roches Neuves, an heir of the Loire's cult producer Clos Rougeard and who's made a name for himself as one of the top Biodynamic vignerons in France. I didn’t talk about his Saumur Chenin Blanc at the time, because it’s worthy of its own excavation.
A 2015 Vinous review of Loire Chenin says that much of Saumur’s white varieties were ripped out in the 1960s to be replaced by Cabernet Franc. However, Germain owns a handful of small parcels in what should be considered historic sites (some with vines almost a century old).
L'Echelier is Germain’s one-hectare, old-vine Chenin site in Dampierre-sur-Loire where the soils are enriched with Turonian limestone; the vineyard is contained by an ancient stone wall built 300 years ago. These 70-year-old Chenin vines that have stood the test of time are three decades older than the Cabernet Franc sharing the same parcel!
Three kilometers east in Parnay, Clos Romans is the smallest (less than an acre) and most coveted of Germain’s parcels—some would go as far as to compare it to the grandeur of Corton-Charlemagne. The soils here change to Senonian limestone, and the stone wall is centuries older than the one at L'Echelier. Germain started replanting the vines after he purchased the site in 2007.
As people become wiser with age, I find older vines to be more seasoned, expressing more pronounced aroma, body, and concentration. The 2015 L'Echelier has a warming herbal aroma reminiscent of lemon balm tea with a spoonful of honey. The wine starts out round with soft apple flesh, yellow florals and honeycomb, then a boost of acidity (a characteristic that I love about Chenin) streamlines the wine with pressing energy.
However, I especially gravitated toward the 2017 Clos Romans for its sheer sense of composure and focus. The aromas are of pollen and dried honeycomb, and there’s more vibrant springtime on the palate with budding wildflowers, salty minerality, and underripe lemon. It’s a quiet wine that opens up more and more with time, and knowing that this vineyard is in good hands, I’m eager to see how Clos Roman will continue to develop in the coming years.
Loire’s high-acid, mineral-driven Chenin is much like dry German Riesling or, even, young Chablis. I like drinking White Burgundy as much as the next person, but for my budget, the next French region I happily turn to for white wine is the Loire. Germain is an excellent reference point for the magic happening in Saumur and, arguably, in the ranks of France's most dynamic vignerons.
At first glance, our deep collection of Turley wines may seem like an outlier in our Old World-focused collection. The reason I go deep on these prized wines from America's oldest vineyards extends far beyond their historical significance. Turley personifies the best of American wines today, never shying away from ripeness if it's to the detriment of terroir expression. While the collection of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah has a hedonistic side, they are balanced, precisely detailed, and always supported by fresh acidity. Turley is simply the gold standard.
Today, I'm happy to offer a wide range of Turley's best, from their more recent Napa Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon through their wide range of Zinfandels.
Turley defines American viticulture today perhaps more completely than any estate. Working with over 50 vineyards they apply organic principles and rely only on native yeasts for fermentation. Head winemaker, Tegan Passalacqua (of Sandlands) is rightfully respected for his work in the cellar as much as for his encyclopedic knowledge of California's diversity of old vineyards throughout the state.
While Zinfandel and Petite Syrah inherently push towards higher ripeness, their thoughtful approach with vines from Paso Robles to Napa Valley is to preserve acidity and manage tannins. If there's a hallmark for me here it's a lacy and polished texture endowed with incredible concentration. Each cuvée is crafted free of reliance on excessive new oak, additives, or manipulation in the cellar. These are ultimate wines of terroir, epitomizing the best of California's viticulture heritage.
When serious BBQ is at hand, Turley's reds are among the first I reach for. Their vibrant, fruit-forward, and deeply nuanced traits lend themselves perfectly for the wide range of grilled meats and marinades. A bottle of 2001 Hayne Vineyard Petite Syrah opened on Valentine's Day was a great reminder that these are wines for the record books, and the pure joy they give even after a decade in bottle is evidence of their greatness.
California Old Vines Zinfandel is the first place to turn for introduction to the skill and brilliance from Turley. This special cuvée is a collection of vines up to 129-yrs-old from various organically-farmed vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lodi, Contra Costa, Amador and Paso Robles. At $49 per bottle, this is the benchmark for California Zinfandel.
The Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is comprised on 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, a rarity in these parts. Sourced from vines planted on the eastern portion of the Turley's home and winery in northern Saint Helena. Honest, estate-farmed Napa Valley Cabernet with a palatable price tag is hard to come by. This is the first place I turn.
Mead Ranch is planted to Zinfandel at 1,600 ft. atop Atlas Peak on red volcanic soils in Napa Valley's east side. Vines were first planted here in 1880. A great example of how sun-soaked, west-facing vineyards in the valley can still retain great brightness and acidity.
Hayne Vineyard was planted in 1953 on gravelly loam soils on the west side of Saint Helena. Head-trained vines have always been dry-farmed. If there is one stretch of Napa Valley that may be considered Grand Cru territory, this is it. Among California Petite Syrah vineyards, there is Hayne, and then there is everyone else.
Kirschenmann is located in Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA and owned by winemakerTegan Passalacqua. These vines were planted in 1915 on silica-rich sandy soils. The real excitement about this newer site for both Turley and Sandlands is the magic of these old vines coming from a special pocket of Lodi that sees great moderation of heat from the cool waters of the river and delta breezes.
"I tasted a mind-bending range of superb wines during my most recent visit to Turley. If I had to make a list of my 2017 highlights, this tasting would surely rank at or near the top. The 2016's are aromatically deep, bright, and super-expressive with regards to site...Prices remain exceedingly fair given the quality of what is in the bottle."- Antonio Galloni of Vinous (03/18)
The case is made by many that Loire Valley Chenin Blanc is the benchmark for diversity within the world of wine. And I'm not one to argue with that sentiment. Bone-dry, sparkling, off-dry, semi-sweet, and sweet. The entire range is covered here in the central Loire. However, this perspective has become a bit of a double-edged sword for Chenin. If everything can be done well, is anything actually exceptional? I won't make the case, as some do, that top sparkling examples rival great champagne. But, I will gladly tell you that the zenith of bone-dry Chenin Blanc is deadly serious.
Clos Rougeard's Brézé is the most famous name in this club, with current releases starting at $200 per bottle. But, beyond that there's one name that embodies the detail and clarity that top dry Chenin is capable of. Jacky Blot's domaine, La Taille Aux Loups works primarily with vineyards in Montlouis, but in Vouvray there's one parcel of old vines that produce his most coveted wine. Precision is the first word that comes to mind when I taste his monopole, Clos de la Bretonniere. At $41 per bottle, this is the greatest bone-dry Chenin Blanc that still lies under-the-radar.
Blot takes his cue's from Burgundy gods, Coche-Dury and Roulot. After a slow barrel fermentation (20% new wood here) he moves his wine into steel for several months prior to bottling. Much like the disciplined Chenin found in Saumur, here battonage is avoided and malolactic fermentation is blocked - a necessity in accentuating the laser-focus and sleek frame that draws comparisons to Burgundy.
Blot is no nonsense when it comes to farming, with organic and hands-on viticulture serving as the root of success for all his wines. However, Clos de la Bretonniere stands out in his lineup. While his Montlouis wines can show density and breadth, this rare Vouvray parcel of 62-yr-old vines on pure limestone is a different beast. There's a mesmerizing level of detail and shimmering range of flavors that seemingly dance on the palate. It's a drinking sensation that you do not want to end.
Vouvray is most associated with off-dry and sweet styles of wine. Since 1993 Jacky has focused on bone-dry wines, a choice that was not received warmly for the first two vintages in the Loire. But, after some time, people began to see what he was after. Today, the Clos de la Bretonniere is one of the greatest examples of dry Chenin Blanc in the world. But, like the Loire in 1993, people are still just catching on. 2017 has proven so far to be a thrilling vintage for the whites of the Loire, but even in this context the dry wines from the vintage have a unmistakable featherweight presence on the palate that's pure magic.
It's not often you can tell drinkers of Coche and Roulot to pick up a bottle of dry Chenin and expect to be be floored. At $41 per bottle, today is definitely that day.