Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Chinon and Saumur-Champigny

After visiting Joguet on the south side of the Vienne yesterday, this morning we ventured along the north side, eastward to the hamlet of Sonnay, which is just outside Cravant-les-Coteaux and almost a straight shot across the river from Joguet. The D21 road travelling east from Chinon was bordered by vast fields of sunflowers; big ones, in a yellow and green carpet of color.

The sunflowers illustrate an interesting point about the Chinon countryside: the vineyards here seem sporadically placed, and sometimes you wonder where the vines really are. Unlike other winegrowing regions we've visited where practically every square foot of land is planted with grapes, Chinon seems to have a much more selective terroir, one that's suited for vineyards only in certain spots. Just to the north in Bourgueil, there are vines as far as the eye can see. Here, it's largely sunflowers, feed corn... and grapes.

After circling through Sonnay a few times and taking a brief walk to get a feel for the place, we pulled into B. Baudry's parking lot (there are a few Baudrys along this stretch of road, so be alert!) and crossed over to the winery. The eye-catching courtyard and adjacent house are backed right up against and into the cliffs. Bernard was out for the day, so his 20-year-old son Matteu gave us a brief tour and tasting. The lanky and cordial Matteu practically gushed with enthusiasm when describing his "stage" (internship) at Huet and the Pinguets during the summer of '96. He was clearly motivated to become a winemaker like his Dad.[Image: B. Baudry estate]

We tasted the current lineup and an experimental 1996 white chenin blanc made from three-year-old vines. It had nice aromatics and was off-dry. We also ventured briefly into the caves to barrel-taste the '96 Grezeaux, a wine that's still coming together.

Matteu told us that the '95 harvest had been a real challenge because the grapes ripened at different times, and the winery had to wait well past the normal harvest date of September 20, finally picking on October 4. The1995 vintage also required a radically strict selection of grapes. He considered 1996 a much easier harvest because the weather was good all summer and the grapes ripened together.

We bought a bottle of the unoaked 1995 "Signature" cuvée, one that doesn't get exported, and made our way back to Chinon to pick up lunch supplies at the supermarket. It was a nice tasting, and clocking in at only one hour in length wasn't as comprehensive as the tastings of the previous two days.

At the supermarket in Chinon we had another colorful and unplanned "interlude" with Charles Joguet. I had dropped Melissa off and was circling around to find parking, and as I was making a final turn into the parking spot I almost grazed M. Joguet, who was walking toward the supermarket entrance and didn't see me coming. He flashed me that serious stare we had seen the day before, and continued on his way in. When Melissa and I were finally leaving the market with our purchases we passed the coffee/wine bar near the entrance, and there, laughing and joking with his cronies at the bar, was M. Joguet. Maybe this was where he was heading with that bottle yesterday?!?

On our way westward to Dampierre-sur-Loire via the D751 and D947 we stopped for lunch in Candes-St-Martin and walked around the twelfth century church there on the site where St Martin (who you read about everywhere in the Loire) reportedly died. A sign outside the church pointed uphill to a "panorama." Who could resist? It was a steep walk up through narrow cobbled streets and up another hill, but the view of the converging Loire and Vienne rivers from the top was breathtaking. An ancient lookout tower near where we spread our picnic blanket underscored the centuries of importance these two rivers have had to the people living here.

Domaine Filliatreau was our next appointment. The Saumur-Champigny winery is a large producer in the area, but the winery itself is in the tiny hamlet of Chaintres, south of Dampierre-sur-Loire. We didn't have a finely detailed topo map of this area, and got ourselves quickly lost soon after turning into the hills below Dampierre. Melissa was smart enough to ask someone for directions, and we soon found ourselves riding along a bumpy dirt road that led over some hills, down through fields filled with vines, and eventually past a "Chaintres" sign and onto a paved road at the edge of town. "Town" was a single, deserted lane, encroached upon on both sides by ancient, imposing, uninterrupted stone walls that reflected and magnified the hot summer sun to an almost furnacelike intensity. Luckily, the winery was marked with a sign, and as we emerged from the car, Fredrik Filliatreau stepped out of his house to meet us. The tasting was conducted in English.

[Image: Fredrik Filliatreau, Saumur-Champigny]M. Filliatreau, the polite, cordial, entrepreneurial son of Paul Filliatreau, appeared to be in his mid-thirties. He spent three hours showing us the entire operation, which isn't all just about winemaking. It was an interesting contrast to the small wineries we'd seen over the previous few days, and an interesting look into this mid-sized winery that has candid views about economic reality. It was here that we first heard of the influential French publication "Le Guide Hachette des Vins" and how winemakers both court and disdain the highly coveted "coup de coeur" ratings the guide bestows each year. "It's the French equivalent of Robert Parker," said Bernard Schoffit later.

We went into the large, modern air-conditioned chai filled with state-of-the-art stainless steel fermenting vats, some with a capacity of 14000 liters. The Domaine ferments exclusively in steel, and the wines, except for occasional years of the "Vieilles Vignes", never see wood. They were bottling the '96 "estate" while we were there. Filliatreau explained that until this year, this bottling run would have been labelled "jeunes vignes." Now that the vines are twenty-five years old they've decided to simply call it the "estate."

Seventy percent of the wine made here (all from Cabernet franc) is sold to restaurants, and while many aspects of the winemaking are non-interventionist (they ferment using wild yeasts, use minimal sulfur, and do not sterile filter), they also strive to keep a uniform house style for their large, regular clients. This means limiting to some extent the effect that vintage conditions have from year to year on their younger bottlings. It was refreshing to hear the open way he spoke of wine as both "art" and "commerce" and Filliatreau seems to have found a good balance between the two. The wines produced are quite good, especially considering the prices. The top bottlings, the "Vieilles vignes" and "La Grande Vignolle" are excellent food wines and sell in the States for somewhere in the teens.

After tasting vat samples of the '96 Vieilles Vignes (still coming together) and briefly discussing the bottle of '86VV we had tried in the states, Filliatreau suggested that we retreat to the family cellar to see how an undisturbed bottle had fared. I love to hear suggestions like that!

Not being near any cliffs or obvious sites for a cave, I wondered where the family cellar would be. We went back into the blazing sun and rounded a thick hedge of bushes next to the house. Here, the ground was creased with a depression, which rapidly descended some 25 feet to a large, natural opening in the bedrock, with no door of any kind. Not at all like the cliff caves we've seen at other wineries; this one goes DOWN into the earth.

The cave was cool, humid and filled with passageways radiating from a large, central "room" filled with casks and dripping rocks. We tasted the '86 (still fresh) and an excellent '85 VV. The 85 is Fredrik's favorite, but he feels the '96VV will better it someday. He then poured a white chenin blanc made annually for family consumption. "We've finished the '47, now we're drinking the '59," he said.

One can still stumble onto old bottles in family caves like this. Mentioning a cache of 1967 he had found (a wine that his father had made for a negociant) he proposed opening a bottle. "Would you like to try it? It's not the best year." He returned shortly with a moldy, unlabeled bottle and opened it. It had, to me, wonderful tertiary aromas of faded flowers and ripe old-wine sweetness, but the palate had faded and had become thin. It was still drinkable, however, and served as a good illustration of cabernet franc's aging potential. When I remarked that an acquaintance of mine had tasted a '67 Loire chenin blanc that was fabulous despite the poor vintage, Fredrik said "Yes, but that was a WHITE wine."

Out of the cellar, we drove to the family's tourist venture, a series of restored historic troglodyte cliff dwellings east of Turquant called "La Grande Vignolle." Their wine bearing this name is made from vines above the cliffs here on the plateau. M. Filliatreau brought us glasses of a fine local sparker from the tasting room, and we toasted Melissa's birthday. Clink! This was a tourist-oriented place and in addition to the troglodyte caves it featured a crazy, huge, intricate "labyrinth" made using living grape vines. Yes, they plan to produce wine from it.

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