Two Ends of the Chenin Blanc Spectrum
The diversity within the range of styles of Loire Valley Chenin Blanc is something that fascinates us to no end. On a recent trip we visited two particular producers who accentuate this truth in show stopping fashion. Today we focus on two very different sides to the Chenin Blanc coin.
It is only 25 miles that separate Saumur from Anjou, but the styles of Chenin Blanc seem worlds apart. Terroir plays a large role, but we also found that winemaking philosophy and technique is a pivotal element in what distinguishing these stunning wines.
Arnaud Lambert has resurrected the Chateau 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 seven 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 it's bright, linear, and more crystalline characteristics. The top whites here see some new French oak, but the flavor is nearly imperceptible, as fruit from these sites absorbs any wood quality that may otherwise stand out. While most wines in the appellation showcase fresh orchard fruit notes, those of Chateau Brézé have a deep layered texture to them with an impressive array of tertiary qualities. The poached pear and quince flavors are met with brown spices, orange zest, and chalky minerality.
Lambert would be the first to tell you that it was not an overnight change that has made these wines what they are today. It was a few years of intense vineyard management that has finally brought quality up to such a high level. 2012 marked a defining moment for the domaine, as their top two wines offered today resemble the glory of what once graced the tables of kings and queens throughout the continent.
2012 Chateau de Brézé Saumur Clos de la Rue $53.95
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.
If Chateau de Brézé is a reflection of the grand achievements of centuries past in the Loire, then Kenji and Mai Hodgson serve as stark reminders of what thrilling heights await us as we look toward the future. The couple, originally from British Columbia, have an adventurous spirit that embodies what's so exciting about today's Loire Valley.
They produce wines under the Vin de France (VDF) designation which allow them to essentially ignore the archaic requirements set by local appellation laws, like those of Anjou. While the VDF designation was once commonly thought of as the lowest generic label, today it is used by hundreds who find its flexibility a blessing that allows them to craft the wines of their dreams. And believe me, with the 2014 Les Aussigouins Kenji and Mai landed on cloud nine.
In Vancouver it proved nearly impossible for the Japanese-Canadians to rely on organically farmed sources of grapes, and land was too expensive to buy outright. They took a giant leap and moved to the Loire without a grasp of French, but what they lacked in language they made up for in sheer determination. After four years they finally made their mark thanks in large part to the generosity and mentorship of iconic producers in the region like Richard Leroy and Mark Angeli.
2014 Vins Hodgson Les Aussignouins VDF $43.95
Les Aussignouins is sourced from vines in the famed Montbenault vineyard that Richard Leroy has drawn a spotlight to over the last few years. While Leroy's wines are doled out in 6 bottle allocations per year (if you're lucky!), Hodgson's version just landed this month in the US for the first time ever, and while quantities are small, we took a rather large slice.
Specifically, the Montbenault vineyard is located within Coteaux du Layon Faye de Anjou. The Chenin Blanc here is grown on volcanic rhuloite rock and differs dramatically from the limestone-dominant Saumur vineyards. The winemaking decisions here are quite different, as well. Malolactic fermentation is uninterrupted, zero sulphur is used, and the wines age for a rather short period of time in neutral oak barrels, before going into tank and then bottle.
Les Aussignouins has a broad texture, giving rich golden orchard fruits, and a distinct honeyed quality. What impressed so much at our visit was how perfectly balanced this wine was. It had the purity and laser-like focus of the Saumur wines, but with wild exotic fruit notes and concentrated savory spices on the ultra-long finish. I must have revisited this wine three more times when I was traveling in France and each time was more blown away. Of all the wines of Vins Hodgson this is the one we knew we had to go deep on.