Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Savennieres and Domaine des Baumard

After checking out of our hotel in Chinon, we headed west to Angers, where we left our bags at the centrally located and very well appointed "Pavillon Paul Le Quéré." Then we hit the road for Rochefort-sur-Loire and an appointment at Domaine des Baumard. The gracious fax we had received from M. Florent Baumard indicated that he might not be around, but his assistant, Mme. Marie-Flore David, would be happy to assist us.

Anjou has a different feel from Touraine. Where Touraine is full of tuffeau cliffs, plateaus and cultivated plains, Anjou is a hillier, more wooded and rolling place. There's a slightly wilder feeling to Anjou, a moodier atmosphere. The presence of volcanic and metamorphic rock in the terroir here gives the chenin blanc more rugged, stony, dark and earthy set of flavors not found in the more easterly Vouvrays and their sedimentary limestone soils. We felt that here, in the few square miles around Savennières, one could spend a month just scratching the surface of the wineries and the winemaking tradition, studying first-hand the wines of Bonnezeaux, Quarts du Chaume, the entire Coteaux du Layon, Savennieres... all of them here, concentrated into this small region.

As usual we arrived in town early, found our destination, and then headed back to a picnic spot we had sighted by the tiny Louet river, which winds past Rochefort-sur-Loire. It was a hot, sunny day, and the tiny beach clearing where we stopped was packed with swimmers and picnic blankets. We made sandwiches out of rilletes, (like devilled ham) goat cheese and tomatoes, relaxed for a bit, and then headed for our highly anticipated appointment at Baumard.

It wasn't what we expected. We made the most out of the visit, but it did take some work. Sometimes it felt like pulling teeth. Mme David, our mildly interested host, didn't know much about the wines, didn't really know where the vineyards were (not even Quarts du Chaume or Clos du Papillon), and didn't feel comfortable about showing us any winemaking facilities. We persevered, and managed in an hour and a half to taste a good number of wines, culminating with the 1995 Quarts du Chaume, a spectacular, sweet chenin blanc. It certainly lived up to the hype it has received!

We own a case of the 1995 Clos du Papillon, and were interested to learn that the winery considers it still "not ready to sell" in France, and has withdrawn the wine from the current tasting lineup until they feel it's more together. We also learned that the Baumard vines in the Clos du Papillon are on schist, in the easternmost part of the vineyard. None of the wines ever see oak here, and all of the grapes are harvested by hand. Mme David said that all of the wines will last at least twenty years regardless of vintage. The winery take on 1996 versus 1995 is this: 1995 gave wines of "finesse and elegance," 1996 gave wines of "more fruit."

Baumard has a pleasant tasting room within the 17th century domaine building, including lots of welcome vineyard photos and a small cabernet franc vineyard right out back, from which they make the "La Giraudière" red we tasted (sorry, you can't go out to see it). We bought a bottle of the '95 QdC and a half-bottle of the '88 Savennieres, and got to follow Mme David into the room-temperature warehouse which was filled with cases of wine ready to be shipped. The prices at the winery were quite good. Our bottle of Quarts du Chaume cost only $28, less than half what it would cost at the current price here in the States, and the '88 Savennieres was a steal at $5 per 375ml bottle.

All the wines made at Baumard are distinctive and have individual character, if not always excitement. Savennières makers produce noticeably different styles of wine; clean, stony, earthy, citrusy, apply, honeyed; like the way different grades of maple syrup taste different, but are still maple syrup. Baumard makes the grade "A" fancy variety for the region with its squeaky clean and highly refined style. Other makers, like Closel or Joly, make a grade "A" or "B" "syrup"; an earthier, stronger tasting version. Which is best is just a matter of taste.

Though we managed in the end to have a decent visit and learn a bit about the wines (and even got Mme. David to warm to us a bit), I would really recommend that people who visit Baumard in the future try to get an appointment with M. Baumard, or at least with someone who has intimate knowledge of the winery and its vineyards. I felt (like at Coulée de Serrant) that we were at the gates of someplace really special, but for whatever reason were only allowed to put one foot in the door.

After leaving Baumard, Melissa suggested a drive along the island that separates Savennières from Rochefort-sur-Loire. We ate a melon snack next to the river at a spot overlooking the famous vineyard at Coulée de Serrant, a tall, steep hillside facing the afternoon sun. It's visible from pretty far off and easily recognizable, being on the tallest hill, the steepest slope and having the best exposure of all the vineyards in Savennières. It's just an awesome vineyard site, rivalled only for sheer visual impact by the similarly steep Rangen vineyard in Alsace.

After locating the first appointment site for the next morning (Closel) and making an appointment at Pierre Bize (Claude Papin) for the afternoon, we drove back to Angers, finishing the day in style with a gourmet dinner at the Paul le Quéré restaurant.

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