Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Bourgueil and Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil

After yesterday's full day of intense tasting, today was more relaxed, with only one winery to visit. And, the sun was shining again. In the morning we visited the old, heavily armored Angers fortress with its views of the river and city, and viewed the 14th century "Tapestry of the Apocalypse" that's housed there. It's big, filling what seems like a football-field-sized semi-dark room, and the woven figures are powerful and evocative. Highly recommended.

Before leaving town we bought lunch supplies at the large Saturday market that surrounded the government buildings, and after getting in the car, headed out of Angers on the N147, picked up the D10 near Saumur, and stopped in St Nicolas de Bourgueil for a late morning snack. Feeling daring (no topo map!) we detoured off the main road and headed north into the vineyards that stretched gently upward towards the distant hills practically as far as the eye could see. What beautiful countryside here!

Bourgueil was not too far away and it was there that we stopped for lunch, eating our sliced pear, goat cheese and baguette sandwiches in the cool stone shade of the town center's empty covered market. Our appointment at 2 PM was with M. Yannick Amirault of Domaine de la Coudraye, a winery highly recommended by Matteu Baudry of Chinon and one that we learned is beginning to trickle its product into the USA via the importers at Peter Weygant. We had never tasted wines from here and had only limited experience with Bourgueil wines (J. Taluou mostly).

The visit was friendly, personal and tasty. Starting in the basement tasting room of their vine-surrounded home, Mme Amirault poured us the two 1996 wines that had been bottled; the old-vine cuvées were still in tank or barrel. Then the thickly mustached M. Amirault stopped by and led us down the road to the chai, which was a modern, above ground structure. Here we tasted vat and barrel samples of the 1996's that would be bottled soon, and one wine in small barriques that still had some time to go before release. The quality here is remarkably high throughout the entire lineup, possibly due to the richness of the 1996 Bourgueil vintage. Or, M. Amirault is just d*mn good at what he does.

He seemed to open up as he saw our interest in the wines increase, and was curious about what we thought of them. After we had tasted three wines in the main part of the chai he put me on the spot, requesting that I give him a ranking of the three and my reasons why... in French. It was one of those "tests" that either gets you into the back room for the good stuff or politely shown the door. Luckily, the wines really did stand apart from each other and it was easy to prioritize them in my mind. He seemed satisfied. We got in the back room for a taste of the good stuff in the barriques .

Later we found out the reason for his curiosity, and they had to do with local politics and the far-reaching influence of wine critic Robert Parker. Amirault had submitted one of the wines we tasted, the excellent '96 "Les Petit Cave" to a local competition. Those wines that made it past the judges cut would be tasted by Parker. Amirault's wine, however, was disqualified before the cut, and was criticized for being atypically fruity, intense and rich for the region and thus not suitable for a representative Bourguiel tasting. Huh? Parker would have LOVED this wine, and Amirault was keenly disappointed by this nearly missed opportunity. Asked how different growing seasons in Bourgueil can affect his wines, Amirault commented pithily that August and September were the only critical months. "Money rains from the sky if these two months are sunny," he said. 1996 was apparently such a year.

Another hour's travel took us back through Tours and Vouvray to our hotel in Civray-en-Touraine, and later in the evening we attended the after-dark "son et lumière" light show and historical drama at the nearby Chateau Chenonceau. The evening was warm and balmy, perfect for being outside at the chateau and a nice way to end a pleasant, easy-going day of travel and tasting.

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