Monday, July 26, 2010

Now Tweetin'

Follow me if you like at http://twitter.com/Wicker_Parker

Sunday, July 25, 2010

With Jérôme and Sophie Saurigny, Anjou

Jérôme and Sophie Saurigny, and LuisIf you have turned your back on what Bordeaux too often stands for, you need to know about Jérôme Saurigny. He did so literally in 2005, quitting his work there and turning instead to Anjou and making wine naturally on his own at Domaine Saurigny. On paper he sounds utterly crazy. Who in his right mind would macerate cabernet franc for four months without sulfur, CO2, or temperature control? He went to enology school in Bordeaux, didn't they teach him anything down there? But Jérôme's wines do not taste foolish or crazy. They are utterly alive, fresh, vivid, and their exuberance reflects his personality.

Jérome is part of what I think of as the VdF crew of the Layon, young natural winemakers who exchange ideas and occasionally collaborate but ultimately pursue their own individual paths to making natural wine. The ones I met created rather than inherited their domaines, work long days in the vineyards and the chai, and live simply. Some actually do produce AC bottlings, but the Saurignys now only release Vin de Table / Vin de France bottlings. Between the size of their holdings — 6+ ha in the Saurignys' case — and their unpretentious pricing (these are not garagistes), I can't imagine that anyone in the VdF crew is getting rich.

The most important thing to know about the Saurignys is just how great they are, really warm and generous and welcoming. Just for starters, I arrived 20 minutes late for my appointment at Domaine Saurigny in Saint-Aubin-de-Luigné, but Sophie Saurigny was genuinely unfussed about my late arrival. Jérôme himself wasn't there when I arrived — he was over at Les Griottes with Sebastien Dervieux pressing gamay after it had been macerating for eight (!) months — but that meant I could spend some time talking with Sophie.

Sophie told me about Jérôme's stints in Bordeaux and how he found the wines ultimately boring. Here in the Layon, they take the natural approach; they only fight humidity with Bordeaux mixture and otherwise only plow, prune, and do other hand-driven work to maintain vine health. My French is poor, but I did my best to understand the full story. For example, I ask Sophie about biodynamics, and I think she said that the biodynamic approach is fine for larger domaines but that they choose the natural-only approach.

Jérôme arrived as if on a gust of wind with Luis (sp?), who'd been assisting Jérôme and Sébastien over at Les Griottes. Sophie provided cherries and pork rillots (aka rillettes), which are a specialty of the Layon, to snack on as Jérôme led the tasting. This was not some quiet, formal affair: Jérôme tore off chunks of bread, ran around gathering tasting samples, downed wine, and good-naturedly answered all my questions. Jérôme used to skateboard and he has a free, roguish energy which mirrors that in his wines.

2008 Au Suivant... VdT: We began with this cabernet franc made from 15 and 30 year old vines from St. Aubin. It's the one I referred to above where the grapes were macerated for four months in resin/epoxy tank (a vessel favored by the VdF crew), but I must emphasize that the wine is balanced, without a hint of overextraction or excess tannin. The wine is utterly alive, with a gorgeous nose of flowers and beautiful red fruits. Its acid and tannin structure are perfect, and it is a joy to drink. What a great way to start a tasting! It's also only 12% abv, which is typical at this domaine, and as with all the Saurigny wines since 2007, there are no sulfur additions whatsoever, not even at bottling.

2008 Ange Ou Démon: It's a pun — Anjou / Ange Ou — and a potentially helpful one at that, as VdF labels cannot explicitly advertise the region or the appellation, just a zip code. Look closely and you'll also see this tiny print: "L.CFCS8." More specifically, it's 25% cabernet franc and 75% cabernet sauvignon, and it's darker on the nose and much darker on the palate than the Au Suivant. This underwent one month of maceration and the tannins are both fine and lovely. Again, the acidity here is beautiful.

2008 Pactole: My first grolleau! Jérôme said this grape gives a lot of juice and not a lot of tannins. It's yet another lively, lovely wine. It's spicy, but its pepper character is finer and less aggressive than pineau d'aunis, to which it bears a resemblance, and I like it more. It's red berried but not to the point of cranberry; it's not that tart. Pactole translates as "gold mine" — another joke given this variety's commercial viability? This is only 11.5% abv.

Now we taste a few whites from bottle.

2008 Chenapan etiquette, Domaine Saurigny2008 Chenapan: "Rogue" indeed: this completely dry chenin is unlike any I've had. Its color is peach, almost like the label! The nose hints of oxidation but it's very fresh on the palate and laced with ginger and ground pepper. It's also a bit tannic! I asked about skin contact, but Jérôme said there was none, and that the tannins come from the schist. The vines are located high on a slope above the Layon. This is a fabulous wine.

2009 Sauvignon: With rare exception (e.g. the best Sancerre) I only like varietal sauvignon blanc when it comes from granite or schist, and this is indeed terrific. It's slightly orange/straw colored and a bit cloudy, but it's of course young yet. But despite its youth, it's expressive, and the schist lends a slightly spicy character to the wine. Not a catbox in sight. Jérôme says the 2009 harvest was very easy.

Now we switch to unbottled reds from tank.

2009 Gamay: Jérôme doesn't find this interesting — "pour la soif," he says. There's a bit of residual sugar still, but despite that I like the wine's purity.

2009 Grolleau: Grolleau may not have a lot of tannins, but this sample is quite tannic. I get purple fruits on the nose and it's very young in the mouth. This one Jérôme really likes.

2009 Pinot Noir: Jérôme doesn't intend to bottle this, it's just for the Saurignys and their friends. It has a big, beautiful nose but it's medium-light in the mouth, a bit tannic, and shows a strange hint of band-aid.

Back to bottled wine! Even though I was spitting, this was a lot of wine!

2008 Gamma GT: I asked why "GT" but I couldn't understand the answer. Sometimes you have to say, "Répétez, s'il vous plaît," and sometimes you should just move on. Jérôme and Sophie both said they find a hint of paper in the finish. I did not, but it's not as expressive as their other 2008 reds: hints of schist and smoke, but only a little.

Les Griottes La Griotte: This c. franc / c. sauvignon blend is made by the Saurignys' friend Sebastien Dervieux at Les Griottes, who likewise eschews sulfur and all other additions. It was unlabeled so Jérôme didn't know if it was the 2007 or the 2008. Upon tasting I thought it was the 2007 and Jérôme agreed. It showed very pure and firm blackcurrant fruit and good concentration, and it was quite young and tannic, so it needs some time yet.

2009 Les Griottes Mousseaux Moussaillon: Bottlecapped bubbly! Again, this is a peach-colored, chenin-based mousseaux. It's a touch oxidized but delicious for it. Jérôme said this was disgorged during a very cold snap in winter. Much later in the day, as we were cleaning the press, I happily quaffed a glass of this.

Now to Jérôme's sweet wines. These slayed me, as they showed the beautiful balance and weightlessness that I look for in sweet wines. And again, despite the risks, these wines have no SO2 as of the 2007 vintage.

2007 "S": This has 200 g/l of sugar but, as Jérôme and Sophie said, it "drinks like water." This is balanced and complex and expressive, with absolutely gorgeous apricot, honey, and ginger notes.

2005 "S": This comes from the Saurignys' first vintage and it has a lot more sugar: 300 g/l. Nevertheless it's not at all heavy, even if it is very rich on the palate, with brown sugar and apricot characters. Very nice lift here for a 2005, which at other Loire domaines can suffer a touch from too little acidity.

2009 liquoreux barrel samples: Jérôme vinifies the non-botrytisized grapes separately from those with botrytis, even in years like this where there was very little botrytis. The former sample was very pure, with great acidity, while the botrytisized sample was likewise very pure but included an interesting lychee note.

We are done at the chai, time to pile in the car to go to Les Griottes and see how the gamay is coming along. Here I meet Sebastien Dervieux, whom I frankly can't understand in the slightest. Luis tells me that Sebastien and Jérôme make liberal use of the local slang, which combined with my minimalist French explains things. Sebastien and Jérôme press the macerated-for-eight-months gamay with a very gentle pneumatic wooden press, which also explains a thing or two: tasting the freshly pressed juice, I find it really tannic — damn is it tannic! — but not at all bitter or overextracted. It is fresh and vital.

The rest of the afternoon is a whirlwind: lunch at the Saurignys' home in Rochefort, visits with a few of Jérôme's friends, and then back to the chai to clean the press. I helped out for a few moments after filming this video, which shows the glamorous side of being a winemaker:

video

Finally, we paid a visit to Domaine Mosse, whose 2005 Anjou sec flipped my wig over a year ago (I literally cried out, "Oh my god! This is like a Savennières!"). Agnès and Réné were in Toulouse but I met two of their sons, who welcomed me into their home and graciously had me taste a few wines. The Mosses do bottle with sulfur, but at extremely low levels. The 2009 Achillée VdT rosé is a quaffable blend of grolleau, cf, cs, and gamay. It has too much RS to be labeled for AC status but it's unconfected and shows nice herbs. The 2008 Anjou Blanc is totally dry and has the telltale spicy characteristics of schist-derived chenin, although some of the 5 year old vines are rooted in clay. It's quite clean and verges on medium-full. The 2007 Le Champ Boucault has nearly 200 g/l of RS but has all the acidity required to help balance the wine and drive it down the palate. Lots of apricot here, and not at all heavy.

Sadly, the day had to end, and I needed to head back to my B&B before night fell, lest I get lost. And while the Mosse wines are imported into the US by Louis/Dressner, I'm sad to say that neither Domaine Saurigny nor Les Griottes are available here unless and until some wise importer decides otherwise. Yes, yes, I understand how reluctant importers are to ship sans soufre wines, but I'm going to complain, anyway. Well, if you find yourself in Paris, do yourself a favor and head over to Crus et Découvertes, which Jérôme suggested was the best place in Paris to find his wines.

By the way, I'd like to thank Bert of Wine Terroirs for posting the story of his visit to Domaine Saurigny last March; without him, I wouldn't have known to visit. So thanks, Bert! You should check out his post for even more details about the Saurigny wines.

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.