Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Aubaunce, Savennieres, Layon

Equinox! A sunny, relatively warm day that began with a brisk walk across the "Pont Cessart" from our hotel and into Saumur proper for coffee and croissant. A group of military horsemen clomped past on their steeds, shortly followed by a throng of costumed, chanting, horn-blowing college students. The first day of Spring fever, perhaps? Well... we found out later that the crazy "parade" actually signified a countdown toward graduation. Only 100 days left before exams!

The drive from Saumur towards Brissac-Quincé along the D751 was filled with pleasant scenery. Long green meadows spilled their way down toward the Loire riverbank to our right, and rockier tuffeau hillsides hugged the road to our left. We passed many sparkling wine producers along this stretch of road, including the well-respected house of Bouvet-Ladubay, whose "Cuvée Trésor" we had tasted last summer. In Cunalt, we stopped to explore an ancient church Melissa had read about, before pressing on towards an 11AM tasting at Domaine de Bablut in the Coteaux de l'Aubance, just outside the town of Brissac.

Bablut seemed to be a large, modern operation, and our tour with a winery employee was brief but informative. The Daviau family, a line of vignerons here that go back as far as 1546, produce a wide variety of wines, but the reason to visit is to taste the sweet Coteaux de l'Aubance chenins. The winemaking facilities are set up to take advantage of gravity wherever possible. Tanks dug out and installed beneath large, drive-up concrete pads allow juice to flow directly into the fermenters without using pumps.

While very well made, my first impression was that the dessert wines lacked enough acidity and bordered on being cloying or syrupy. But a persistent burning/tingling sensation on the tongue afterward was persuasive evidence that there just might be enough acidity after all to keep these wines balanced while they mature. Worth a visit.

After checking into Brissac-Quincé's "Hotel Le Castel", we ate lunch at a nearby park facing the lofty, unique-looking chateau Brissac. The structure, tallest of the Loire chateaux and one of few still privately
owned, is a patchwork of Medieval and Gothic architecture, a renaissance mansion rudely elbowing its way upward between two medieval towers. Observed closely it is a cacophony of design, clashing and crashing noisily above the peaceful manicured greenery that surrounds it. In the end we were left with more questions than answers. But it made for lively lunchtime conversation.

Just a few kilometers east of Savennieres and one block from the church in the hamlet of Epiré is the ancient 11th century chai of Chateau d'Épiré. M. Luc Bizard, the trim, bespectacled proprietor, greeted us at the "bureau" at the back of the chai and suggested a vineyard tour, so we climbed into his car and visited four sites, two of which are planted with young vines that are only about ten years old. Of the 10 hectares of vineyard holdings, the largest parcel we visited was planted 38 years ago by Bizard's grandfather, and it is from this vineyard that the "Cuvee Speciale" originates.

Here one is directly above the northern bank of the Loire, and the influence of morning fog is significant on the microclimate. Soils of the vineyards are visibly rocky. You can see chunks of schist and lighter-colored quartzite everywhere. One of the more recently planted vineyards careens steeply downwards to the south. Bizard motioned us over to the clifflike edge for an unobstructed view of the Loire. He pointed out a few rugged volcanic features of the area: tall, jagged volcanic chimney-like lava structures that still remain after the softer surrounding rock has eroded away. The river here has a rugged, more primordial look than it does upstream in Touraine.

[Image: Luc Bizard]Harvest usually takes place over four weeks, and each vineyard has three "tries" or pickings to give most of the grapes a chance to fully ripen. Rows between the wines are plowed to help control weeds and pests. The chai is filled with unusual square-shaped steel fermenting tanks. I've only seen square tanks like these at one other winery in the Loire, at Joguet in Chinon.

Another of the Epiré vineyards is on the highest point in the area. From this vantage point one can see the chateau at Coulée de Serrant to the southwest, and far in the distance to the northeast, the cathedral towers in Angers! A stone wall separates this vineyard from the top of Coulée de Serrant's main southerly slope. Bizard calls this plot "Huboyau" and says that even at their youthful age these vines are producing something special. Time will tell. It's an impressive site to visit.

After the vineyard tour we returned to the chai for a tasting of recent vintages and one older Savennieres from 1982. It was still acidic and vibrant, highlighting the fact that chenins from Savennieres can significantly benefit from (and often require) cellaring.

Next stop was proprietor Nicolas Joly's biodynamic winery at Coulée de Serrant. Our visit here today was a contrast in many ways from a visit made last summer. In July it was rainy, the tasting room experience curt and dismissive, and the wines less satisfying than we had hoped. Today was sunny, the mood in the tasting room much improved, and the wines were memorably good.

The driveway, a long winding procession that leads one down through the vineyards, then up towards the looming chai/chateau, was awash with hazy sun. Workers were using an auger up on the steep vineyard slope to drill into the soil. What for? Planting new vines? We wondered about what significance today's equinox had for the work here, if it was a day of biodynamic significance. It's possible. Part of the biodynamic farming practice involves burying a cowhorn filled with dung for the winter, where it captures "vitalysing energy" (Pinguet's words) from the earth. After the Spring equinox the horn is unearthed and its contents used as fertilizer. A second cow horn, this filled with powdered silica, is similarly buried during the summer months to enable it to fill with "life forces" emanating from the sun.

[Image: Layon river]Whatever was actually happening, there was plenty of activity outdoors but not a soul to be found inside. After waiting for awhile in the unattended tasting area, we went in search of someone to help us out. Walking towards voices coming from a tool shed, we suddenly came face to face with the charismatic owner M. Joly, who had a bundle of stakes lifted high over one shoulder. We asked about tasting, and he cheerfully pointed us in the direction of the visitor center and said he'd send someone to help us out.

The 1996 vintage is very concentrated here, and despite the round oiliness of the wines, deceptively acidic. It took our tongues much of the rest of the afternoon to recover. Before leaving we purchased a copy of Joly's biodynamics book. It should make for interesting reading.

The last winery visit of the day was in Faye d'Anjou at the Domaine des Saulaies, but we got sidetracked on the way and took a side-trip to Chaume in order to take a look at the "Quarts," the famous, steeply terraced vineyard that slopes down to the Layon river. Then it was onward, past the hamlet of Pierre-Bise, through Beaulieu along the D55 and into the town of Faye.

[Image: Pascal Leblanc]Domaine des Saulaies seemed a relatively sizeable operation. One large shed housed modern tractors fitted with vine-trimming attachments, another was filled with tanks and a tasting area. The youthful, friendly vigneron Pascal LeBlanc seemed barely into his twenties. He told us about his upcoming wedding. The pricelist distributed at the winery includes an open invitation to attend the event, held in nearby Chavagnes-les-Eaux on August 22, 1998!

This was a brief visit, as the tasting room had recently been cleaned with strong smelling agents. This marred the tasting somewhat, but several of the cuvees, including a very interesting demi sec and top CdL, are worth recommending. Two of the Coteaux du Layon cuvees, however, were marred by manure or chemical aromas.

Back in Brissac we asked the Hotel proprietor for a dinner recommendation and he sent us to the restaurant "Cheval Blanc" in Thouarcé for a moderately priced, well prepared meal. After such a long day of tasting and travel, a good night's sleep was definitely needed. Thankfully, the room at the hotel turned out to be blissfully quiet and comfortable.

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