Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Bonnezeaux: Domaine du Petit Val, Domaine des Petits Quarts

An overcast, chilly day with some hazy air but no rain. In need of an early start to make a 10AM appointment at Denis Goizil's Domaine du Petit Val, we fueled up on room service and hit the road shortly thereafter, driving south from Brissac to Chavagnes along the D748. Petit Val was easy to find.

We were met by Mme. Goizil at their home/winery just outside of town, and in their pleasant basement tasting room we proceeded to try eight or so well-made offerings. The wines were all good, but the Bonnezeaux cuvees were in a class above the rest, very high quality wines that are worth seeking out. Average age of the vines here is about 30 years. Production of the Bonnezeaux cuvées is about 50 hectoliters per year, produced from 19 hectares of vines. Cleanly made, nicely delineated and well balanced. I would buy these (we took two bottles home).

Afterwards we made a quick drive-by of Château de Fesles, a large respected Bonnezeaux estate now owned by a Bordeaux concern. It is a beautiful chateau on well-tended, shaded grounds. The quiet feeling of wealth you get at Fesles seems a little out of place for Bonnezeaux. Is this something new, or has it always been like this? Given more time we would have arranged for a tasting and a closer look. Next visit.

Then it was on to the Domaine des Petits Quarts, about a kilometer west of Bonnezeaux. It is a larger and longer-established operation than Goizils, producing about 200 hectoliters of Bonnezeaux per year from its vineyard holdings. Unlike Fesles, this large winery looks like a place that produces an agricultural product rather than a lifestyle. No gardener's hand at work here, Petits Quarts is a modern array of no-nonsense, functional buildings set adjacent to plots of vines, not tended gardens. I liked the look here, and the wines were excellent.

M. Godineau and his young son were waiting for us in the winery office, and while he walked the child back to the house, we waited in the modern, cleanly appointed tasting room. "Let's go see the vineyards," said the energetic Godineau when he reappeared, so we climbed into his 4x4 vehicle and spent the next 45 minutes getting the farmer's perspective of the local terroir. . . that seen from the steep, rugged dirt roads that crisscross the vineyard slopes.

Bonnezeaux is a town/region south of the Loire river and Angers that produces sweet chenin wines. Although geographically part of the Coteaux du Layon appelation, the distinctive wines from the Bonnezeaux hillsides have been granted a separate AOC classification by the French government. This is also the case with Quarts de Chaume. In both instances, the appelation consists of the south-facing vineyard(s) that slope down towards the Layon river.

Godineau showed us the estate's original "Beauregard" vineyard that is marked by an old bunker/lookout structure that still stands. Because of the spectacular, unobstructed southerly views, this was a valuable strategic site during the war. Wines Petits Quarts produces from this vineyard don't always carry the "Beauregard" designation, we learned, because they are eponymous.

We drove over to the sizeable "Malabé" vineyard site that lies between Bonnezeaux and Thouarcé. It looks like a natural amphitheater, much of which slopes down to the southeast (considered the best exposure). Though the average vine age here is about 25 years, some are up to 90-100 years old, about the limit for viable grape production. The soil here has scattered chunks of schist and something called "phtanite."

The vineyards here are very steep, so erosion by rain is a constant consideration. Godineau lets grass grow between the rows of vines to help in this, and has installed runoff channels in some spots to direct the flow of water away from some of the more exposed places. Planting the rows of vines across the slope rather than up it would help prevent excess erosion, he told us, but the increased difficulty of harvesting vines planted this way makes the present solution the best option. We did see a terraced section of vines that stretches along the D24 between Bonnezeaux and Thouarcé. Harvesting those steep terraces looks like an extremely daunting task.

Later we tasted a number of wines in the tasting room. They were fresh, concentrated and with great potential for development in the bottle. Noting the number of reasonably priced, older vintages of Coteaux du Layon and Anjou Blanc available for sale on the winery pricelist, we purchased (among other things) a 1976 blanc to take home. It should be interesting!

Afterwards we drove over to the "Relais de Bonnezeaux" for a late lunch. Built in a renovated old train station and overlooking Godineau's terraced roadside parcel, the restaurant was doing brisk business. Lunch was delicious, and while not a bargain, excellently prepared. I noticed that the winelist included several truly ancient Bonnezeaux bottlings by René Renou, the 1899, 1921, 1949 and 1954. If money weren't a concern I would have tried the 1899 or 1921, either of which was availabe for US $500.

The remainder of the afternoon we spent sightseeing, viewing windmills (scattered widely about the Anjou and Saumur area) and traveling the backroads along the Layon riverbank and over to the countryside west of Rochefort-sur-Loire. It was scenic and easy on the eyes.

That evening, back in Brissac and still full from our big lunch we opted for a light dinner of crepes and sparkling, lightly fermented cider at the "Embarcadiere", a casual high-school-date sort of place near our hotel. Before turning in for the night, we organized and packed in preparation for the following day's drive back to Touraine and Montlouis.

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