Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Chinon and Bourgueil

Melissa writes: "Up early. Cloudy and chilly. Took more time than expected to find our way West through Tours (morning traffic), but I got to see some of the flower market in the Place Jean Jaurès. Then, an easy drive towards Chinon and to Domaine Olga Raffault. . . practically steps away from the nuclear power plant.

In the hamlet of Roguinet, just before arriving at Raffault, we saw an old man driving an equally old-looking wooden wagon, pulled by a small, sturdy black horse. Hoisted onto the back of the wagon was a plow! It seemed an eerie post-apocalyptic mixture of old and new, along with the ancient walled stone homes and the power lines streaming from the nuclear plant.

At the winery there was lots of noise, dust, and activity. Bottles were being labelled, and the winery offices were undergoing a gut-rehab. Perhaps because of this our tasting, with Irma Raffault, was perfunctory. The biggest surprise were the three white Chinons. These we would buy; austere and yet full of focused, intense flavors. A 1993 red "Picasses" was maderized.

After Raffault, we drove to Fontevraud Abbey, arriving forty minutes before it closed for lunch. We had the place to ourselves. Most awesome was stepping into the empty, huge, light-filled space of the abbey church, where Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart are buried.

Lunch procured and consumed, we drove to the hotel for the night: Chateau des Réaux, a checkerboard-bricked, towered and turreted 15th century chateau. I was a bit overwhelmed! The owner showed us up to our 4th floor room, looking out over the trees and moat. It felt solid, cozy, rumpled and faded, not luxurious but romantic. The building was in the midst of pre-summer renovations. Guests have the run of much of the chateau and its well-kept grounds, including the two enormous, panelled living rooms, a cozy bar filled with tourist information. My favorite room was the comfortable, but very elegant dining room in the oldest (13th century) part of the chateau: yellow wallpaper, tall windows overlooking the willow trees, swans, and moat, fine china displayed on the shelves and mantle.

Then we headed for our tasting at Druet, stopping first at the Grand Mont and Vaumoreau vineyards near Benais. They were on our IGN topo map. Twisted, gnarly old vines.

Druet had intellect, passion and wit. He was deceptively gentle-mannered and soft-voiced for someone so strongly opinionated. We were unexpectedly joined in the courtyard by four "Tourangeois" who were also hoping to taste. We all drove to his cave beneath the Grand Mont vineyard, parking only after we had driven down a steep, narrow driveway that was part-cave itself! The tasting quickly turned into a lively discussion of wine, food, art, and taste; from opinions on left handedness, winemaking techniques and sexual harassment in the US, to the relationship between wine and cheese, the effect salt air has on the mouth's ability to perceive tannins, and the analytical benefits of winetasting in caves or from half bottles (Don will elaborate in his TNs).

The wines speak for themselves. They are the benchmarks for the appelation, and show a delicious combination of flavor, depth, balance and class. I love Druet's rosé - no other rosé I've tasted comes close.

Departing after nearly two hours of tasting from bottle and barrel, we then drove around the gentle hills and backroads of Bourgueil. Don stopped the car at a tiny crossroads and we listened to the birds and imagined ourselves living in an old stone farmhouse amidst the trees.

Mediocre dinner in Bourgueil at the "Le Faison Doré," a rustic, informal family hotel/restaurant. Good vegetable soup, but an undercooked pork cutlet, okay cauliflower au gratin and a half bottle of rather thin, bitter house Bourgueil. After tasting at Druet almost anything else pales in comparison."

Don writes: Aside from being a world-class winemaker full of the "passion" readers of the wine press so often hear about, Pierre-Jacques Druet was also very quotable. I will try to relate as much as I can remember of his many interesting winemaking opinions. Of course, details may have been misunderstood (conversation was lively, so a lot of this went by quickly). Still, what follows should give readers some indication of the philosophies at work here. Some of his opinions might be controversial, but everything reported here was spoken in a pleasant, matter-of-fact tone of voice, liberally sprinkled with humerous asides.

First of all, Druet ferments, matures and bottles his wines in three separate locations. The tank area is at the winery, the barrique area is in cave beneath Grand Mont, and bottled wines are stored in yet another nearby cave. Why? In a word, cleanliness. Druet wants to prevent "spores" from the oak barriques from infecting the corks sealing already bottled wine, and to prevent tank-cleaning fluids from contaminating other winemaking areas. The solution is to separate every major aspect of the winemaking process into its own dedicated, isolated work area.

He was fussy about glasses (hallelujah!) and insisted on "wining" each empty glass with a dollop of what we were about to taste. He coated the inside of the glass with it, then dumped the excess fluid before before pouring the tasting quantity. He deplored the overuse of new oak, and felt that it gives many of the wines of Bordeaux a "false nobility." A friend told us about his use of the term "typicité mondial" to describe the "international style" of wines in which new or heavily toasted oak can obliterate a wine's local character.

He has made cuvees of wine to prove points: Once, using raw materials purchased from a respected dessert-wine producer in Anjou, he made a barrel of blanc just to test his belief that "anyone" can make good white wine.

Each bottle we tasted from was a 375ml, because "you will notice flaws in a half bottle that you won't notice in a full bottle." He encouraged us to smell our empty glasses between tastes, because scents in the empty glass exaggerate flaws in the wine, making problems easier to perceive. He prefers to taste in a cave, and stated "to taste wine in the cave is most exacting, most true." Last, he insisted that critical wine tasting anywhere near an ocean is impossible, because the salt air throws off your taste buds!?! He felt that you can't really taste wine in New York City or Bordeaux, for example, because they are both too close to the salt air of the Atlantic. Specifically, his perception is this: air that's too salty affects the way we perceive tannins, reducing the taster's perception of them and making evaluations about a wine's balance difficult.

He had interesting things to say about the profession of winemaking. "I'm an artisan, not an artist. Winemaking is not an art, it is artisanal. I don't think what I do is what artists do."

Also this, on the preference of some critics for superripe, highly extracted, lavishly oaked cuvees: "I am not going to Parkerize my wines."

We were treated to another story about a time Druet put some of the the 89 Vaumoreau into a Rhone-shaped bottle and had it shipped to the South of France, where Parker was doing a blind tasting. Blind, Parker "identified" the Bourgueil as an 89 Jaboulet Hermitage!

Well, we all make mistakes (grin). I'm just glad it wasn't me.

Thought provoking stuff.

During the tasting, Druet told us that he will not release a 1997 Vaumoreau. He made the wine, but is dissatisfied with it and will perhaps blend it in with other estate wines. This remark, along with Mme Raffault's description of 97 as a vintage to "drink young" makes me interested to taste more 97 Chinons and Bourgueils, to see if this is a sign of the overall vintage quality for this area.

Before tasting the reds we tried two rosés. Fermented in barriques, Druet called these wines an "experiment" that has worked out well. Then he launched into a description of three reasons why his rosé achieves good balance. First is the method of obtaining the juice. Rather than simply pressing the juice from the grapes, Druet uses what he calls a "Bordelais saignée" (Bordeaux-style "bleeding") method of leaving the pressed grapes on the skins for a time, then bleeding off a portion the juice.

This juice then goes into barriques for fermentation by a "Tourangeois grillage" method of topping off the unsealed, fermenting barrels every day so that the foam spills out, taking with it the "bitterness." He said that they scrub the barrels every day while the wine is fermenting to take the bitter deposits off the wood. Finally, he spoke of an Alsatian technique (didn't get the name of it) that he uses to balance the sugars and acids. Whatever the technique, the rosé here is excellent.

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