Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Savennieres and the Coteaux du Layon

After our usual coffee and croissant breakfast at "Le Welcome Bar" in Angers we made the commute on the now familiar N23, D102 and D106 routes southwest to Savennieres. The day was overcast and occasionally rainy. Our appointment with Mme De Jessey ("De Jess-say") was at 11 AM, and since we were early we took a quick drive to nearby Epiré on the D111. Once there we stopped in the winery parking lot at Chateau d' Epiré to see what their schedule was like for the day (they've got a nice place) but finding no one, headed back. The drive took us past the entry sign to Coulée de Serrant, and like a siren song we couldn't resist the temptation to see what the place looked like. We turned in to see what we could see.

It was beautiful, and the slow, winding approach to the chai really built up the majesty of the property and heightened one's sense of anticipation. The long drive in from the main road (maybe a kilometer long) eventually became a dirt carriage path. Then the road veered around an ancient structure, and as you passed by it, the historically famous vineyard became visible, sloping steeply up to our left. It makes a stunning visual impact. The lower slopes were sporadically planted with old vines, and the upper slopes crammed and densely packed. After passing the Coulée the road bends to the right. Now the chateau/chai looms ahead, and eventually the road brings you around to the back, where the "dégustation" sign is. We decided right then that, attitude or not, it was worth it to try to taste here, and we made a plan to come back here later in the day.

[Image:The de Jesseys, Domaine du Closel]At Domaine du Closel Mme. de Jessey greeted us in a friendly, welcoming way at the gate. She looked to be in her seventies, had a ready smile and a quick wit, and was clearly a natural matriarch. She introduced us to her English-speaking daughter, Evelyne de Pontbriand, who showed us the winery and formal gardens (it really is a chateau). In the misting rain we walked up and across the road to a vineyard of gnarled chenin blanc "vieilles vignes", and later returned to the chateau for a relaxed, thorough tasting of current releases.

It was a friendly, pleasant visit. Mme de Pontbriand told us about the challenges of being part of a family business at a time when the responsibility was being passed on to the younger generation. Her father, the business manager, is still reluctant to retire completely, even though client relations has become her part of the business. The elder Mme de Jessey still loves to make wine, although that is now her daughter-in-law's position. It's a situation many wineries must eventually contend with.

As I understand it, Mme de Jessey inherited the winery from her aunt (who had no heir), but the winery has been in the family since the time of Napoleon when their good friend the Count de Serrant, who owned the renowned coulées of Savennieres at the time, transferred the land to their ancestors. Mme de Jessey named the winery after her uncle, who helped get Savennieres its "appellation controlée" status in 1952. It's still a small, old fashioned operation, still making wine in a mostly traditional way (well, the fiberglass fermenting tanks aren't "entirely" traditional). Some of the wines here were good, some were fantastic.

The de Jessey's do not own bottling equipment, and a mobile bottling truck was there the day of our visit. It looked like a trailer and contained the machinery needed that day to bottle and label (without filtration on this day) the red Anjou wine that Domaine Closel produces. The truck simply backs up to the chai, conveyers and hoses are connected and it goes to work.

Mme. de Pontbriand told us the story about how Domaine Closel came to make a red wine. When her mother's aunt was 90, a doctor told her that she drank too much white wine, that she should drink some red wine for her health. Not having any red available, she planted some cabernet franc, drank the wine she made from it and lived to be 98! Those vines are now used for the unexported red that the winery still produces.

We crossed a footbridge over the road and walked up to one of the vineyards. Mme. de Pontbriand pointed out the dark schisty rock in the roadcut and its steep, angular grain. The roots of the oldest vines apparently push their roots through these cleavage planes and down into the rock. She also explained that the dark schist fragments on the surface trap the sun, which aids in ripening the grapes. In contrast, the Clos du Papillon vineyard has a different terroir. Instead of dark schist fragments, it has lighter-colored quartz pebbles on the surface, which alter the way the vines ripen and make the wines from there have different qualities.

Back in the comfortable tasting room we tried the '94 and '95 releases ('95 is better, but both should be long-lived), and the excellent '92 vieilles vignes. Aside from the one red Anjou, this winery only produces Savenierres appelation chenin blancs. We pulled out the topo map and Mme. de Pontbriand showed us the location of the nearby "Clos du Papillon" vineyard.

After departing Domaine Closel we drove to the Clos du Papillon vineyard and walked around for a while, noting the quartz pebbles, the tall, wild-looking trellising of the Baumard vines in the easternmost portion, and the more severely pruned vines of Closel more toward the center.

The road south from Rochefort-sur-Loire to Pierre-Bise was under construction, and after a long, rainy detour and a quick lunch in the car we arrived at the winery. The tiny hamlet of Pierre-Bise is just a clump of buildings off to one side of the D54, just north and west of Beaulieu-sur-Layon. A little lane breaks off the main road and takes you through the village, and the winery is about halfway through it. It's not marked, but is clearly the focal point of the hamlet. Cars are parked outside, and there are a few non-residential winery-type buildings.

There was no one to be found. We went up to the house. No one. Finally, a woman gave us a harried look from the kitchen window and came outside. It was Mme. Papin, winemaker Claude Papin's wife. We were expected, and she led us down to the concrete beneath-ground tasting bar and chai, with rocky chunks of terroir samples to the side and the fermenting/ storage tanks at our backs. Wines ferment here in square enamel-lined concrete tanks.

Our host was clearly preoccupied with something, and she was interrupted a couple of times during our tasting by a voice from upstairs. "Did we come at a bad time?" we asked. "No, but there are important visitors here today for lunch." Perhaps it was their US importer, Louis/Dressner, the company that set up many of our winery visits?, we queried. "Yes, they are here right now."

The best bottles were clearly upstairs with the visitors, but we tasted some interesting wines nonetheless, and left early more out of a sense of kindness than for any other reason. The whole tasting had a somewhat spooky, gloomy feeling- perhaps it was the grey weather, perhaps the tired bottles (one had been open for ten days!) but most likely it was the palpable sense of stress that was in the air. Mme. Papin went beyond the call of duty, scheduling our tasting at a moment when a significant chunk of their annual income was on the line upstairs in the dining room. Kudos for that, but I'm still not sure what the wines taste like! And, we did not get to taste their highly rated Quarts du Chaume.

[Image:Coulee de Serrant vineyard]Well, it was still only mid-afternoon. Time to visit Nicolas Joly's Coulee de Serrant property. A phone call to the winery at this most famous of all Savennieres vineyards yielded a welcome surprise. A fee was no longer charged for each tasting, but purchases afterward were "encouraged." Sounded good enough to us, so back we went, this time with the nerve to venture inside.

Inside the chai there are displays of old winemaking equipment. Sawdust in an old wine press takes the place of a spittoon(!) The bottling line was working away as we entered and we were told they were bottling, but not labeling, a run of '94 Coulée for a client. That vintage is sold out at the winery, but I assume they are waiting for cooler weather to ship their orders.

The hostess was curt, and answered many of my questions with monosyllables. Only three wines were available to sample, the lowest number of any winery we visited on our trip, and the pours were small. It was pretty hard, with only half a mouthful, to gauge the quality of what was in the glass. The wines were good however, and they ought to be; proprietor Nicolas Joly has the best plot of land in the entire appelation. But to me they lacked excitement, and the '93 Coulée tasted thinner than any other Savenniere tasted on this trip. Perhaps it was just the snooty atmosphere .

The good news was that they have many otherwise unobtainable vintages for sale at the winery, going back twenty years to the 1977. I splurged on a pre-biodynamic bottle of the '77, not a great year, but these wines are often impervious to vintage variation. We'll see! We did learn from our hostess that the terroir is the same schisty soil found a few miles away at Closel. We also found out that Joly began his conversion to biodynamic cultivation in 1982.

We walked on the wooded path outside the chai that leads you to a view of the famous vineyard. You also have a long clear view to the south and the Coteaux du Layon. It was worth the visit just for this, to walk the land and imagine the great wines of the past that have been made there and, perhaps, are still being made.

No comments: