Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting journeys: Vouvray: Huet, Champalou, Foreau/Clos Naudin

After fueling up for the morning on coffee and croissants at a nearby tabac, we made a few confirming phone calls and headed out of Chateau-du-Loir, towards Vouvray and an 11AM appointment at Domaine Huet. The sun shone brightly all day, and the combination of sun and calm air practically negated the need for a jacket.

Aside from 3-4 industry types who quickly went upstairs when we entered, we were the only visitors at Huet. The tasting room was modern and comfortable, and over the course of about an hour we had a delicious set of 9 wines poured for us by an employee, ranging from two 96 secs to the profound and [Image: Huet Sign]sweet 89 Clos du Bourg 1er Trie. We learned that the estate did make a 97 cuvee Constance (only produced in the best years) and that some 1997 bottlings will be available for sale as of May 1 at the winery. I asked if there were any pre-1989 vintages for sale, and was shown a list of "millesimes anciens" of 10 or so wines going back to 1952, for fair prices. We purchased a bottle each of the 1957 Clos du Bourg and 1961 Haut-Lieu demi sec, for 240F and 160F.

Afterwards we hurried off to the Vouvray "ATAC" supermarket to get mid-day supplies before its 12:30 lunchtime closing and found an open charcuterie at the midtown intersection of N152, where we purchased some dried sausage. You can get close to the river here near the Vouvray crossroads, but what you really walk alongside is the more diminutive Cisse, just before it empties into the Loire. We walked nearer to the water in hopes of finding a picnic spot. The warm sun and the softness of the air made for good picnic weather and we ate our lunch sitting on a park bench near the riverbank.

After checking in at Vouvray's hotel "Grand Vatel," we set out on foot towards a 2PM appointment at Champalou. After ten minutes of steep uphill walking we realized the folly of the idea (Champalou is not *that* close), and returned to get the car. The winery was easy to find, though a little removed from the center of town. Winemaker Didier Champalou's wife Catherine led us through a brief tasting and informative cellar tour. She was charming, friendly and knowledgeable.

[Image: Catherine Champalou]Champalou has about 20 hectares of scattered vineyards, in plots of several hectares each. I got the impression that they separated the wines made from the two best terroirs (siliceous or calcareous clay) into different, separate cuvees. The crisp, minerally "Cuvee des Fondraux" demi sec is from lots grown on siliceous soil, while the sec-tendre estate is from calcareous plots. We tasted two moelleux wines, the "Cuvee Moelleuse" made from selected bunches, and the "Trie de Vendange" which is harvested one grape at a time, using only those infected with botrytis. This was a more successful moelleux than the 96 equivalents at Huet, and we bought a 500ml bottle.

The grapes here are fermented in 5000 liter steel tanks (all in the 10 degree C cave) and then matured in old oak barrels. Bottling takes place in May. March is blending time, and Mme. Champalou called the process of deciding on the final blend from the multitude of possibilities "Fun but difficult." Why difficult, we asked? "Difficult because all the possible blends taste good."

The wines were generally minerally, structured and of medium intensity (compared to Huet or Foreau), more for a thinking man than a hedonist, and the tour of the facilities/cellar with Mme. Champalou and her friendly German Shepherd "Elsa" was as enjoyable as it was informative. The Champalous will be making their first trip to the US this Spring, and I hope they have as much fun in New York City as we had in Vouvray.

With some time yet before meeting Philippe Foreau at 4PM, we took a walk on a few of the nearby vineyard roads, noting the various states each plot was in and the agricultural decisions that had, or hadn't, been made. Some vines had been pruned back (others not), some rows between the vines had been plowed (others hadn't), some had vegetation, some were on more bare, rocky soil. There were variations of vine age and training, and various means of supporting the still-to-come new growth... a myriad of viticultural philosophies at work within a few tens of acres. Fascinating stuff. But the real lessons of the day were yet to come.

Philippe Foreau was cordial, reserved and articulate. He has been the winemaker here since 1982, his father from 1969-81, and his grandfather before that. In his deep, measured voice he gave us an extended, advanced seminar on how and why chenin blanc is what it is here in Vouvray. His spectacular cellars, carved out between 1925 and 1970, were mostly the work of his Grandfather, and though they don't match the size or scope of neighbor Huet there is a feeling of an architect's hand here, of a deliberate aesthetic at work in the cellar layout.

Deep in these caves, which, like Huet's, maintain a steady 12 degrees centigrade, Foreau showed us an impressively large underground "rotunda": a circular shaped room with high, sloped ceiling that contained a large antique wine press at its center (now converted into a tasting table), with passageways to other parts of the cave radiating out from the perimeter.

[Image: Philippe Foreau]The average age of the vines here is about 38 years, and Foreau considers his best terroir the "argilo siliceux," or siliceous clay. Yield is about 35 hectoliters per hectare. While not biodynamic like neighbor Huet, Foreau follows some principles of organic farming, such as not using pesticides. He lets grass grow between the rows and then plows it under without using herbicides, and explained that vines grown without pesticides have roots that dig deeper and are more resistant to draught. Chemically treated, unplowed earth tends to pack itself into a hard surface, causing rainwater to run off and erode the soil.

He likened chenin blanc to pinot noir, elaborating that neither variety tolerates "mediocre vinification" or high yields. We were showered with factoids: Chenin blanc can tolerate cold, but not frigid winters, and if the temperature gets below -25C, the vines are covered with an additional, protective layer of soil. Fermentation of the wines takes place in oak barriques. Malolactic fermentation is blocked. Each cuvee might be racked 2-3 times off its lees. The wines are bottled before the following spring. The 96 sec is his favorite sec ever. The 1953 vintage is most comparable to 1971, but without 71's slightly superior acidity...

After explaining to us that we could only barrel taste the 97 sec because the other 97s were still clarifying, the conversation pleasantly meandered between wines, vintages and vinification, and before we knew it we had barrel tasted all the 97 cuvees, including two different barrels of the 97 moelleux reserve, and Foreau was carefully opening an unlabeled bottle of his Grandfather's 1953 moelleux. "This one is to drink" he said, as he poured the deeply colored wine into our glasses. It was a delicious finishing touch to a memorable tasting.

Back in downtown Vouvray, the hotel room at the Grand Vatel was darkly lit, the mattress too soft, and the noise from passing street traffic below a bit more than I would have liked, but only one word is needed to describe our dinner in the tastefully appointed restaurant on the main floor: SPECTACULAR. Easily the best dinner of this trip. Fresh, imaginative, perfectly cooked dishes, a fairly deep selection of Loire bottlings, and attentive, courteous service.

We had the least expensive (about 100F) three-course accompanied by an outstanding bottle of 1971 Huet Clos du Bourg sec (325F). The pricing was quite reasonable. Dinner for two, wine, and room for the night came to about $150 US. A bargain!

No comments: