“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.
Two things initially jumped out when visiting Saumur in the Loire River Valley. The idyllic, undulating hills perfectly matched my notion of pastoral France, but I hadn't the first clue on where to spot the grand terroir. Since the middle ages, the hill of Brézé was esteemed as any white wine terroir in France, but the secret was in the bedrock of this unassuming, gentle slope.
Here, the famed tuffeau limestone is the backbone of France's single most celebrated Chenin Blanc, Clos Rougeard's Brézé bottling, which surpasses $400 per bottle. But, the Brézé producer who offers the ultimate intersection between this site's brilliance and value is, undoubtedly, Romain Guiberteau. After mentoring under the Foucault family of Clos Rougeard, Guiberteau's eponymous domaine today captures Chenin Blanc at its most crystalline and pure.
Today, I'm happy to offer Guiberteau's top white and reds from the famous hill of Brézé.
For more than 100 years the Guiberteau's have farmed Saumur's hill of Brézé. But, it was when Romain left Clos Rougeard and implemented critical changes in the vineyard that quality began to soar. Unlike the Chenin Blanc coming from neighboring appellations where rounded, more overt orchard fruit dominates, in Saumur the alkaline limestone soils bring the same sense of cut and lacy minerality that shares much more in common with Chablis and Champagne.
Guiberteau's Brézé bottling comes from a 1.2 hectare parcel of vines planted in 1933 and 1952. This parcel's limestone soil also contains sand and clay, bringing a textural weight that balances the razor sharp focus from Brézé's tuffeau bedrock. Simply put, this is world class Chenin Blanc to rival top white Burgs.
Arboises is a 1 hectare, south-facing portion on Brézé of 1957-planted Cabernet Franc. Sand and silt sits over the limestone bedrock here. All grapes are de-stemmed. Aging takes place in 80% new French oak. This is a wickedly precise and mineral-driven style of Cabernet Franc that elicits Burgundy before Bourgueil.
Les Motelles is another 1 hectare parcel of Cabernet Franc vines, planted in 1955 on sand and gravel above clay. As you'd imagine, versus Arboises, there is more breadth and density on the palate here, but the absence of weight is a perfect example of Guiberteau's deft touch. Aged in 2-3 year-old French barrels.
Saumur Rouge comes from a 2 hectare parcel of 1955 & 1957-planted Cabernet Franc over silt and sand over a softer limestone. 100% de-stemmed and aged in steel. The quintessential example of how sophistication Cabernet Franc is capable of does not need to be tied to price.
Les Moulins comes from a 1.9 hectare portion of Chenin Blanc vines ranging from 7 to 80-yrs-old planted on sand over a limestone-clay mix. Aged in stainless steel. Nervy, supremely fresh, dominated by citrus tones that slowly open to reveal more typical orchard fruit and faint lanolin.
Clos des Guichaux comes from a 1.3 hectare parcel of Chenin Blanc planted on silt and sand over limestone. Vines were planted in 2003. Aged 9 months in neutral oak. As compared to Les Moulins, the enclosed Guichaux has an intensity and long finish that belies the younger age of these vines.
The long-used selling point for the wines of Brézé have been that they're the first place in the Loire Valley for white Burgundy collectors to turn. But, at the highest order from Guiberteau (and Clos Rougeard), these are whites that simply exist among the most royal in all of France.
In Saumur, Antoine Foucault, son of the late Charly Foucault, had seen the reputation and pricing of his father's Clos Rougeard wines soar across the globe like no other domaine in France. Today, little is known of Foucault's own domaine he founded in 1999. The Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc produced from the best limestone slopes in Saumur brings the unrivaled elegance of Clos Rougeard, with a singular potency that will guide this address into cult territory. We laugh when we hear of times past where Clos Rougeard sat on shelves for under $60, and here I expect the same to follow suit.
Today, I'm happy to offer the Saumur wines of Antoine Foucault's Domaine du Collier.
Visiting with Antoine in 2016 was a dramatic moment, there's no other way to describe the experience. For starters, descending into the cellar was akin to the fantastical space imagined for Indiana Jones' Temple of Doom. The cavern was close to 100% humidity, with walls of bedrock wet to the touch and stalactites at every turn. The shadowed figure of Foucault returning into faint light with a thief of wine from each new barrel further imprinted the mystique.
Like his father, Antoine's greatest joy is working among the vines. Witnessing the meteoric rise of popularity of Clos Rougeard throughout his life has left him surprisingly humble, showing no interest in the limelight or travel. He speaks matter of fact, and his sensible philosophy on organic and biodynamic viticulture is ultimately defined by rigorous hands-on work in each parcel.
There's a powerful concentration to Antoine's wines that differ from his father's, yet they're still built upon that familiar grace and seamless pleasure found in their texture. (Antoine vinified the 2016 vintage at Clos Rougeard upon his father's untimely passing). The real distinction on the protocol for Collier's wines is their unusually long aging, many times over two years in wood. Once fermentation is concluded the wines are gravity-fed into barrel and remain completely untouched, with zero sulphur additions.
There's a large proportion of new wood used at Collier, but never have I tasted at a domaine where this level of oak was so imperceptible and pushed into the background of the wine. The wood absorbs much of the firm structure in these wines, softening the contours and bringing an added layer of refinement.
Saumur Blanc is 100% Chenin Blanc primarily sourced from vines aged 25-75 years in the Ripaille site.
Saumur Rouge La Ripaille is 100% Cabernet Franc sourced from a single vineyard of vines ranging between 30-60 years old.
Saumur Blanc Charpentrie comes from 100-yr-old vines in this single vineyard.
A May 2016 visit to the Loire Valley brought a wide array of discoveries, but the visit that left the most indelible mark was with Arnaud Lambert at Château de Brézé in Saumur. I had been familiar with their 2012 vintage, however what we tasted from the 2014's really drove home the point that this estate is now a top benchmark of Saumur.
The 2014 was one where Saumur strived and where Chenin Blanc from an estate dating back to the 1400's was executed brilliantly. The 2014's from Lambert are among the most thrilling white wines produced anywhere in France, but now the cat is out of the bag.
Arnaud Lambert resurrected the Château de Brézé of Saumur, a domaine praised for their Chenin Blanc wines as far back as the 15th century where they were served at royal courts throughout Europe. Regularly the Chateau would exchange their wines with those of the revered Château d'Yquem of Bordeaux - And today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As times passed and industrialism gave way to quick fixes in the vineyards (herbicides, pesticides) to ensure high yields and minimize the need for hand work the Chateau de Brézé lost something. Recruited in 2009, Lambert has spent the last nine years finding the magic by going back to the roots. Lambert immediately converted to organic farming, drastically reduced yields, and has started to incorporate biodynamic principals.
Saumur's high concentration of tuffeau limestone, and its active calcium content, has long delivered wines of striking purity and elegance. Winemaking styles here lead most producers to block malolactic fermentation, which help Chenin Blanc preserve its bright, linear, and more crystalline traits. The top whites here see some new French oak, but the flavor is nearly imperceptible, as fruit from these sites absorbs any woody quality that may otherwise stand out.
While most wines in the appellation showcase fresh orchard fruit notes, those of Chateau Brézé have a deep textural element and persistent finish that strikingly stand out from their neighbors. The poached pear and quince notes are met with brown spices, orange zest, and chalky minerality.
Today offered are the two top wines of the estate, both evoking the glory of what once graced the tables of kings and queens throughout the continent.
Clos David is sourced from a parcel of pure sand and gravelly limestone. A cool site that never develops botrytis, and sand gives an elegance to this wine that stands out.
Clos de la Rue is the top wine of the domaine. From the warmest vineyard on the hill of Brézé, and protected from the gusts of wind that regularly zip throughout vine rows. Sandy limestone at the top of the hill, with clay underneath gives richness, power, and deep texture.
I try and avoid focusing on two producers in one offer, but to illustrate how dynamic and exciting Loire Valley Chenin Blanc is right now I thought today a perfect opportunity to break the habit. Saumur and Anjou are appellations with history as rich as any, but it's what's transpired somewhat recently that's warranted their relative gain in recognition.
Oregon-born, Brendan Stater-West followed his passion for wine all the way to Paris where he began working in a wine shop. He tasted a bottle from the renowned, Romain Guiberteau and knew he wanted to learn and work alongside the Saumur producer. A marriage to a lovely French woman made the move from bustling Paris to the gentle hills of Saumur a seamless one, and Romain Guiberteau took Brendan under his wing. Seeing Brendan's skill and work ethic, Romain leased him one hectare of vines situated next to his famous Clos du Guichaux lieu dit.
Brendan's hectare, named Les Chapaudaises, is located in the small village of Bizay, within a half-kilometer of Saumur's cherished hill of Brézé. The same sandy tuffeau limestone appears here and is the foundation of the fine-grained and elegant contours that's rightfully associated with Saumur's top sites.
Like Romain, Brendan's wines are based upon driving minerality, crisp citrus and orchard fruit notes, and are bone dry. Both winemakers block malolactic fermentation, a key in retaining the more taut and racy qualities of Chenin Blanc. Although a debut release for Les Chapaudaises, the composure and harmony of the wine points to years of familiarity with Bizay and Saumur. The wines of Guiberteau are among the great Chenin Blancs of France, and Brendan's cuvée belongs at the same table.
If Saumur and Brendan's wine can best be described as regal and disciplined, then Anjou and Patrick Baudouin are in fact much further apart in style than their close proximity would suggest.
Anjou's dry wines do not receive the same historical (and current) praise of their neighbors to the east. Nestled between the Loire and Layon river, the high humidity here is ideal for making sweet wines from botrytized grapes. Patrick's great work, however, is in the dry style and his La Fresnaye cuvée is the wine that highlights Anjou's potential.
Patrick's importer has used a JRR Tolkien book to convey the sense of the man and the wines from this 13.5-hectare estate. Without having met Patrick I can attest that the actual wine in the glass conjures magic, wizardry, and maybe just a touch of fairy dust.It's obvious from the first aromas to the texture of the first sip, this is simply unlike any Chenin Blanc you will ever taste.
La Fresnaye is a single hectare parcel planted on an amalgamation of ancient soils containing predominately gravel and limestone. It's made in the dry style, but carries the honeyed and exotic spices that are mesmerizing put in this unusually higher acid form. In the past these notes have usually come with an overt bruised apple quality that tends to turn me off in Chenin. But here, the real magic is the fresh and lively nature of the orchard fruit that's still loaded with these savory elements. It's a high-wire act on a mystical stage.
Loire Valley Chenin Blanc may hold the single greatest potential within its diversity of styles. These examples from Saumur and Anjou showcase wildly different sides of the coin. They will reward those who place them in deep pockets of the cellar, but they are unquestionably delicious in their generosity today.