Monday, July 5, 2010

Visiting Romain Guiberteau in Saumur

Guiberteau cellarAt last I reached the Mothership: the Loire Valley, home of my adored chenin, home of rare indigenous varieties secreted in small plots, and home to some of the most dynamic set of winemakers in the world, many of whom pursue natural winemaking in their own ways and on their own terms. As much as I would have loved to have visited the Touraine, I focused on the Layon because of its schist and because I correctly assumed the winemakers there would have particularly interesting things to say.

But before I hit the Layon, I stayed in Saumur and biked down to Domaine Guiberteau in Mollay, just west of the great calcareous vineyards of Brézé. After experiencing three of Romain Guiberteau's wines earlier this year, it was a no-brainer to visit, a must.

Romain's grandfather bought up vineyards some decades ago but the domaine began bottling its own crop only in the mid-80s, and Romain has taken the domaine in a completely natural direction: No chemical sprays, no chaptalization, no enzymes or stabilizers, indigenous yeasts only, and a leave-it-alone approach — to paraphrase Romain, when you leave a wine alone, such as letting chenin rest on its lees rather than stirring it, it may take longer for the wine to be what it will be, but it will be better when it gets there.

Like many a Burgundian, Romain begins the tasting with the reds, which are made entirely from cabernet franc. 2009 marks a new direction for the domaine-level wines, as they are now to be aged in inox only rather than used barrels as was previously the case (and will still be the case for the lieu-dits). This allows him to respond to clients' requests for a lower-priced wine, but he also now prefers to emphasize the fruit. He finds that his reds up through 2006 are too big and concentrated for his taste. I think they have the stuffing and balance to age very well and are not at all overly large, but that is my taste. Regardless, it's clear that more recent vintages are not the least bit lesser; they are merely different.

2009 Rouge: The domaine wine had just finished malo two weeks prior to my arrival and it will be bottled in September. It is a beautiful wine, very pure, and the greatness of the vintage shines through. It is the essence of cabernet franc, fresh and deep and savory. 75% of the grapes are plucked from calcareous soils and 25% are of argile.

2008 Rouge: This spent 15 months in used barrels. 2008 was a high acid year and it was a difficult vintage, as 60% of the crop was lost to a freeze. Between my bad French and his much better English I try to understand the nature of the freeze — apparently it was not frost — but I will have to let this point be a mystery for the time being. But there's no question about this wine's beauty with its lovely dark fruits. Again, there is no trace of overripeness or overextraction, and for it the wine seems effortless. Romain says this should be particularly good in 2012.

2007 Les Motelles Rouge: This 1.4 ha lieu-dit is planted on argile in Montreuil-Bellay and the wine spent 18 months in a mix of one, two, and three year old barrels. This is lighter and more floral than the 2008 domaine, as befits a cabernet franc from 2007, but it still has good tannins and a lovely raspberry aspect. I ask about disease pressure and other problems, but Romain said he experienced none of that in 2007.

2007 Les Arboises Rouge: Romain does use some new barrels for this wine but there is not a trace of vanillin or toast. Rather, its purity is striking. This comes from a calcareous lieu-dit in Brézé and it's a bit less floral than the Motelles and shows greater acidity. The balance is great, too, and I love the red plum-like fruit. Like the Motelles, the vines for this wine were planted over 50 years ago.

Now it's time for the whites. Romain says he trades with winemakers from both Burgundy and from the south; he gets their reds, they get his whites, everyone is happy. I have nothing to trade, but I am still happy. Asia should be happy, too, as they get 40% of his production. Here in the US, only Illinois sees his wines.

2009 Domaine Blanc: This spent six months sur lie — no battonage, as previously mentioned. I've tasted a good amount of dry, unoaked Loire chenin over the years, and they are often nice straightforward wines for easy drinking. This is several notches above those wines. Just as the rouge is the essence of cabernet franc, this wine is the essence of dry chenin from primarily calcareous soils. Gorgeous apple flavors here, with depth and presence. Some young vine fruit is blended with fruit from 55 year old vines.

2008 Clos de Guichaux: This is a monopole of extremely young vines grown on argilo-calcaires, but Romain does not want to print "monopole" on the label until he is sure that the wines will perform well year in and year out, through difficult vintages and easy. The vineyard has only 30 cm of soil atop the bedrock. Romain likes this with cream sauces since its high acidity really cuts through richer food. For my part, I find this is gorgeous, with beautiful peach-driven flavors and impeccable balance. This spent 13 months in two to four year old barrels.

2007 Clos des Carmes: This is another monopole and it says so on the label. It's 2.6 hectares but only 0.5 ha worth makes it into this wine; the rest goes into the Brézé blanc. Interestingly, the vines were only 3 years old when the grapes were harvested and yet this cuvée was aged in 100% new oak for 24 months, which unlike the other wines imparts some vanillin character. Romain does not follow a recipe; he says that the batch that was aged in these barrels turned out the best and so he decided to bottle it separately.

2007 Brézé Blanc: I guess I'm an unoriginal thinker, because my notes again use the word "gorgeous." That's not to say that the wine isn't distinctive: it shows honeyed aromas that the above whites do not, and it's full in the nose and even fuller in the mouth. Of course, it's still dry. It has the acidity to move things along and the wine is both fully present — it hits every part of the palate in just the right way — and very long. This spent 24 months in new and used barrels, and no obvious oak flavors come through. It's complex and transparent. I ask Romain what makes Brézé special, why the wines from this slope are just that much better than most other spots in Saumur, and he says he doesn't know, exactly.

But to invoke Gertrude Stein, there's there there, and Romain confesses that he's very lucky: he has access to great terroir and is making a solid living without compromising his approach. Luck, yes, but also skill: these are the best Saumur wines of any that I've had. I climb back on to my bike and see a youngster looking at me inquisitively from inside the house. Someone inside is playing a piano; family is over for the day and Romain goes back inside to join them.


Candid Wines said...

This is awesome. Thanks for the notes! We have our next container of Romain's wines arriving in just a few days. Great post.


Wicker Parker said...

That's great news, Damien -- which ones are you bringing in?

Candid Wines said...

Most everything you mentioned, plus a handful of Motelles 05 and one or 2 magnums of the single vineyard wines. I am also working on editing a series of videos I shot with Romain's father Robert in the Loire Valley. Do you have any more pictures from the doamine? I would happily trade you a bottle for the right to use them. The stories of the domaine in WWII are incredible.
I can be reached at damien(at)candidwines . com


Candid Wines said...

I just finished the first short video with Romain's father that I filmed this spring at the Salon des Vins de la Loire.

It's short, but provides some insight into the family history. More coming later.


Wicker Parker said...

Sorry, no other photos, it had to be a short visit; and furthermore Romain was camera shy that day (I asked!). Looking forward to seeing more videos.

Unknown said...

Hi there! I am visiting the Loire in a few weeks and am looking to visit Guiberteau. May I ask how you set up an appointment and if it was easy to make? Hopefully you're still checking this site from time to time! Thank you, Lizzie