Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Montlouis: Domaine de la Taille aux Loups

The sun has re-emerged. We had morning coffee at a tabac in Brissac, where the locals were having their customary morning glasses of beer, pineau or muscadet and the talk was about horse races and the lottery. Melissa wanted to get a better look at the chateau, so we walked onto the grounds, where an archery competition was in progress.

Car all packed up, we started off for Montlouis and a 4PM appointment at Domaine de la Taille aux Loups. Melissa had a few stops planned to break up the drive. It was a good, clear day to be on the road.

South of Chinon we stopped at an interesting architectural relic; the 17th century "planned community" of Richelieu. Built by the famed Cardinal of the same name, this town was an early attempt at urban planning and is still intact and very much lived-in. It was built using rigid mathematical rules. On a map,
the town looks rectangular, bilaterally symmetrical and strangely reminiscent of a modern integrated-circuit or CPU chip. And it it nearly 400 years old! Richelieu's chateau, which was outside the city walls, no longer stands, but the grounds are still well kept and worth a stroll.

Up through Sazilly and eastward we travelled, past Joguet's winery and up into St. Maure goat cheese country. There is an "Appelation Origine Contrôlée" for the cheese from this region that is rigorously regulated by law, just like AOC wine appelations. You can buy the creamy, delicately flavored chevre at certified producers here. We stopped at a locally advertised farm and purchased, from a woman dressed in a rubber apron and wading boots, a small roll of the "moelleux" AOC St. Maure to eat with lunch. It was delicious.

Arriving in the town of Saché, we stopped for a bite to eat and afterwards browsed our way through the fascinating Balzac museum that's housed in the small chateau there. Melissa is a fan of this prolific 19th century writer whose likeness was immortalized in Rodin's famous statue. Honoré Balzac was born in Tours and lived much of his life near the Loire. Melissa thinks of Balzac as the "Charles Dickens" of France.

Here we learned an interesting wine fact about the man. Balzac admired Vouvray's Chateau Moncontour, and hoped to one day purchase it. Though he never managed to own the place, it still evoked mental images for us of the famed writer of the "Human Comedy" sipping glasses of Vouvray while churning out pages of prose. Well... maybe between pots of coffee!

Onward we drove and with luck on our side, the transverse of Tours went without a hitch. Montlouis, however, was another story. First we were caught in traffic related to a bicycle race. After the pack finally whooshed past we were allowed to turn on to the main road into town... where traffic was nearly at a standstill, due to a national billiards tournament which was in progress. Eventually we got through town and once past the traffic, easily found the winery we were looking for.

East of Montlouis, the hamlet of Husseau is where many of the wineries and vineyards of the vicinity are located. Here we met Mme. Blot at the Domaine de la Taille aux Loups, a winery located on the steeply climbing main road of town. She proposed a tour of the cave, just a short drive from the winery office, so we followed her back down the road toward the Loire.

Until the 1930s, Montlouis (Vouvray's neighbor across the Loire) was included as part of the Vouvray winegrowing appelation. The underlying soil is essentially the same, as is the climate. However, while the vineyards of Vouvray slope southward down to the Loire, those of Montlouis slope toward the Cher, a smaller river that soon thereafter empties into the Loire. Because of this difference in watershed, enough political pressure was exerted earlier in the century to separate the two viticultural areas into separate AOCs. Now Montlouis plays the role of "kid brother" to the more renowned wines produced barely more than a stones throw to the north.

The cave at Taille aux Loups was spotlessly clean. No dust, no moldy cave walls, no stained barrels, no pumps. The Blots are fanatical about cleanliness and say that this diligence allows them to use less sulfur in the winemaking process. Mme Blot told us that once a year all the walls and ceilings of the limestone cave are cleaned to remove the ever-encroaching fungus that naturally thrives on the CO2 produced by fermentation.

Twelve hectares of vineyard are farmed by the Blots, the vines rooted in the stony silica-clay soil known as "perruches." Their average age is 50-80 years. Vineyard plots are plowed to eliminate the need for herbicides. Severe pruning each year reduces the yield of grapes to 25-30 hectoliters per hectare, well below the 45 specified by the Montlouis AOC. Hand harvesting and selection on a sorting table help insure that only the healthy, ripe grapes get fermented. The harvested grapes are brought by truck to a spot directly above the cave. The juice is fed by gravity directly into oak barrels below for fermentation, eliminating the need for pumps.

Autumn harvest is late (Oct-Nov) and generally accomplished by "trie." During the first pass through the vineyard, only grapes infected with noble rot are harvested. This juice is reserved for the sweetest bottlings. The second pass is for grapes used in the moelleux, and the third and fourth passes through the vineyard obtain grapes destined for the demisec and sec cuvées. In poorer years, there may be only two tries, all destined for demisec and sec wines. Because of the numerous passes through the vineyard required to pick all the grapes, the harvest can take more than a month to complete.

The Blots are believers in the flavor and "structure" imparted by new or slightly used oak barrels, and don't use any old or neautral wood in the vinification process. They buy used, 1-2 year old Tronçais oak barrels from Château d'Yquem and use them for 8-10 years. None of the wines are chaptalised. They are experimenting with different levels of "toast," varieties of oak and barrel size. We saw new barrels and demi-muids made from Alliers, Nievres, and Limousin oak, all made by Cadus, a barrel-maker in Borgogne. The wines spend 6 months in barrique before blending and bottling.

After an intensive informational visit to the cave, we returned to the winery office for a tasting of the results. They are doing everything right from a winemaking point of view, and there are indeed excellent wines being made at this youthful estate (first commercial vintage was 1989). If I have a quibble, it's that the intensity of flavor is only moderate, that the wines seem softer and finer than in Vouvray, arguably more feminine. The style is certainly different, and some may prefer it. I'm not sure yet what I think, and hope to taste more wines from the area.

We had a delicious dinner of local cuisine in the clean and friendly, if slightly run-down Hotel de la Ville in Montlouis. Before nightfall, a stroll along the narrow town streets led us to the semi-paved "Ruelle de Bellevue" that followed along the overgrown precipice of the tuffeau cliff edge. A spectacular sunset view bathed the water of the Loire below us in a slowly changing display of reds and violets. It was beautiful to watch, and provided a memorable symbol of why we came to visit this region. We hope to return. Thanks for reading.

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