“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.
Although Bordeaux has been structuring their famous growth wines to offer more of a forward, approachable style than ever before, the truth is they are still in need of significant bottle age when they hit the market. Chateau Le Puy approaches their vineyard work with the same level of fastidious care as the first growth estates, but handles their work in the cellar very differently. Upon release, these are the wines that offer serious pleasure with no fear of infanticide.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2016 Chateau Le Puy "Emilien" Côtes de Bordeaux for $54 per bottle, and down to $48.50 for 6 bottles or more.
Chateau Le Puy diverges from so many norms in Bordeaux. Aside from organic and biodynamic work in the vines, their fermentation method and élevage is very uncommon. Le Puy is able to provide soft texture with bright, open-knit fruit out of the gate thanks to their protocol during fermentation. Infusion and semi-carbonic methods limit the extraction of hard tannins and retain the more primary fruit traits. And, aging in large foudre preserves all of the verve that carries those qualities into bottle. However, we are very much still in Bordeaux with tell-tale cigar box, graphite, and damp earth notes in abundance.
Unfortunately, the secret is out on this Bordeaux estate that exemplifies the rare farm-first mentality of the region. The New York Times' Eric Asimov's excellent piece shined the spotlight on this chateau which, in one sip, makes abundantly clear it's the real McCoy.
In college, it was a Médoc that ended up being my epiphany red wine moment. In just one sniff my growing fascination in wine shifted from California to France. Truth be told, when an unfamiliar Bordeaux is poured for me it brings the most hopeful sense of anticipation. Regrettably, those thrilling experiences via Bordeaux don't appear often. The point-chasing, over-extracted, and ripe-beyond-recognition style set in motion in the mid-80's has changed the region for the worse. Yet, terroir-driven producers do still exist.
It's no surprise the greatest of all the recent Bordeaux discoveries has come from importer, Neal Rosenthal. With names like Fourrier, Carillon, and Paolo Bea under his belt I'm always excited to taste new arrivals. When introduced to the new Bordeaux in the lineup I was transported to a time long ago.
Chateau Le Puy is in its 14th generation of management by the Amoreau family. Situated in between Pomerol and Saint Emilion on the 2nd highest point along the Gironde estuary, this is home to the Bordeaux that's rooted in sensibilities more commonly found in Burgundy. The finesse, dead-serious-focus, and downright drinkability of Le Puy is worlds apart from the stylistic norm. It embodies that sense of place that so few do today, while not shortchanging on the regal qualities that are rightfully associated with Bordeaux.
“It’s the best Burgundy wine from Bordeaux”, proclaims the head of production, Steven Hewison. The son-in-law of the estate's owner is referring to the precision and ease of drinking that calls to mind the farm-first mentality of its sibling to the east.
Since 1610 these vines have been farmed free of chemicals, and today full biodynamic practices are employed, with work being done by horse. The soil is an amalgamation of red clay, silex, and limestone. Plantings are 85% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, and small percentages of Malbec and Carménère.
Emilien is the main wine of the chateau. Initially aged in 5,000-liter foudres (many over 115-years-old), and then into neutral 228-liter Bordeaux barrels. In personality, it shows silken tannins and elegance that neighboring Pomerol is so revered for.
Duc des Nauves sits at the lowest elevation on the property on a sandy limestone parcel. The wine is fermented and aged exclusively in cement. To see the best value available in Bordeaux today ($24) I cannot think of a better place to turn first.
Bartélemy comes from a single parcel of old vines known as "Les Rocs" planted on deep limestone. This is the most age-worthy wine of the estate. Élevage is in 228-liter barrels, of which less than 10% are new. The structure, saturating texture, and persistence of Bartélemy rivals those under the region's two famous classifications of 1855 and 1955.
Rose-Marie is a rosé in the style of Chateau Simone, offering transformative, age-worthy qualities that few rosés do. Produced by the "saignée" method where juice from red wine vats is "bled off". Fermented and aged in neutral oak barrels, bottled without filtration or the addition of sulfur. 30 cases were imported to the US.
Le Puy takes me back to a different era of Bordeaux, one where a sense of authenticity and traditionalism reverberate through the wines. With a lineup covering four distinct cuvées this is the prime chateau to reacquaint yourself with the region.
Vinous captured the excitement of the 2016's here,
"The 2016s are absolutely remarkable wines. The word that comes to mind, unfortunately so often overused, is balance. In technical terms, the 2016s boast off the charts tannins that in many cases exceed those of wines from massive vintages such as 2010. And yet, the best 2016s are absolutely harmonious, with the tannins barely perceptible at all. The 2016s also have tremendous energy and bright, acid-driven profiles, with many wines playing more in the red-fruit area of the flavor spectrum. One of the results of the unusual growing season is that alcohols range from 0.5% to 1% lower than what has been the norm in recent years."
Alain Graillot is to Crozes Hermitage as the Peyraud's are to Bandol: Benchmark and definitive representations of their appellations. Alain's journey to starting his domaine in 1985 began, of all places, in Burgundy alongside Jacques Seysses at Domaine Dujac. And, as one might imagine with Alain's Syrahs, there will be stems.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage and 2016 Crozes Hermitage La Guiraude.
Additionally, featured below is a very special joint project between Antoine Graillot and Raul Perez, the 2017 Encinas Bierzo Tinto for just $30 per bottle.
Prior to founding his domaine in 1985, Alain's work with Jacques imparted two key traits. He wanted his wines to be both supremely fresh and spicy. Certainly elegance is part of this equation too, and as temperatures have warmed in the last 34 years, Graillot continues to be a beacon for Rhône enthusiasts passionate about terroir-driven wines that are steeped in an unwavering traditionalist approach.
Alain's two sons both produce Syrah under their own labels, but the eponymous domaine is still unwavering in their use of 100% whole clusters for fermentation and aging only in older wood - divided between barrique and foudre.
La Guirade is not a single vineyard, but rather a selection of the best barrels, as Alain tastes through these personally each vintage.
Crozes Hermitage has long been a great appellation for those looking for value when it comes to the best producers working in the most esteemed parcels. But, even as Graillot's wines nail the value element, they stand out from the pack, as he is undoubtedly the benchmark name in this zone of the Northern Rhône valley.