Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Vouvray and Azay-le-Rideau

Well, if I expected our last day in the Loire to be a quiet one, I was totally off base. The weather ran the gamut between brilliant sunshine and pouring rain, with moody atmospheric contrasts as several fronts passed through the region during the day. The two tastings were equally memorable, first with the young up and coming Vouvray producer Francois Pinon, and later with the inimitable Robert Denis of Azay-le-Rideau.

We drove back to the town of Vouvray, wound our way up the D46 past the village of Vernou-sur-Brenne, and arrived at our destination a few kilometers farther north (off the D62), at the tiny hamlet of La Vallée de Cousse. M. Pinon's residence here is like that of many winemakers in Touraine; partly carved into the tuffeau cliffside, lost in an overgrowth of flowers and creeping vines, and with the minerally smell of limestone rock mixing with the loamy floral scents that permeate the air. The garden seemed rustic and comfortable, and was overgrown with wildflowers and chickens.

A note taped to the window instructed us to look next door, where an elderly woman (Pinon's mother) called an aunt over to give us a tour of the caves. Even though we are only a few kilometers north of Vouvray, the tuffeau passages here are different from those in the "premier cotes." Here the limestone is interspersed with layers of shiny black fist-sized flint nodules; "kidneys" as we heard them described. The irregularity of the deposits makes the bedrock more friable, reduces its strength and requires the caves here to be reinforced from within with concrete. One of the caves we passed through had a fireplace vented to the outside. Mme Pinon told us that as a child she knew someone who lived in that room. It still looked like a home.

The caves reserved for wine use here were pretty extensive, possibly comparable to those of Fouquet on the "premier côtes." Portions were narrow and roughly cut, others were wider and packed with thousands of bottles. Some passageways appeared to be in the process of being connected with others.

M. Pinon was waiting for us outside as we exited the caves. He appeared to be young, perhaps in his late thirties/early forties, with intense eyes that shone intelligently from behind a long, full beard and mustache. He was a child psychologist before taking over the family business from his father 15 years ago, and had an earnest, inquisitive way of discussing the wines. He even spoke of the parallels between psychology and winemaking; listening to the needs of each vine and such. He manages to fit this new age attitude within his traditional winemaking approach.

We sat at a wooden table in the sunlit tasting room and tried thirteen wines. Once he realized my weakness with the French language, he switched to English for much of the time. He had lab analyses of all the wines at hand, and his wife had drawn a map illustrating the location of the vineyards.

The wines were very good, with a few being outstanding enough to make me rank Pinon up there with the big players of Vouvray. If the first tier includes Huet and Foreau and the second Fouquet, then close behind and gaining fast is Pinon, who makes many cuvees each year and is clearly mastering his craft. The 96's here are great wines that can stand on equal footing with the other heavy hitters, and the 95's are mostly of high quality.

At 1:45, M. Pinon informed us that his wife was away for the day, and would we join him for lunch at a place he knew? Absolutely. So the three of us piled into our Volkswagon Golf and he motioned the turns from the back seat, taking us to a place in the Vallée Coquette that was a troglodyte-cave turned restaurant.

We sat down at an outside table and it promptly began to rain, harder and harder until the waitress motioned us inside to one of the coveted "cave" tables, saying it was easier for her to give up the inside spot than to venture out into the rain to serve us. We ate a well prepared meal of local specialties accompanied by an excellent Champalou demi-sec, and the conversation flowed as freely as the food and wine. At 4:30 we finally dropped M. Pinon off at his home, said our goodbyes and purchased two excellent moelleux bottles to bring home before quickly driving off in the rain towards our next appointment, M. Denis of Azay-le-Rideau.

We only had an hour to make the winding thirty mile drive to La Chapelle-St.-Blaise, and the weather got fouler and fouler as we drove. It felt ironic that of all the appointments made for us by the importer, this was the only one where we were cautioned to be on time; M. Denis is a stickler for promptness. Well, our having located the winery earlier in the week really paid off, and we pulled into the soggy courtyard at 5:35, only five minutes after the appointed time.

Even before the motor was off, a man appeared and came out into the rain. "Monsieur Denis?" I shouted from the open car window. "Oui, monsieur," he replied, and Melissa and I jumped out to meet him under the shelter of an awning. He was a rapid-speaking, silver-haired man of about 70, with a stocky, energetic build and a face that scrunched up with wrinkles when he smiled, which was often. We introduced ourselves, and he led us inside to a small cellar.

His is an extremely low-tech operation, a window into winemaking methods of the past; the only machine he admitted to owning was a corking press. He showed us recent pictures of himself sitting next to the tanks, bottling the wines one bottle at a time using a small gravity fed hose. All wines are in wood from harvest to bottling, and many of the barrels he ferments the white chenins in are over one hundred years old; barrels his father used. Fermentation takes place using native yeasts. After filtering and blending, the wine goes into a tank to rest before being bottled. M. Denis boasted that he can identify the subtle flavors that each old barrel imparts to the wine. I'm not sure M. Denis knows or even cares about the terroir of his vines. When asked, he shrugged and said "variable."

We walked past the old barrels to the back of the cellar, where a clean, well-lit tasting area had been prepared, and were motioned to the table. M. Denis poured the wines into small "pineau" glasses, another relic, and didn't spit a drop as he described the wines and his philosophy as a winemaker. He spoke to Melissa quickly and with great passion about the longevity of his wines (he never drinks them for pleasure until they are at least 20), how winemaking has changed in his lifetime, and how opening an older vintage brings back that years memories of family and friends. Quite adept at witty repartee, his face frequently scrunched up with delight as the punchline of each "bon mot" of wisdom neared. It was a delight to watch and listen to. And, he was extremely quotable. For example:

"Wine cellars are the ramparts against thirst."

"I am a 'chauvin' - I only drink white wine from the Loire. When I travel with my wife we buy wine... red wine, and then when we drink it I remember the places we visited, the winemakers we met."

"White wines from the Loire are uniquely suited to age fifty to one hundred years."

"If you don't want to take the time to let the wine breathe, evolve, change as you drink it, you might as well drink Coca-Cola. I've never tasted Coke. I don't have the courage. Actually, I don't think it would taste very good."

"When I taste each wine I remember the weather, what happened that year with my family, my friends, and even how I have changed."

"I tasted a California wine one time and it was very good. I tasted it again and again it was very good. I tasted it a third time and it was good, but it was the same. Why drink a wine that is the same every time. No two wines I have made taste alike, no matter how similar they may be in chemical analysis."

"Mr. Huet has a good cave and many old bottles. I tasted with him the 1873, the 1921 and the 1947. The 1947 is still too young."

"All that's in my wines is the juice of the grapes and the love of the vigneron."

"I visited Chateau Margaux with a group. They didn't even give us a taste."

"Remember, wine is to drink."

Denis specializes in dry, nervy, mineral-laden white chenins that are built for the very long haul. Only in occasional, ripe years does he make demi-sec or moelleux. In tough years, like frost-plagued 1991, he didn't release wine at all. The wines were mostly excellent - in a different style from the wines of Vouvray to the east or Savennieres to the west - and we appreciated viewing the photo album put together by his wife, which contained old labels from the early 1900's and news clippings from M. Denis' carreer representing the Azay-le-Rideau appelation controllée.

All in all I thought the dry wines here were among the best whites I've tasted in the Loire. Gutsy and severe, but simultaneously full of flavor and nuance. A wine salesman I know tasted a 1967 here last year. He said it was fabulous. On the other side of the coin, I thought the demi sec was well made, but I much prefer similarly styled vouvrays. The rose was a serviceable thirst quencher, but little more.

As we shook hands before leaving he smiled puckishly and said "I hope you weren't too disappointed with the wines." Of course he knows the truth. They are great, and worth seeking out.

The drive back to Civray-en-Touraine was a dazzling display of light and contrast. The rain was gone, and the late afternoon sun shown brightly on the buildings and fields. The sky to the east was still dark with rain, and the contrast as one looked across the countryside was stark and eerily beautiful.

We were still so full from our afternoon lunch with M. Pinon that we skipped dinner, instead taking a long walk along the Cher river through some of Touraine's everpresent sunflower fields.

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