Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Jasnières and the Coteaux du Loir

TOURS - We had arrived in the Loire the previous afternoon, after a long but not overly exhausting day of travel. An overbooked Air France flight from New York proved to have a significant, unexpected benefit... full reimbursement of our ticket price. A lucky beginning to this adventure in French wine country! The later Lufthansa flight that we were rescheduled on meant missing our TJV train reservation from Paris to Tours, but that proved to be only a minor inconvenience. We arrived in the Loire just three hours later than we would have had we been on the original flight. The hotel in Tours was near the train station, and so after checking in we whiled away the afternoon strolling around the picturesque old city center. Dinner, at one of the few establishments open on Sunday evening, was delicious. We slept soundly.

The next morning, after consuming an early breakfast of brioches and coffee at the bar of the "Café Brussels," we picked up our rental car for the week, made a few telephone calls, and began to drive, up through the tuffeau limestone cliffs of neighboring Vouvray, across the plateau that lies above, and northward about 30 miles to the town of Marçon, one of the viticultural hamlets that is part of Jasnières and the Coteaux du Loir. Though the wines are practically unheard of in the United States, we had previously tasted several 1995 cuvees by the producer Renard-Potaire. The Jasnières bottlings were both distinctive and delicious, reason enough to visit the area and learn more about the wines.

[Image: François Fresneau]It was an extremely pleasant drive. The vineyard slopes of Vouvray gave way to flat expanses of fields cultivated with other crops, with scattered farms punctuated by clumps of trees and old stone buildings. Further to the North the land became rounded by gentle hillsides and hidden valleys. The hamlet of Marçon, where our first appointment was scheduled, was tucked into one of these valleys that follow along the Loir (no "e") river.

After arriving in Marçon we asked a mail carrier directions to our first stop: François Fresneau and his winery, the Domaine de Cézin. Several times on this trip, French postal workers proved to be invaluable, courteous sources for directions to wineries, and in this case we might never have found the place without their help. After a quick lunch of rillettes (like a coarse devilled ham paté) on a baguette we arrived at the bucolic Fresneau residence, backed up against the limestone cliff hillside. The diminutive, bearded M. Fresneau greeted us and we followed him by car to his cave, just a few minutes away. Before tasting the wines we toured the cellar and caves.

Here, at the northern limit for growing French chenin blanc, not every winemaker in the Jasnieres area earns his entire yearly income from growing grapes or making wine. Many raise grain or livestock as insurance against poor weather. Fresneau is a vigneron whose entire business is producing wine.

The cave at Domaine Cezin contains an impressive family cache of ancient Coteaux du Loir bottlings going back to the nineteenth century. Fresneau actually opened three bottles of the 1893 a couple of years ago. Two of the three bottles, he reported, were still excellent. Even with this long family track record and his position as spokesman for the AOC, Fresneau's production of Coteau du Loir blanc is quite low, only about 250 cases. He makes about 500 cases of the Jasnieres.

[Image:Old bottle]We tasted the 97s (recently bottled) and they were quite good. He was sold out of the 96 vintage, and described 1997 as a good harvest with not a lot of botrytis. We tasted a nice range of whites and a few reds, and the dry whites were balanced, flavorful and nervy. The rose and red wines were, to me, a notch lower in quality, but a 97 Pineau d'Aunis rouge was ripe and distinctive in its fresh dill flavor.

After departing Domaine Cezin we drove east to Ruillé-sur-Loir, following directions we had for finding the winery of Jean Maillet. It took a couple of tries to find, and one wrong turn took us along the steep south-facing hillside of the main Jasnieres vineyard slope. Path after path led off from the road to cave entrances carved into the base of the slope, and a rutted dirt road beckoned us onward with a sign saying "Les Caves."

Caves, caves everywhere.

Jean Maillet was a young, hearty fellow who spoke enthusiastically about a broad range of wine-related subjects. He asked us how our visit with Fresneau went, and then chuckled, explaining that they had seen each other the night before at a vigneron meeting and had exchanged news about today's visitors (us). Maillet grows cereal grain in addition to grapes to complete his yearly income requirements, but his wines are well respected.

A bottling machine had been set up in a nearby tool shed and workers were in the process of bottling the 97 Jasnieres cuvees. Maillet grabbed a bottle of the demi-sec off the line for us to taste. It was delicious. We then tasted two more wines while standing in the bottling shed, a sec and a moelleux, all the while keeping clear of the hoses and periodically interrupted by the crew as they worked on each cuvee.

[Image: Jean Maillet]We took a look inside the picturesque, willow-bordered cave. Inside the door was an area with a vented fireplace, some chairs and several crates of mold-covered old bottles, looking ripe and ready for consumption. It looked like the family cookout spot. The wines here are fermented in barriques, then moved into tanks for maturation.

Maillet's winery has received some national acclaim in the influential French "Guide Hachette des Vins" wine buying guide, winning top "coup de coeur" honors in the 1997 and 1998 editions. Even so, there are no tasting room facilities and Maillet said he doesn't often do tastings for visitors, because they are so infrequent. Production is respectable for the area, around 1250 cases per year.

Jasnieres may be an obscure region of the Loire wine country, but it is not completely unknown to foreign visitors, as we discovered when Maillet's sister brought out several photos of Ted and Ethel Kennedy, taken by the Maillets during a tasting/visit they they made to the winery in the early 1970s. Ted Kennedy, a fan of wine, a fan of Jasnieres?!? Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.

After tasting the 97s we asked if any wine was available for purchase. Maillet, embarrassed, sadly said that no, everything in 750ml was sold out, but he could manage to find us a few half bottles of the 95 and 96 if we wanted. We took what was available, and in the end he refused to charge us for them. Nice gesture!

[Image: Jasnieres cave sign]A few photos and "au revoirs" later we were back on the road in the direction of Lhomme, and on the way took a detour up the main vineyard slope (most producers share the same hillside) to catch a view of the late-afternoon Loir panorama. Vineyard workers were still out in their various plots, pruning the vines back in anticipation of Spring. The view from the top looking south was commanding, and sharing the lookout point was a small rock structure made by prehistoric man called a "dolmen" that only added to the power of the view.

French food and wine writer Curnonsky once said that "three times a century, Jasnieres is the best white wine in the world" and the impressive bottles we tasted here, along with the sight of the imposing, steep vineyard exposure and picturesque countryside only reinforced the sense that these wines are worth seeking out, particularly in ripe vintages. Can they really make "the best white wines in the world" thrice a century? Well, Curnonsky seemed to think so. I'm still on the fence, but with an open mind.

[Image: Jasnieres vineyard]Back in the more urban climes of Chateau-du-Loir we checked into the pleasant, comfortable "Grand Hôtel" and had a good-but-not-great regional meal of warm goat cheese salad, pork sausage and green lentils, accompanied by a half bottle of 96 Maillet Jasnieres. The food and wine complimented each other well.

We really enjoyed visiting this region (albeit briefly) and look forward to returning at some time in the future for a more leisurely stay. There is a lot to discover here.

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