One of 300 Masters of Wine, Benjamin Lewin has published many books, including What Price Bordeaux?, Wine Myths and Reality, In Search of Pinot Noir, Claret & Cabs: the Story of Cabernet Sauvignon, and Wines of France. He is the author of many volumes in the series on classic wine regions, Guides to Wines and Top Vineyards. He also writes the myths and realities column for the World of Fine Wine and has written for Decanter magazine. His books have been shortlisted for the prestigious Andre Simon and Roederer wine book awards. The blog records interesting wines, people, and experiences encountered while writing his books.
You know something dramatic has happened when you are in Bordeaux and your tasting notes of barrel samples mention ‘silky tannins.’ Admittedly the most recent Bordeaux vintages of 2021-2018 showcased at a tasting of Grand Cru Classés in London are all on the lighter side, but ‘silky’ recurs in my tasting notes in wines from St. Emilion to St. Estèphe. Historically, ‘bitter’ would have been more likely to dominate the description of young Bordeaux, but now you sometimes feel the tannins are resolving even before the wine leaves the barrel. Make no mistake, this is a sea change in Bordeaux.
I was actually a little disappointed in the wines from Pessac-Léognan (Smith Haut Lafitte), Margaux (Rauzan-Sègla), and St. Julien (Branaire-Ducru). Reflecting the vintages, the wines are relatively lightweight, reflecting their youth they are a little dry on the finish, and reflecting high Cabernet Sauvignon they are a little lacking in generosity. Dry whites were represented only by Smith Haut-Lafitte, where the second wine, Petit Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2020 showed its Sauvignon Blanc (80% of the blend) less evidently than the grand vin (90% of the blend), which had more pizzazz. In reds,
the 2019 Smith Haut Lafitte offers the liveliest aromatics across the vintages; 2020 Rauzan-Sègla really brings out the silkiness and elegance of Margaux, and Branaire-Ducru 2018 is just beginning to come out, with a style between the softness of Margaux and precision of its home in St. Julien.
Virtually all these wines, across all four vintages, could be enjoyed for dinner now–even the youngest samples. Attractive as they are as potential restaurant wines for short- and mid-term drinking, my disappointment stemmed from the thought that they are unlikely to develop the complexity of the great old vintages. Some of the grand vins of these appellations seemed more like second wines in their approachability, to the point of undercutting the concept that second wines offer the advantage you don’t need to wait as long to drink them as for the grand vins.
Moving into Pauillac and St. Estèphe, I became more optimistic. Pontet-Canet is attractively poised between classicism and modernism; in classic style, none of the vintages are quite ready, although in modern style you do see the plush black fruits of Pauillac before you sense the structure that’s holding them back. Punching well above Cru Bourgeois level, Tronquoy-Lalande (owned by the Bouygues brothers of Montrose) shows only a trace of the hard edge that used to mark St. Estèphe. Dame de Montrose varies from distinctly second-ish in 2020 to rather stylish in 2019. I knew the world had changed when I found the 2019 Montrose to show a silky structure. 2020 is still more evidently structured; 2018 has a great sense of finesse. I remember only too well when Montrose never took less than two decades to soften from its initial toughness. If the wines aren’t quite ready yet, it’s not so much that they need to resolve tannins, but that they need a bit more time to develop flavor variety.
St. Emilion was the star of the show. Second wine Croix Canon shows the elegance and reserve that I always find in the grand vin from Château Canon, and the words ‘silky’ and ‘finesse’ appear in my tasting notes of Château Canon from all four vintages. A dazzling array of four châteaux from Comtes von Neipperg showed what a bargain Castillon is, as Château d’Aiguilhe showed very attractively compared with Clos l’Oratoire; if I were pushed to define a difference, I would say that Aiguilhe is more mineral, Oratoire more fruit-driven, but they share a tendency to move in a more savory direction as they age. With Canon La Gaffelière, tannins vary from silky to supple, depending on the vintage, but are never obtrusive. It was fascinating to compare Canon La Gaffelière (35-55% Merlot, 30-45% Cabernet Franc, 12-20% Cabernet Sauvignon across four vintages) with the small cuvée of La Mondotte (farther east on the limestone plateau, with 75-90% Merlot and 20-25% Cabernet Franc) vintage by vintage. The granular texture of Canon La Gaffelière in 2021 compares with a less obviously fruity Mondotte, whereas in 2020 Canon La Gaffelière is smooth and supple and Mondotte is even smoother but more firmly structured. In 2019, La Mondotte has greater weight and body than Canon La Gaffelière, but is not (at least at this stage, to my mind) as elegant. Yet in 2018, although Canon La Gaffelière is tighter and more precise than 2019, La Mondotte is the standout with very fine structure to support its complex, savory, black fruits.
St. Emilion was so fine that Pomerol, represented by Château Gazin, was eclipsed almost to the point of appearing rustic, or at least more obvious in the relatively straightforward focus on Merlot. In the era of climate change on the right bank, more Cabernet Franc, and even Cabernet Sauvignon, more be the order of the day. Indeed, I wonder whether the over-performance of St. Emilion at this tasting was partly due to the fact that Châteaux Canon and Canon La Gaffelière both have less Merlot and more Cabernet than average for the appellation.
Sauternes was represented by Château Guiraud, showing a typical comparison between 2020, where botrytis came late and the wines are half botrytized, half passerillé, and 2019, where botrytis is more intense all round.
The overall impression left by the four vintages from 2018 to 2021 is that they complete Bordeaux’s transition into the post-Parker modern era, where the tannins are tamed and extraction is not excessive.
“In the crisis of 1928, René Médeville had difficulty in selling the wine so he just kept it instead of selling it at a low price. Eventually he couldn’t bottle it until after the second world war,” Xavier Gonet says, as he explains the origins of Château Gilette’s unique production of Sauternes. “If you find an old bottle of Gilette – before the 1930s – it will have been made ‘the normal way,’ Xavier adds. His wife Julie, who is René’s granddaughter, took over Château Gilette in 2004 from her father, Christian.
“Gilette is a special type of wine,” Xavier says, “it never sees any oak. “We harvest by picking only botrytized berries – we wait a lot and usually I’m one of the last to pick. We try to pick late and have as few tries as possible”. After fermentation in stainless steel, the wine goes into 12 small concrete tanks for 18-20 years. It’s completely racked off to fill the tank—there are no lees. “Most people make a link between oxidation and aging, but the vats are completely filled so there is no oxidation. What happens in the vat is just like the difference between keeping wine in a magnum or bottle—the big vats are fruitier. When we bottle, we bottle the complete vintage.”
There used to be different levels of Gilette — dry, demi-sec, demi-doux, doux, and crême de tête. G was the dry wine but made in only three vintages, 1954, 1956, 1958. (This gave the idea to Bernard Lur Saluces to produce the dry Ygrec at Château d’Yquem.) The last vintage of the other cuvées was 1962. “Because we now produce only Crême de Tête, we don’t produce every year. It’s usually made 5 years each decade. At 10 hl/ha we get 6,000 bottles. Basically we try to sell up to 3,000 bottles per year. Some years we don’t pick at all.”
“What you get with Gilette is the intensity of old vines, the volume, but the freshness of aromas. There is absolutely no oak in any of our Sauternes, Oak is not our style. (We think that) with oak you lose a little bit the purity and freshness in the wine. It begins a second life in bottle. Twenty years after bottling, the wines begin to express perfectly.” When we start the tasting, Xavier says, “All the wines will change in the tasting because they have never been in contact with air at all. Because this is an extreme reductive situation, they need a lot of oxygen.”
We tasted from the current release (1999, bottled three months ago) back to the great vintage of 1975. The wines deepen and become more intense with age but always retain a remarkable sense of purity and freshness. They develop very slowly. Clearly just beginning its development, the 1999 seemed almost too young to assess by comparison with the extraordinary 1997. “1997 is completely different. It’s a very particular vintage, the smallest production of Gilette ever, only 40 hl, I needed a special tank. Frost reduced yields, the grapes were harvested in 2 tries, everything was perfect. It’s a very precise vintage,” Xavier says.
“1996 was a good vintage for reds, so there was more passerillage, it was a little bit too hot (for Sauternes). Each vintage is a photographic record of the year,” Xavier comments. It’s a fatter vintage, showing more like a conventional Sauternes, whereas in most vintages the 4.5 ha plot from which Gillette comes expresses itself in a lighter style more like Barsac.
Going back to 1988, you see the result of an unusual vintage that required 11 tries. It’s very pure and precise, but perhaps more overtly sweet than usual, so the 1981, which is not as sweet, givers a clearer sense of its flavor spectrum. The 1979 and 1975 move towards the broader texture of figs and dates, with impressions of bitter orange cutting the sweetness.
1999 Medium gold color. Some spices on nose. Viscous, honeyed, long aftertaste shows honey, coffee, caramel, marmalade, but fresher than you usually find in Sauternes. Some citrus on the finish. “1999 gave very pure results with good botrytis. It begins a second life in bottle,” Xavier says. 92 Drink -2042
1997 Slightly darker color than 1999. Quite a piercing nose with citrus to the fore. The freshness is extraordinary. “For me this is a legend,” Xavier says, “it will age for 80 years.” Spicy and elegant, quite reserved now, lots of coffee on the nose following through to the finish. Aftertaste tends to citrus, bitter orange, marmalade. Palate shows honeyed texture but very elegant impression. Elegance is not a word I often use to describe Sauternes, but this stands out in the tasting for its combination of sweetness, complexity, and freshness. 96 Drink -2050
1996 Deeper golden color than 1997. A little spice and marmalade and apricots on the nose; it takes about 30 minutes for the nose actually to come out fully. This is a fatter vintage and more like Sauternes as opposed to Barsac. A touch of bitterness on the finish, you might say bitter orange, some honey and marmalade, long, and finally that bitterness coming back. 91 Drink -2042
1988 Medium gold color moving towards caramel. Nose is quite restrained but promises elegance, with some tight, sweet, botrytized aromas. This shows fruit purity above all else, very tight and precise on the palate, with bitter orange, marmalade, candied fruits, spicy, notes of nougatine, apricots. Complex but precise, with coffee developing on the finish. 93 Drink -2040
1981 Deep orange color. Complex spicy nose remains fresh. Smooth and silky, pure and crystalline, with marmalade and bitter orange predominating on palate on finish. Shows more subtlety because it is not as sweet as 1988. 94 Drink -2042
1979 Quite deep caramel color. Sense of purity shows on spicy nose, follows to palate of apricots, marmalade, some figs in the background, very clean precise lines, sharply delineated, long bitter orange on the finish. Deepens in the glass and increases in intensity. Silky impression on palate. 95 Drink -2042
1975 Deep gold – caramel color. Rich impression of vintage comes through the usual tight expression of the chateau. Very fine and precise, bitter orange dominates the finish with hints of coffee, dates, and figs in the background, long impression retronasally. That sense of bitterness really cuts the sweetness. 94 Drink -2040
Gonzague Lurton has turned conventional wisdom in Bordeaux on its head in recent developments at Durfort Vivens. He has rethought the approach to terroir in conjunction with changing vinification dramatically to bring out the purity of the fruits. It’s almost Burgundian.
Terroir is always there, of course, but it’s in the background in Bordeaux. Chateaux know their terroirs intimately, today there’s a focus on matching varieties to the terroirs where they do best, but all this is in order to express the best blend, which by definition must blur the individual terroirs on which it’s based. Special cuvées tend to be based on selection, and the extreme example of garage wines was based more on methods of viticulture and vinification than special terroirs. (Of course, there are some exceptions of small estates that represent a homogeneous terroir, but they are very much the exception to the rule by large estates.)
When Lucien Lurton purchased Durfort-Vivens from the negociant Ginestet in 1962, it was quite run down. The modern, revival started when Gonzague took over in 1992, and the wine really came to life after a new cuverie was built in 2001. But the biggest change came in 2019. “It’s a chain of ideas,” Gonzague says. “When we moved to biodynamics, we realized something had happened to the fruits. Before the berries matured first and the seeds ten days later. With biodynamics the gap disappeared, and the fruits were ripe and fresh at the same time the tannins matured. When you think about it you realize that we had an aging process for the wine that worked a lot on oxygen, but now we don’t need so much oxygen because the tannins are already soft, and using traditional aging would only reduce quality. So we can use less exposure to oxygen, we can use less racking, and we can use less sulfur. And then we asked what we could do to age for 18 months without sulfur.”
“We were not comfortable trying to do this in barriques, so in 2017, I bought two amphora as a trial. My idea was not to use terra cotta because I heard it was very porous and chateaux trying to use it had oxidized wine. But there is a specialized company that firsts the terra cotta at 1200-1400 degrees instead of 900 degrees, without using sand (which is usually necessary), and then the amphora admit less air than barriques but still some. This is not reductive so we don’t have to rack, so you don’t need sulfur.” So now one third of the grand vin ages in amphorae. “If you use less sulfur, the evolution of the fruits will be slower, and the aging will be better.”
In a second transition, from 2019 the second wine as such ceased production and was replaced by three cuvées from different parcels–the collection is called Les Parcelles Durfort Vivens. “We used to blend to produce the second wine and we always noticed that the character of Cantenac and Soussans was very different, so we started to separate them in 2019,” Gonzague says. “3 ha in the Margaux commune produce top wine each year. The plots in Cantenac and Soussans can go either way” (between grand vin and second wine). The three new cuvees are:
Les Plantes comes from younger vines in all the plots.
Le Hameau comes from about half the plots in Cantenac.
Le Plateau comes from about half the plots in Soussans.
(There’s a difference in Cabernet Sauvignon proportions: in 2019, the grand vin is 90%, Les Plantes is 80%, Le Plateau is 65%, Le Hameau is 59%, but Gonzague does not think that’s the relevant factor.) “Plateau is very round and Hameau is full of energy. After the first year we did this again each year to see if we could repeat it, and the results were the same: the terroir was more important than the exact blend. Each wine is singular, that is what I wanted to show.”
So now Durfort Vivens offers four cuvées. If you compare vintages pre- and post-amphora, the difference is evident. The 2015 is quite polished and round, but still shows a touch of oak. The 2019 has a greater sense of purity, all black fruits, making a very sleek impression. The lifted notes of Hameau 2019 makes a brighter impression than Plateau 2019, which is rounder, juicier, blacker, with greater depth. Les Plantes 2019 feels more like a typical second wine, lighter, fresher, easy to drink. All this gives a view of the commune of Margaux that could never be obtained from conventional grand and second vins.
Tasting Notes of the 2019s
Black fruit nose with touch of asperity. Pure fruits on palate poised between black and red, smooth and polished, with fresh acidity at the end. There is the energy of young vines with a light expression on the palate. This seems to be in the model of most second wines today, lighter, easy to drink, and ready immediately. Light tannins are well in the background, with palate and finish driven by fruits rather than tannins. 88 Drink now-2027.
Rounder, deeper, juicier than Les Plantes, moving more from red fruits towards black fruits, polished tannins showing a bare hint of bitterness on the finish. The elegance of Margaux is certainly here, and that polished impression dominates the finish. 89 Drink now-2028.
A brighter impression than Plateau, more red than black fruits, with lively acidity, more energetic and less polished, readier to drink. This offers the tightest impression of the trio. In another year, it may release more flavors. It is more lifted. 88 Drink now-2027.
More complex on the nose and more aromatic than any of the individual cuvees of the trio. Nicely perfumed nose leads into black fruit palate, deeper than any of the trio and more varied in flavors, Fresh acidity keeps this lively, with overall a sleek impression of modern Margaux. You can see the roundness and depth of Plateau and the lift of Hameau. 92 Drink now-2034.
It was a mob scene when I arrived at Château Valandraud. Two huge coaches had just disgorged a huge group of visitors from Pernod-Ricard. There could scarcely be a greater contrast between Jean-Luc Thunevin’s new winery and the beginning, when the first vintage was made in his garage. A couple of miles to the east of the village of St. Emilion, there is now a building that from the road looks like a château, surrounded by 9 ha of vines. Behind the château is an ultramodern cuverie, all glass and wood, very light and airy, but its size is not obvious until you walk round the side of the building. Running along from the cuverie is a hidden barrel room. It’s hidden because you can’t see it at all from the approach, but when you walk around the back, it’s curved into a circular arc nestled into the hillside, with a living roof on top that to all intents and purposes is part of the landscape. Jena-Luc is very proud that it’s light and spacious inside, but very eco-friendly. The completely new facilities were completed three years ago.
Inside, double vats line each side of the hall, some are stainless steel, others have an oak vat balanced on top of a stainless steel vat. Jean-Luc’s references as we walk around are to other grand châteaux. Gesturing to the arrangement of vats, he says with a grin, “the model was haut Brion.” Then as we enter the barrel room, he says, “the model was Cheval Blanc,” a reference to its ultra-modern winery with a living roof. When asked about the vineyards, Jean-Luc says that all 9 ha are around the château, “for the moment.” Altogether he now has about 60 ha with other properties in Bordeaux, including 40 ha in St. Emilion.
We start the tasting with the white, which started in 2003, and comes from a small block just below the château. It’s a third each of Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, and Sémillon. Production is about 4,000 bottles per year. It ages in 100% new oak; Jean-Luc seems slightly surprised at the question about new oak, as though there couldn’t any doubt that all the wines at Valandraud use 100% new oak. He draws some parallels with Haut Brion and Pavillon de Château Margaux. “It’s a produit de luxe,” he says. It’s quite fresh and lively, but has 15.5% alcohol. When asked about the implications of climate change for increasing alcohol, Jean-Luc is unperturbed. “Global warming has been good for Bordeaux, wine has to have alcohol,” he says. “Grenache from Châteauneuf du Pape has 16% alcohol and it’s very good wine.” When we taste Valandraud itself, the alcohol level is 14.5%, and Jean-Luc says, “14.5% is the minimum now, it’s not a problem because the natural acidity is good.” There’s a second wine in both red and white, now called Virginie, and here there seems to be a slightly different view of ripeness because the Virgine Blanc comes in at 13.5% alcohol.
“What vintage of Valandraud would you like to taste,” he asks. I suggest whatever vintage he thinks best shows the typicity of Valandraud. He looks a bit quizzical at this, as if to question whether any single vintage can sufficiently demonstrate typicity, but returns with the 2012. This was the first vintage of Valandraud’s classification as a premier grand cru classé. “The calcareous terroir gives the it richness and acidity,” he says. It’s a mature hue, but still densely colored, and the fruits have certainly matured. Tannins are resolving, but the palate hasn’t reached a tertiary stage yet, and it shows a nice restraint, not at all flashy as the criticism of early garage wines might have led you to expect. In fact, blind I’d have guessed at a higher proportion of Cabernet Franc than the actual 15%, as it has more structure than I would expect of 85% Merlot. Has the wine changed now it’s made from specific terroir at the château, I asked. “It’s still artisanal,” is the answer, “there’s lots of selection, malolactic fermentation in barrique, etc. With the gravity feed winery, it’s more precise.” (Jean-Luc hasn’t changed either: he still has that wicked sense of the jugular.)
The vintage brings up the issue of the St. Emilion classification, a huge controversy in the appellation today, as several important châteaux have announced they will not participate in this year’s revision of classification. “Me, the revolutionary, I’m all for the classification,” Jean-Luc says with a wicked grin. He believes in the basis for classification—“90% is the quality of the wine”—because it brings competitions, and he rattles off the names of a number of château who are improving their game in order to try for promotion to a higher category of classification. “Look at all the talent we have in St. Emilion,” he says. “They all want to be premier grand cru classé.”
Château Valandraud, 2012 Merlot 88%; Cabernet Franc 12% Dark appearance, still intense, but with orange hues showing age. Palate shows mature black fruits with some herbal overtones, tannins resolving to leave a supple impression. Overall quite restrained, not at all flashy, good supporting acidity, just a little dryness still showing on the finish where the herbal impressions intensify retronasally. 14.5% 92 Drink now-2028.
Blanc de Valandraud, 2019 Sauvignon Blanc 33%; Sémillon 33%; Sauvignon Gris 33% Nose shows some light citrus, following to palate with a hint of bitterness at the end. New oak shows as texture and hints of smoke. Alcohol brings a touch of heat to the finish. Palate is fresh and lively. 15.5% 90 Drink now-2028.
Blanc de Valandraud, 2016 A rich but measured impression. Nose is quite reserved but not quite herbal. Semillon seems more obvious on the palate than Sauvignon Blanc, which has been toned down by the oak. Alcohol does taste high, but feels more around 14% than the actual level. It contributes to the sense of richness but also adds a touch of heat and bitterness to the finish. The wine stays firnmly in the stone fruit spectrum and develops greater complexity as it opens on the glass. 15.5% 92 Drink -2026 Sauvignon Blanc 30%, Sémillon 50%, Sauvignon Gris 20%
Virginie de Valandraud Blanc, 2016
A fresher impression than the Blanc de Valandraud, crisp but not too aggressive. Some texture develops in the glass t ooffset the citrus palate. It’s a less “serious” wine than the Valandraud Blanc but good, and still going strong after six years with no signs of tiring.Château Valandraud, 2012
Liber Pater is the most expensive wine in the world, with a release price since 2015 of €30,000 a bottle (up from €5,000 per bottle for the first vintages). Visiting Liber Pater is something like the quest for the holy grail, with a series of obstacles that have to be overcome. Putting Liber Pater into your GPS or Google maps (if you have phone service in the middle of nowhere) will take you to a spot on the main road near a vineyard, but with no habitation in site. Using the address of the lieu-dit takes you up a side road, with another vineyard en route, but no sign that any of the houses along the path have anything to do with Liber Pater. At this point, the only thing to do is to call Loïc Pasquet, who says “are you near the olive trees or the big tree.” As you are basically in a forest, this is difficult to answer. Eventually you find some olive trees (well, really stumps of olive trees) next to one of the vineyards, and Loïc comes to meet you there and explain his design of the vineyard. After that, you follow him back to the cellar, several miles away in Podensac, on the other side of the autoroute. Only those with sufficient perseverance make it through…
Loïc bought a tiny estate in Landiras in the Graves in 2005 and set out to produce a wine from pre-phylloxera varieties. He planted the vineyard with ungrafted vines at the density of 20,000 /ha (twice the density of the usual high density vineyards in Bordeaux) as free-standing bushes on individual stakes (with vines 80 cm apart in a row and rows 60 cm apart), somewhat like a more organized version of a pre-phylloxera vineyard. The story goes that the wine comes from pre-phylloxera varieties, and reconstitutes the taste of nineteenth century Bordeaux. The major grape is Petite-Vidure, which is an old name for Cabernet Sauvignon. There are small quantities of Petit Verdot and Malbec, and around 2% of the really rare varieties: Tarnay-Coulant (also known as Mancin); Sainte-Macaire (formerly planted in marshes of the Garonne, but rather unproductive); Castets (an old variety of the Right Bank). All of these harvest late, which made them problematic, but is less of an issue in the era of global warming, and they are somewhat susceptible to fungal diseases. The 2015 vintage was the first to come exclusively from ungrafted wines. It fermented in amphorae, and aged 85% in amphorae, 15% in barriques, but from 2018 the wine has been vinified exclusively in amphorae. Going forward, vintages will have higher proportions of the rare varieties as recent plantings come on line. The first vintages were Graves AOP, but from 2015 the wine is labeled as Vin de France, because the rare grape varieties are not allowed in Bordeaux AOPs.
“There’s been a vineyard here for 2000 years,” Loïc says as we walk through the vines. At one time it was in the family of the writer, Montaigne. “We’ve planted it using techniques from the Roman era,” Loïc says, with 5 rows of vines separated from the next 5 rows by an empty row. The vines are planted in small blocks to match varieties with the terroir. The first planting was followed by another five years later. The vineyard up the side road to the lieu-dit is also part of Liber Pater, planted a year ago. Will there be any further plantings? “No, because we planted the best vineyards.” Because the vines are ungrafted, they are relatively small and don’t really show their age. “Grafting increases vigor and sugar production. Our leaves are smaller, it’s more like a Bonsai. The berries are smaller, 50g instead of 150g.” Harvest is between 11.5 and 12.1% potential alcohol.
The back part of the vineyard has more clay, the front part by the road has more gravel, and to the side there’s more of a mix. Long ago it was the bottom of a river coming from the Pyrenees. “I don’t want to make wine on the basis of varieties,” Loïc says, “with Cabernet Sauvignon for structure, Merlot for fat, and Petit Verdot for spice, instead we need to plant each variety on the soil where it’s born. This is the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy. In Burgundy they have all sorts of soil and one variety. I don’t want to calculate the varieties in the blend, that would be like making Coca Cola, it would be a very bad idea. We need to make a wine to reflect the place and the vintage. The mistake in Bordeaux is to produce a blend based on varieties, not on the terroir. You can produce that blend anywhere in the world. We used to blend plots, but now they blend varieties. We’ve destroyed 8000 years of heritage for 40 years of scores. The difference (in the Liber Pater vineyard) from grafted vineyards is that with grafting you can put any variety on any terroir, but with Franc de Pied (the French term meaning vines planted on their own roots) you have to match the variety to the soil. Harvest is always the first week of October and takes only 3 days. If you match the variety to the soil, everything ripens together, whereas when you graft there can be two weeks difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”
Will the vines survive? “We are on the oldest geological zone of Bordeaux which is 50 million years old, whereas the main part of Bordeaux is only 2-4 million years old. We are at 90 meters above sea level. At this geological point, there is a top layer of gravels, and sand below—Aeolian sands which came from the sea with the wind, which are around 20cm deep. This is a natural protection against phylloxera because it cannot dig holes to spread, because the sand falls back when you dig,” Loïc says.
The tiny cellar is filled with amphorae of various sizes. “I only produce a little wine,” Loïc says. There are only around 500 bottles of Liber Pater, and 2,000 bottles of his other cuvée, Denarius, added in 2021. “We do not make a second wine. We make Liber Pater and we make Denarius; they are two wines, but one is not an inferior version of the other,” he says. Denarius is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, fermented and then aged in amphorae for two years. It is less expensive than Liber Pater, under $1,000 per bottle. All aging is now in amphorae with the finish called grès, which literally means sandstone, reflecting the fact that some sand is used when the clay is fired at over 1,200°C. This makes the material less porous, compared to terra cotta, which is fired at a lower temperature. The result is a reductive environment. “We don’t use barriques because oak can change the taste of the wine, you can adjust it to make more vanillin, or chocolate, like Coca Cola. But me, I want the pure taste of the wine.” Alcoholic fermentation lasts about 5 days in the amphorae, and malolactic fermentation takes place simultaneously, “because we don’t use any sulfur.” After about two weeks maceration, the amphorae are closed, and then remain untouched for 30 months.
We go up a tricky spiral staircase from the cellar to the tasting room above, where Loïc also has a small collection of old books on viticulture and vinification. This is his reference library to guide production. In fact, at one point during the tasting he tuned in to an auction of old books on wine. Loïc opens a bottle of Denarius 2019, and tasting starts by decanting the wine, actually pouring it vigorously from glass to glass several times, to provide aeration to counter the reductive environment. The wine starts out with impressions of very ripe black fruits, tense on the palate, fresh and a little appley on the finish. It’s a forceful contrast with the sleek, polished impression of modern Bordeaux. It’s constantly changing in the glass, and Loïc gives us the rest of bottle to take back to our hotel to have with dinner. It’s very hard to find any appropriate reference points with which to compare the wine. In terms of modern wine, if you had this blind there would be conflicting messages about origin. The sommelier thought the combination of acidity and maturity pointed to a more northern location, such as the Loire. The moderate alcohol level also might point towards a cooler climate. For me, the intensity of color and the forcefulness of the palate, with fruits tending towards plums on the palate and a sense of white pepper showing on the nose, faintly nutty on the finish, pointed farther south, towards the northern Rhône. Although there is a strong sense of structure, there is no tannic bitterness on the finish. After a while, a sense of tobacco develops on the finish to give impressions resembling Cabernet Franc, and acidity picks up a bit with some herbal impressions. The gravely texture and flavor make the polished modern wines of Bordeaux seem almost eviscerated, if you wanted to pursue the argument. The pattern of changes makes it hard to project future development. It is really sui generis.
The domain was originally the Pithon-Paillé domain, owned by renowned winemaker Jo Pithon, known especially for his dry Chenin Blancs, and in particular for the heresy of producing dry white wine from vineyards in the Quarts de Chaume appellation for sweet wines. In 2018, Jo retired and sold the domain to businessman Ivan Massonnat, who has continued and expanded the heresy. Winemaker Adrien Moreau joined the domain for the first vintage.
Jo Pithon sold it in 2018 because his sons weren’t interested in taking it on. Ivan is in private equity and had helped his friends to buy land. “Ivan knows Burgundy but did not know this area,” Adrien explains. “He looked at Vouvray but the appellation is very large and does not have any similarities to Burgundy. But here there are small AOPs and estates and there’s something of a hierarchy. Jo brought Ivan to the Coteau de Treilles vineyard and Ivan said, ‘that’s my grand cru’.”
Coteau de Treilles was abandoned after the second world war when viticulture moved from the coteaux to the flat lands. Jo bought 70 plots from 25 owners, cleared the land, and planted vines, starting in 2000. The 2.7 ha are long and narrow with slopes from 30-70%. It’s actually in a 15 ha nature reserve. “We say that there’s Mediterranean micro-climate here, with unusual flora and fauna. It’s the habitat of the blue butterfly, Belargus, which gave its name to the domain.”
The premises haven’t changed at all since this was Domaine Pithon-Paillé. The exterior is still quite shabby, consisting of old buildings on a corner lot, dating from the 1970s. The plan is to build a new winery. “We found a clearing near here and we’ll build a winery just for vinification and aging. Logistics will be elsewhere. The present building (designed for half the vineyard area) is never big enough,” Adrien says.
“The domain is 100% dedicated to Chenin Blanc,” is the motto at Belargus. The estate started with 9 ha, but is now 21 ha, with the major expansion coming from purchase of Château de L’Écharderie (one of the original estates in Quarts to Chaume). Ivan also added 3 ha in Savennières. There are now 15 cuvées. The holdings in Chaume and Quarts de Chaume are about half of the total, but most of production is dry, although proportions vary widely from year to year—in 2018 25% was sweet, because of frost there was no sweet wine in 2019, in 2020 there was 5% Coteaux du Layon, but it was only 5%, In 2021 there were two (not complete!) barrels of sweet wine.
Only one cuvée is a blend. Anjou Noir comes from a series of plots along the Layon river, ages in stainless steel, and offers a fresh fruity impression. The other cuvées all come from single plots and age in barriques for one year, two years for the top plots, and three for Coteau de Treilles, on the full lees. There are 3 passes through the Quarts de Chaume for dry wines and 2 passes for sweet wines. Grapes go into a pneumatic press, are left exposed to oxidation—“Chenin Blanc fights oxidation very well. My philosophy is that a molecule has to oxidize every week in the press so it doesn’t oxidize later”—and then start fermentation. New oak is a bit higher in current vintages because of the expansion of the domain. “When we went from 9 ha to 21 h we had to buy some new barrels. I would like new oak to be about 10%. It was 20% in 2018.”
Ronceray(named for the abbey that owned Quarts de Chaume in the Middle Ages) comes from several plots in Quarts de Chaume, and three cuvées come from single plots with different soil types and exposure. Rouère faces southeast, with its surface covered with pudding stones. Vines are 35 years old. “Wines from the pudding stones are always larger,” Adrien says. Le Veau faces southwest and is on schist with very little soil. The wine is much tighter. Les Quarts is south-facing on schist but with 20-30 cm of loam on top. The style is “almost at the middle between generosity and tension.”
Ruchères in Savennières is 0.4 ha in a southwest-facing amphitheater. It’s on purple schist (due to manganese). The wine has more amplitude than the cuvées from Quarts de Chaume. Coteau de Treilles spends two years in a mix of barrique, 400-liter barrels and demi-muids, and then one year in stainless steel. It’s fine and silky with herbal intimations.
In the sweet wines, Les Quarts offers a classic impression of the Quarts de Chaume, with the balance between passerillage and botrytis depending on the year, but always showing depth. Rouère adds an extra layer of complexity.
Pithon-Paillé produced about an equal amount of wine from the domain and from a negociant activity, but Ivan has segregated the two activities and kept the name Pithon-Paillé for the negociant.
Tasting Notes on Barrel Samples
Anjou Blanc, Anjou Noir 2021 2022-06-18 Very nice Anjou Blanc, quite fruity, still with just a touch of sweetness (it will be dry when fermentation completes). 87 Drink -2024
Anjou Blanc, Le Veau 2021 2022-06-18 Nose is tight, almost austere, quite a contrast with Rouère, with a steely if not quite mineral impression on the finish. Quite a sense of tension here. 92 Drink -2028
Anjou Blanc, Les Quarts 2021 2022-06-18 Almost smoky impression on nose, reserved and almost austere. A distinctly dry style, and at least at his stage, the most reserved of the trio. 92 Drink -2028
Anjou Blanc, Roncerets 2021 2022-06-18 Faintly savory intimations to nose. Much more reserved on palate than Anjou Noir. Quite a subtle impression. Savory impressions strengthen on finish. 89 Drink -2026
Anjou Blanc, Rouère 2021 2022-06-18 Barrel sample, with 1.5g residual sugar as fementation not finished yet. tone fruits on nose follow to palate, no perceptible sweetness but some softening from the residual sugar but “wines from the pudding stones are always larger,” Adrien says. 14.0% 90 Drink -2028
Quarts de Chaume, Les Quarts 2021 2022-06-18 Very complex nose mingles smoke, spie, honey, enormously flavorful, sweetness cut by a little piquancy. Very honeyed but still offers a pure expression of Chenin Blanc. Very long finish redolent with figs and apricots. 190g 94 Drink -2035
Quarts de Chaume, Rouère 2021 2022-06-18 Herbal notes of sweet thyme and rosemary add to the white stone fruits of Les Quarts. “Les Quarts is more strightforward,” Adrien says. Melange of spicy fruits, bitter orange, and marmalade. 210g 95 Drink -2040
Anjou Blanc, Coteau de Treilles 2020 White 2022-06-18 Reserved nose is faintly smoky. Ripe fruits are very fine and silky on palate, with stone fruit impressions favoring peaches, and some herbal impressions adding complexity. Belargus 93 Drink -2028
Savennières, Ruchères 2020 White 2022-06-18 Spicy nose leads into slightly spicy, slightly smoky palate, fruits showing more as whit stone than citrus. Good expression of the appellation. Belargus 91 Drink -2028
Vin de France, Voile 2019 White 2022-06-18 Unclear actually what category this would be if it’s ever commercialized. It started out as a dry Quarts de Chaume before it continued development under a layer of yeast (the voile). Powerful nose in style of sherry or vin jaune. Palate has more softness than either of those as it seems to have more glycerin (perhaps difference is due to whatever particular yeast form the voile here). It’s quit subtle on the palate but shows some force retronasally. 16.5% Belargus Drink -null
Charles Joguet had no knowledge about wine when he took over his family estate and turned it into one of Chinon’s top produers of red wine. The estate was originally a farm, before Charles converted it exclusively to viticulture when he came back to Sazilly from art studies in Paris in 1959 following the death of his father. “My father left me some vines, some debts, and zero ideas about vinification,” he recollected, Following the model of Burgundy, he decided to see what effect terroir would have in Chinon, and introduced cuvées from different vineyards. “I experimented, it was only that which interested me,” he said. Charles retired in 1997, and since then the domain has been owned by the Genet family. “He was quite an innovator, some things worked, some didn’t,” recalls winemaker Kevin Fontaine. Joguet had the first stainless steel tanks in the Loire: today they are the standard.
The focus remains on cuvées from different terroirs, although there have been some changes in the vineyard holdings. “We’ve slowly got rid of some alluvial terroirs to get more limestone terroir,” says Anne-Charlotte Genet. “W bought 6 ha in Les Charmes (west of Sazilly just south of the Vienne river), but we didn’t want to get bigger , so we got rid of some other areas.”
The style here tends to freshness, with increasing fruit density and structure going up the scale; the wines are never aggressive or heavy. There’ve been some changes in vinification to increase precision, moving to malolactic fermentation in barrique for the lower-level cuvées, and adding some aging in cuve after the barriques for the top cuvées. “I’m concerned that people who can’t store wine should be able to enjoy it when they buy it, and (for the three top wines) I advise them to decant the wine first,” Anne-Charlotte says.
The entry-level red Chinon, Silènes, comes from a sandy area on the other side of Chinon in Beaumont-en-Veron. “It should be fruity and easy drinking.” It gives a crisp impression of light red fruits. Les Petites Roches is a blend from several parcels on gravelly terroir, aged in stainless steel, and makes a rounder impression than Silènes, but still overall very fresh. Le Cure comes from a single vineyard of clay on heavy gravel. MLF is done in old barriques and then the wine moves soon into stainless steel for 8 months. It’s rounder, blacker, and more aromatic, but still has that trademark freshness. It’s a fine example of the typicity of Cabernet Franc from stainless steel. The red Les Charmes cuvée comes from 1.5 ha of the vineyard; more elegant and more focused, it the effects of limestone terroir. Aging is similar to Le Cure.
Cuvées from the top three vineyards age in barrique. Clos La Dioterie is immediately outside the house and is north-facing. Wasn’t that a problem, at least before climate change? “No, because the terroir is so special. It’s limestone, with yellow tufa at the bottom and pure white mother rock at the top.” Les Varennes du Grand Clos is more or less adjacent with similar exposure, and slightly sandier soil. The third of the top vineyards, Chêne Vert (which takes its name from a green oak at the top of the slope) is a warm spot on the other side of the Vienne, facing southwest. Clos de la Dioterie shows in tastings as more complex than Les Varennes du Grand Clos, with a more finely textured backbone and more smoke and tobacco on the finish. Previously I had always placed it above Chêne Vert in tastings, but more recently Chêne Vert has seemed to be a bit more generous and approachable, rounder and deeper
The white Clos de la Plante Martin used to be one of the finest white Chinons, but the vineyard was leased, and now has reverted to the owners. The new top white comes from Les Charmes, offering nutty impressions of ripe Chenin Blanc. It ages for 8 months in barrique followed by 8 months in tank. There is also now another white. “We want to have two levels of quality in whites, and we added a more accessible cuvée,” Anne-Charlotte explains. This is Les Petites Roches, first vintage 2020, from a gravelly part of Les Charmes. It ages half in oak and half in stainless steel, and MLF is blocked, giving an impression of white stone fruits in a relatively soft style.
Chinon AOP Red
Quite a light nose, tending more to red than black fruits. Good acidity gives a crisp impression. 87 Drink now-2025.
Les Petites Roches, 2018
A rounder imprssion than Silenes, moving more towards black fruits on the nose. Following to the palate, black fruits are tart and elegant. This maintains nice freshness. 88 Drink now-2026.
Cuvée de la Cure, 2018
Rounder, blacker, slightly more aromatic than Silenes or Les Petites Roches. Simultaneously more supple and brighter, still with that trademark freshness. A fine example of the typicity of Cabernet Franc from stainless steel. Some herbal impressions on the finish. 88 Drink now-2028.
Les Charmes, 2018
Greater aromatic variety on the nose than Le Cure, more elegant, more focused, with black fruits on the palate. Good sense of precision. 89 Drink now-2028.
Les Varennes du Grand Clos, 2018
More sense of variety to nose than the mid level cuvees. Trademark freshness has overlay of chocolate texture, giving an impression of furry tannins. There’s a faintly piquant edge to the black fruit palate (bottle was opened previously,. Still a bit tight, but nice balance in a fresh style. 89 Drink 2024-2032.
Les Varennes du Grand Clos, 2017
Nose shows influences poised between herbal and spicy. Very elegant impression showing the cooler conditions of the vintage. “This is a more typical year,” Anne-Charlotte says. Quie bright impression palate poised between red and black fruits. A very good result for the year. 89 Drink now-2028.
Clos de la Dioterie, 2017
Nose is rounder and more complex than Varenne, but also has some faint herbal impressions in background. Not so finely textured as Dioterie 2018. Still a little taut, waiting to release its fruits. Fugitive sense of smoky tobacco on finish. 89 Drink now-2028.
Clos du Chene Vert, 2017
Faint impression of smoky tobacco. Smoother than Dioterie, a little softer and more approachable, slightly furry tannins on finish, almost a touch spicy. Lovelyprecise impression of a cooler vintage. 90 Drink now-2029.
Chinon AOP White
Les Petites Roches, 2020
Nice balance on palate inclined to white stone fruits, giving relatively soft impression for Chenin Blanc, with acidity well tamed, but with a tang at the very end. 88 Drink now-2025.
Les Charmes, 2018
Faintly nutty nose sugests typicity of ripe Chenin Blanc. Follows to relatively soft palate, with quite pronounced nutty aftertaste. 90 Drink now-2026.
When I first met Thierry Germain, he was a young Turk making waves with his focus on terroir and biodynamics. Now he is a well established example to others, perhaps even something of an elder statesman. He’s the six generation of winemakers from his family in Bordeaux, but he left there in 1991 and bought this old domain in 1996. There was a single tiny building when he started, but this has now been extended into a modern warehouse. He’s presently expanding in order to be able to stock older vintages.
Tasting with Thierry is an exercise in terroir and its implications. All the reds are Saumur Champigny, which can be the most distinguished AOP in the Loire for Cabernet Franc. Cuvées are distinguished by their soil types, varying from sandy to calcareous to siliceous. The introductory Saumur Champigny red, from calcareous terroir, is a typical expression of Cabernet Franc from the area: bright and fresh with a touch of asperity. It ages in stainless steel and wood vats. The color of the label changes each year to express Thierry’s view of the vintage. “2021 is a very pure, saline year,” Thierry says. The 2021 label is green. (2020 was blue.)
Terres Chaudes comes from the Poyeux lieu-dit “but it’s calcareous clay, less sandy than Clos Rougeard’s plot.” It shows the typical sense of precision from this lieu-dit. It ages in a mix of 12 hl and 60 hl oval foudres. Les Marginales was the first cuvée Thierry produced, in 1996. It comes from deeper clay. It conveys a broader impression than Terres Chaudes. It ages in foudre. “We always do élevage from clay in a large container. If you use a smaller container you constrain the wine.” Clos L’Echelier comes from pure limestone–this is the calcareous material that was excavated to construct the houses of the region. It ages in oval 12 hl foudres. “It is very vertical. If you use a round container for limestone terroir it abolishes the energy of the wine.” Les Mémoires comes from siliceous terroir on the plateau Dampierre. The vines are 118 years old, growing as individual bushes (they look like old Grenache in Châteauneuf du Pape). It includes 80 areas that were the first plantation after phylloxera and another 40 areas that were planted later. The wine ages in round foudres and some old barriques. Franc de Pied comes from vines planted at high density (8000/ha) on their own roots. It is vinified as whole clusters and ages in oval foudres. The terroir is quite sandy, which makes it appropriate for ungrafted vines because phylloxera doesn’t penetrate so well. The vines are still in good health, indeed they seemed to be flourishing when I visited the vineyard. This is perhaps the most elegant of the red cuvées, with the palate showing very pure fruits and texture.
All the four white cuvées are Saumur Blanc. L’Insolite may be the best known. Coming from 90-year-old vines on siliceous terroir, it ferments as whole clusters at low temperature, and then ages in oval foudres. L’Echelier comes from tufa; a slightly spicy nose leads into a really elegant palate, fine and silky, with an unusual sense of precision for Chenin Blanc. Clos Romans comes from hard limestone and ages in old 400- or 500-liter barrels. It shows the savory side of Chenin Blanc, lots of flavor, quite elegant, but with greater underlying breadth than L’Insolite or L’Echelier. The finish shows almost an impression of umami. Terres ferments in 800-liter qvevri, buried underground in the Georgian style; after 4 months it’s transferred to old barriques for aging. This is not an orange wine but it has a similar sense of texture on the palate. Thierry’s view is that the style of most of the wines in Saumur Blanc is too rich; these all definitively offer more precision than is usual.
A slight sense of piquancy to the nose is followed by fresh acidity on the palate, which is typically Cabernet Franc with a characteristic slight note of asperity. This is quite a bright, pure expression of the variety with lots of flavor. 90 Drink 2023-2031.
Saumur-Champigny, La Marginale, 2020
Broader than Terres Chaudes, with fresh acidity on the palate, and a sense of tobacco on the finish. The clay has replaced the tension of limestone with a broader expression, more granular, of Cabernet Franc. 90 Drink 2024-2032.
Saumur-Champigny, Clos de L’Echelier, 2020
Faintly spicy notes to the nose. Almost a chalky texture to the palate. More grip on the finish with chalky tannins showing a little bitterness. Acid support is almost piquant but overall the impression retains that sense of chalkiness. 91 Drink 2025-2033.
Saumur-Champigny, Les Memoires, 2020
Slightly spicy notes first, with black fruits following. Not quite tight, but the palate certainly conveys a sense of precision with fresh supporting acidity. 92 Drink 2024-2032.
Saumur Blanc, L’Insolite, 2021
Slightly spicy nose leads into palate with typical savory notes of Chenin Blanc and a nice spicy finish showing white fruit and floral aromatics, 90 Drink now-2026.
Saumur Blanc, L’Echelier, 2020
Slightly spicy nose leads into really elegant palate, fine and silky, with an unusual sense of precision for Chenin Blanc. I would not have expected such elegance from tufau. 92 Drink now-2028.
Saumur Blanc, Clos Romans, 2020
This shows the savory side of Chenin Blanc, lots of flavor, quite elegant, but with greater underlying breadth than L’Insolite or L’Echelier. This finish shows almost an impression of umami. 91 Drink now-2028.
Saumur Blanc, Terres, 2020
Not an orange but offers a similar sense of granular texture on the palate. Faintly spicy impression to nose. Palate has rounded out the savory impression of Chenin Blanc to bring more obvious white stone fruit flavors to the fore, with a slightly spicy finish. In effect the maceration has overlaid the character of Chenin Blanc with more texture. 92 Drink now-2026.
I started my week in the Loire to update the Guide to the Loire for next year’s edition with visits to two top producers in Vouvray, located on the same street just out of the town. Domaine Huet (the accent was removed from Huët after the Hwang family took over from the founding family in 2003) is the flagship domain of Vouvray. Domaine du Clos Naudin, now in the fourth generation of the Foreau family under Vincent, who took over in 2017, is a bit smaller (12 ha versus 30 ha).
Similarities of approach are more evident than differences. Domaine Huet owns three vineyards on different terroirs, Le Haut Lieu (the origin of the estate with clay soil over the tufa rock), Le Mont (perruches), and Clos du Bourg (very shallow soil directly on tufa). Cuvées are made separately from each, at each sweetness level (Sec, Demi Sec, Moelleux, Liquoreux), giving 12 possible still wines. Clos Naudin’s vineyards are all on the famous perruches soils (greenish clay containing large flinty pebbles). “Because our soils are all similar, we don’t produce single vineyard wines,” Vincent Foreau explains, so there are (up to) 4 cuvées of still wines each year.
The domains have old, cold cellars coated in black mold, lined with empty barriques at this time of year. “For dry wines élevage is always only 6 months because we consider that aging occurs in the bottle. It takes around 10 years,” says Johan Le Calonnec at Domaine Huet. Vincent Foreau explained the practical problems in keeping the barriques empty for six months until the next harvest. They are all old, of course. “We buy three barriques a year,” Vincent says. This amounts to about 3% new oak.
Both domains are among the holdouts still harvesting by hand. “95% of Vouvray is machine-harvested, there are only 6 producers out of 151 who are committed to manual harvesting,” Johan says. “Chenin Blanc is a very specific variety; you can see adjacent vines at quite different stages of maturity. If you harvest vines where some are below maturity and some are above maturity, you will never achieve equilibrium. Manual harvest is crucial,” says Vincent Foreau.
Neither domain has any fixed objective with regards to the proportions of dry versus sweet wines. Winemaker Jean-Bernard Berthomé, when he retired from Domaine Huet in 2019, said, “In 40 years I have never made the same wine.” At Clos Naudin, Vincent Foreau says, “We don’t have a fixed objective for style. I will give you two extreme examples. 2013 was a very cold year and the wine was almost all dry. In 2003 or 2018 by contrast it was impossible to make dry wine, almost all the wine was sweet. There is no average for the ratio of dry to sweet.” Johan Le Calonnec explains that, “ It’s the climate, especially the conditions in September, that determines the proportion of dry and sweet wine.” That uncertainty extends to the style of moelleux sweet wines. “Usually the moelleux has 20% botrytis, but there is no objective to maintain a consistent style, every year is a new adventure.” Indeed, I tasted one moelleux with no botrytis and another vintage with 30% botrytis. Of course, variations in production create a problem for marketing. “Some buyers don’t understand why they can’t get a dry wine in some years. If sugar levels are too high we make sweet wine, we don’t want to make a dry wine at 14.5% alcohol,” Johan says.
There’s a common view of what constitutes dry wine. Both domains say Sec can be anything from 2g/l to 8 g/l of residual sugar. Now I’ve complained many times before about the derogation in European law that allows a wine to be called dry when it has more than 4g/l residual sugar (the level below which all wines are unambiguously dry) so long as acidity is high enough. Chenin Blanc typically has such high acidity that this can often be applicable. The unpredictability of whether a Sec Vouvray will in fact taste dry has put me off ordering it in restaurants, for example. However, on this visit I tasted very few wines where I could detect sweetness, even when the residual sugar was above the magic 4g/l limit. Usually the only giveaway was a certain softening of the texture.
The criterion in deciding how much sugar to leave is a matter of balancing the acidity. When you quiz producers or sommeliers in the region as to whether a wine is dry, the usual euphemism has been to say, “Well, it’s fruity,” but this recent tasting makes me feel more confident that Sec on the label is likely to mean a wine tastes dry, at least from the producers I visited.
In the past, I’ve found most interest in the wines at both ends of the spectrum, dry and liquoreux, with the demi-sec losing the typicity of dry wines, and the moelleux not fully showing the typicity of sweet wines. On this visit, both demi-sec and moelleux seemed better balanced, offering subtle variations of the typicity of Chenin Blanc, going from acidity supporting a savory fruit spectrum in dry wines, to white stone fruits in sweet wines, and (of course) honey and nuts in botrytized wines. Although wines at all sweetness levels can be enjoyed on release, people are familiar with the idea that sweet wines can age very long, I’m inclined to the view that it is just as important, perhaps even more so, to hold the dry wines. Most really come out after 5 or 6 years and don’t begin to peak until 10 years.
Tasting at Clos Naudin, vintages of Sec from 2021 to 2006 varied from 3g to 8g residual sugar. It wasn’t always always obvious which wines had the most residual sugar. A savory thread runs from recent to older vintages, segueing into tertiary notes after more than a decade. The demi-sec shows a rare delicacy for this sweetness level. Tasting moelleux vintages a decade apart, purity changes to truffles as the wine ages. Liquoreux varies from based exclusively on triage in 2020 (greater purity) to extensive botrytis in 2020 (viscous and honeyed). The Première Trie from 1989 (a fully botrytized cuvée) could challenge any top Sauternes.
At Domaine Huet, the tasting was more about comparing the different plots. At each level, Le Haut Lieu shows its freshness first. This can appear austere in the dry wine. There are rounder, deeper, impressions to Le Mont and Clos du Bourg. Clos du Bourg always has the most evident complexity, and I suspect the gap with the other cuvées may widen as the wines age.
Clos Naudin Tasting Notes
2021 Sec Quite appley on the nose, perhaps still a touch reduced. Very acid, very linear, with a hint of that sour character that can make the finish on Chenin Blanc. There’s a lot of underlying flavor variety that needs some time to come out. It is quite dry. When would this be ready? “It’s perfect right now, but it will hold for ten years.” 88 Drink 2024-2032
2020 Sec “This has lost a bit of fruit since its first youth,” Vincent said. Still it shows a ripe fruity impression tending to pears on the nose. The palate shows the pressing acidity of Chenin Blanc, but has that richness showing as pears. There’s lots of flavor with the promise of variety to develop. 5.0g 90 Drink -2032
2019 Sec “Now for a different one with malolactic fermentation,” Vincent says. The cold conditions of the year and the late harvest show in a faint touch of green apples, followed by some quasi-savory impressions. The sugar barely shows as sweetness, more really as increased texture on the palate. Even so, there is less obvious typicity than in drier vintages. “This has always been open, it never really closed up,” Vincent says. 6.0g 89 Drink –2028
2016 Sec Nose is a little spicy with some notes of quince followed by some quasi-savory notes. Sugar is not at all noticeable, in fact this shows less sweetness than some vintages with lower degrees of residual sugar, although after a while in the glass you can sense it on the texture. Nose is beginning to evolve, giving an impression of some tertiary notes in the background. 8.0g 90 Drink -2027
2006 Sec Developed nose shows some tertiary impressions. Palate shows some savory impressions, moving towards truffles, but cut by an underlying sense of richness. Flavor variety takes some time to come out in the glass, but is quite full as it opens. 3.0g 90 Drink -2028
2016 Demi sec Nose is much fuller than the Sec, developing towards apricots with hints of more exotic fruits, including some lychees as it moves in a tertiary direction. Sweetness shows on the finish but seems less than the actual level of residual sugar, feeling more like the German halbtrocken. That sense of lychees accentuates in the glass. 20.0g 90 Drink -2027
2015 Demi sec Nose is less developed than 2016, palate gives an impression of greater purity, you might say more delicate, with some hints of sweet/sour balance. Perhaps the sweetness is just a touch more evident than in 2016. Lovely balance for demi sec with very long aging potential. 23.0g 91 Drink -2032
2018 Moelleux “For us this is a Petit Moelleux,” Vincent says, referring to the moderate level of residual sugar. Nose and palate show lovely purity of fruits, followed by a transition to show some truffles in the background. Apricots and peaches come out on the palate, with the high acidity maintaining freshness. There’s a great sense of delicacy and precision for moelleux; the wine has not really developed much yet, but it has a long way to go. 60.0g 92 Drink -2034
2009 Moelleux Light golden color. Quite an evolved nose with tertiary notes running to truffles coming through, giving a very complex impression. Palate shows viscosity with a hint of honey. The sweetness is obvious but very well cut by refreshing acidity. 45.0g 93 Drink -2030
2020 Liquoreux Extensive botrytis in this wine, making the nose more forceful than the 2018, with a sense of confiture of apricots and prunes (Vincent also sees red fruits). The palate is viscous and honeyed, with notes of caramel, marmalade, and bitter oranges – it’s hard to grab it all. Seems very young with much development to come. 145.0g 94 Drink –2040
2018 Liquoreux There was no botrytis this year, it’s all triage. Nose is more subtle than the Moelleux. Very sweet on palate, especially as acidity is not so pressing, but good sense of fruit purity, showing as apricots and peaches, with just some faint tertiary hints, and a faint impression of bananas. I wonder if and when this will mature in a tertiary direction? 145.0g 92 Drink –2037
Premiere Trie 1989 Golden marmalade color. Evolved botrytized nose with some faint hints of truffles is very complex. Spicy on the palate, showing confiture of fruits and notes of dates, complexity lives up to promise of nose, with sweetness very well balanced by savory acidity. Very long finish. Classic botrytized cuvee very much showing the typicity of Chenin Blanc at this sweetness level. 210.0g 95 Drink –2037
Domaine Huet Tasting Notes
Le Haut Lieu sec, 2021
Austere impression to nose, with some typical savory impressions of Chenin Blanc. Quite a tang to the finish. 13.0% 89 Drink 2024-2032.
Clos du Bourg sec, 2021
A touch more fruit showing on the nose than Haut Lieu, a rounder impression on the palate with fruits poking through the acidity. There’s a sense here of flavor variety waiting to evolve. 13.5% 89 Drink now-2032.
Le Haut Lieu sec, 2019
Dry impression to nose with a faint suggestion of tobacco. Quite dry on palate with savory impressions, almost a sense of umami. Flavor variety slowly beginning to poke out. 89 Drink now-2032.
Le Haut Lieu, demi-sec, 2020
There was no dry wine this year, berries for the demi sec Haut Lieu were the first to be harvested. Muted nose, sweetness is nicely integrated with the fruits on the palate, ranging from citrus to apricots. Softens a bit in the glass. 13.5% 19g 89 Drink now-2030.
Clos du Bourg, demi-sec, 2020
From the plot planted in 1985. Muted nose. Not any sweeter than Haut Lieu but deeper. Slightly nutty overlay on finish compares with the greater freshness of Haut Lieu. Palate here tends more towards apricots than the citrus of Haut Lieu. The gap between the cuvees may widen as the Clos du Bourg develops. 13.5% 20g 91 Drink now-2032.
Le Mont moelleux, 2010
More of a meld of citrus with chocolate than the clear citrus of Haut Lieu on the nose, sweetness just a touch more evident, that chocolate coating showing on palate. The sense of concentration on the palate outranks Haut Lieu, with fruits turning towards a white fruit spectrum. A touch of bitterness shows at the end. 13.0% 49g 91 Drink now-2032.
Clos du Bourg moelleux, 2001
Medium gold color shows age. Faint sense of truffles is creeping in, acidity is high, and this tastes distinctly less sweet than a wine from a warm year. The sense of truffles continues through the palate to the finish. This is a good result for a difficult year (there was rain at harvest), but it does not show the overtly delicious character you expect from Moelleux. 12.0% 42g 89 Drink now-2028.
Le Haut Lieu première trie, 2003
There was no botrytis this year. Light-medium golden color. Faint truffles on nose. Sweet on palate with the truffles bringing a counterbalance that adds complexity. Palate shows fruits of apricots and sweet citrus with a faint touch of bitterness at end on long finish. 85g 91 Drink now-2028.
Le Mont première trie, 2005
There was 30% botrytis this year. Light-medium gold color. Nose is quite developed, redolent with truffles, balancing the apricot fruits dominating the finish. Palate has intriguing meld of apricot and other stone fruits against truffles melding into tobacco, 13.0% 78g 93 Drink now-2028.
You can’t say the Loosen Reserve wines are something new, because as Ernie Loosen describes them, “We are concentrating more on reserve wines, as my great great grandfather did, wines that age for 6 or 8 years. We’ve done a lot of experiments on aging. We ferment and then keep the wine in the barrel as they did in the old days. They had to do it like this, because they had no technology, filtering, fining etc. We discovered that if you do it the old way the wines come together more naturally and seem to have much more ageability.”
The Reserves come only from the best lieu-dits in grand cru (Grosse Lage) vineyards. They spend two years in barrel (the barrels are topped up every month) and three in bottle before release. (There have also been wines that have aged much longer in barrel.) Production is 200 cases each of Sonnenuhr and Würzgarten, just over half that for Prälat.
The special character of these wines is due not only to the aging process, but also to selection in the vineyard. “They are specifically selected only from the millerandaged fruit (with very small seedless berries resulting from incomplete fertilization); the normal berries go into the Grosses Gewächs.”
The extended aging shows another side of Riesling. Ernie describes it as a more Burgundian style, and indeed it is intense and deep and textured rather than light and racy. We tasted the three current releases, the 2015 vintage (released (May 1 this year).
Wehlener Sonnenuhr (Im Laychen) shows a sense of austerity compared to the regular release. There is not only more intensity to the palate but also more counterpoise or herbal notes against the fruits with herbal notes. A greater sense of texture to the palate, makes this really deep. Acidity and sugar are integrated to the point that it seems dry.
Ürziger Würtzgarten (Unterst Pichter) is restrained on the nose. The palate intensifies the spicy herbal impression of Würtzgarten, especially evident on the finish, and the deeply textured palate gives impression of austerity. Beautifully integrated acidity and sugar to point that I would take it for dry in blind tasting.
Erdener Prälat (Alte Reben) comes from 120-year old ungrafted vines. This is intense, a little spicy, very textured, all stone fruits here, really showing mostly as peaches, but the fruits are into the secondary phase showing some maturity. The palate is cut by the sense of austerity on the finish. It can only deepen and strengthen.
Stefan Doktor at Schloss Johannisberg has had a similar idea. “I had a crazy idea and said, what would happen if we aged the wine like they used to a hundred years ago,” he says. “Riesling aged in wood for a long time expresses itself in a new way.” The Gold Label was introduced last year with the 2017 vintage. It ferments in 1,200 liter fuder and ages for 6 months on the full lees, then racking to age on fine lees for another 24 months.”
This may be the forerunner of a movement to age Riesling longer. The Rheingau VDP has just decided to require Grosses Gewächs to age one year longer before release. The 2020 vintage is the last that can be released on September 1 in the year following the vintage. Future vintages will have to wait a further 12 months before release. However, the regulation does not require any particular model for aging: the wine could rest in barrel or tank for the extra year or could be bottled at the same time as before and just wait out the delay. Even in the latter case, this is likely to mean a change in appreciation as Grosses Gewächs can be really restrained and backward on release, and a year’s extra aging in bottle usually makes a significant difference to approachability.