Jo Goodman tries to keep up (literally) with our Loire wine buyer Jo Locke MW at the Salon des Vins de Loire
Just one sheet of Jo's ambitious hit list!
Over the two days I spent at Jo's side at the trade fair in Angers we managed to get around to see and talk to nearly 50 producers, filling our heads with stories and information and our note books with tasting notes.
Jo's work ethic is admirable as is her stamina and stride! I found myself literally running to keep up so that we wouldn't fall behind schedule and potentially miss appointments with growers. Here are some snippets from growers that we chatted to during the fair.
Christine confirms what we had already heard that Sancerre was not affected particularly by the frost, but they had had a damp spring, drought in the summer but a great end to the season and they are very pleased with the outcome.
Brother and sister Franck and Christine Laloue were manning the stall, I was so taken with talking with them I forgot to take their photo!
An early taste of the 2016 vintage showed pretty floral aromas, a perky freshness, delicate subtle gooseberry flavour and just a hint of pear on the finish. 'Quite typical of the vintage,' Christine told us. She also said that the quantities were fine for whites, but down for reds where grapes had baked rather in the sunshine. There was talk of some Sancerre producers taking advantage of the frost damage elsewhere to put up their prices.
I also learnt the story of the family property – Christine's grandparents were café owners in the 1930s in the village of Thauvenay. They produced tobacco, cereals and wine, the latter being served in the café. It was their father Serge who chose to specialise in wine, buying up small plots of vines little by little as they became available, increasing the land under vine from one hectare to 20.
We tasted through their range (Jo had already visited them in Sancerre before the fair) and then we were off to the next appointment.
On a mission! Our first foray into the Levée de la Loire - the organic exhibition attached to the main exhibition hall
Jerome Billard of Domaine de la Noblaie who has farmed organically since 2008
Our next port of call was in the Levée de la Loire exhibition hall for organic and biodynamic producers. We tracked down Jérôme Billard of Domaine de la Noblaie a producer in Chinon.
Jérôme is an extremely passionate young man keen to tell us all his latest news. He is quite unusual in that he has quite a bit of chenin blanc on his estate. You don't tend to see much white Chinon, but we have been taking it for a few years now and the 2016 was particularly impressive – his aim is to make a 'more gastronomic wine', that is a wine that works well with food. Though we were tasting an early sample of the wine it showed lovely lime-flower aromas and creamy texture, so it looks promising.
He also told us of his initiative to get youngsters to understand more about wine. He has got together with a local school and gets a group of primary-aged children to visit at harvest time each year to come and pick and learn a bit about wine, 'I think it is important for children who live in wine-growing regions to learn a bit about grapes and wine.' He said.
Christian Chabirand of Prieuré La Chaume in Vendée
Back in the main exhibition hall we went to see Christian Chabirand of Prieuré La Chaume in Vendée.
The Vendée region is actually half-way between Loire and Bordeaux and not that far from La Rochelle on the coast. Its links to the Loire Valley have more to do with politics than agriculture as it is in the Loire département.
Christian farms organically and is certified too but he chooses not to market his wines in this way. The story of how he came to the region and set up his winery is fascinating and unusual in the wine world.
Christian has made wine in other regions, his last job was in Champagne, 'It was frustrating, you don't look for ripe grapes when you are making sparkling wine,' he said. He was from the Vendée region but left as unemployment was high and grape-growing and winemaking aren't the norm here.
When he heard that La Chaume farm was on the market he remembered the land with its lovely south-facing slopes and whereas the locals would not have dreamed of growing grapes on this land, he realised it was perfect. 'The soils are very similar to Bordeaux,' he told us, 'You get a freshness from the west and the coast and warmth from the south.'
He needed to earn money, so got a winemaking job in Muscadet while he set about planting his new vineyards. What to plant when you're starting from scratch and there are no appellation rules?
For reds he chose classics – merlot, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir with a little of the local negrette. For whites it's mainly chardonnay with a nod to the Loire with some chenin blanc.
It was a gamble to a certain extent, but one he believes has paid off and he is convinced that he made the right choices. He is equally convinced that not all the great wine-producing areas have already been delineated. It is an interesting thought, if a little controversial, but perhaps with climate change this approach will be given even more credence.
I have always admired these excellent-value wines so it was interesting to talk to the winemaker behind them.
The excellent value Plantagenets wines from Saumur
Here we learned that the Saumur vineyards escaped some of the worst aspects of the 2016 vintage. They say that they have the same terroir as in Vouvray but that north-facing valleys keep everything fresh and the fruit healthy. The whites have a pleasant grapefruit character to the fruit and the 2015 red, made from cabernet franc has lovely juicy berry flavours.
I didn't know either where the name Plantagenêt came from but explains the picture of flowers on the label. The broom is known as the 'plante de genet' and legend has it that followers of Geoffrey Vth of Anjou, used to put a sprig of the wild flower in their helmets in order to identify themselves in battle. The nickname stuck after Geoffrey married the daughter of King Henry I of England; their son became the first 'Plantagenet'.
Well, I'm sure there are some historians out there that can add detail, but this is what I managed to glean from the winemakers as we assessed the vintage!
Nicolas Parmentier tells us about the history of the pineau d'Aunis grape
Our next stop had a similarly intriguing story. Nicolas Parmentier is winemaker at the small co-op in this district along the banks of the Loir (not Loire) river, about an hour south of Chartres.
Here they make whites (from chenin blanc), rosé from the little-known pineau d'aunis (a grape which predates cabernet franc by several centuries!) and red from the same grape and cabernet franc.
The pineau d'aunis grape is really unusual; the wines have a lovely fresh fruity character but also a distinctive pepperiness about them (a bit like a red grüner veltliner – the locals call it 'chenin noir'); it's a lovely wine with goat's cheese, Nicolas tells us.
Historically this thin-skinned, prolific grape was often used for sparkling wine or lost in blends. 20 or so years ago when the region was seeking appellation status it was thought that you couldn't get decent quality red from this grape so pinot noir and cabernet franc were planted. It's only recently being recognised as being a bit different and something of real interest.
Where did the grape come from? The story goes that this grape came originally from Aunis (south of La Rochelle). When the monks came north to build cathedrals, they stopped in Prieuré d'Aunis and planted grapes for altar wine. But the grape was hard to manage, so eventually cabernet franc took its place. It was kept only for making sparkling wine or white wine which was sent north to Paris to be sold on the street as a 'pavement wine'.
And what of the labels for this wine? The 'Carillon de Vendôme' is France's oldest folk song dating back to the hundred years war and was said to have been sung by the soldiers who followed Jeanne d'Arc into battle. The 'carillon' are the church bells of the city of Vendôme, one of the few to remain in the kingdom of France during that period.
Without the interesting back story, this grape provides a real point of difference for this little-known appellation and I really enjoyed the wines too.
Joanna Locke MW discusses the 2016 vintage with Jean-Dominique Vacheron
From here we return to Sancerre, well to Vacheron, longtime suppliers of delicious Sancerre to The Wine Society. Jean-Dominique is on the stand and backs up what the Laloues said about the area escaping the frost. 'We did lose about three hectares,' he said, 'this wasn't one of our best sites though, it is a plot close to a wood and always a little shaded.'
As for the style of the vintage, Jean-Dominique says in his opinion, that it has quite high acidity, like 2014 but with the ripeness of 2015. Perfect style for Sancerre, he says.
What else makes the Vacheron wines so special? Apart from farming biodynamically for years, he says that their vineyards are 50% flint and 50% limestone, whereas flint accounts for only 20% of the whole of the appellation. Flint gives the mineral character to the wine, while limestone gives rich, ripe peach and lime flavours.
The Vacherons have been experimenting with ungrafted vines to see what affect this has on the wine. Whilst acknowledging that phylloxera might be a problem later on, they are giving it a go as they believe they'll get a better texture in their wines from ungrafted vines.
Denis Jamain showing us a fossil from his vineyards which gives its name to one of his labels
Onto neighbouring appellation Reuilly and the lovely Denis Jamain. Denis admits that 2016 was 'very stressful' saying that there had been a full week at 100°F and above meaning that grapes were being burnt on the vines. 'The problems we have nowadays is producing not marketing the crop!'
Denis explains that the soils here are not unlike those in Chablis (which isn't that far away). They too have kimmeridgian soil – he has brought along some fossils to show visitors.
Indeed one of Denis' wines is labelled 'Les Fossiles' and is certified organic. Denis explains that there is more and more demand for organic and biodynamic wines these days, particularly from those countries like Canada and Sweden where there is a state monopoly on importing wine. He has farmed organically since 2007 and used biodynamic practices since 2012.
The wine we have bought is called Les Pierres Plates and here there is more limestone giving a lovely mineral, pure-tasting wine with good length and freshness. An excellent alternative to Sancerre which just seems to get increasingly sought after, particularly by our thirsty north-American cousins!
Another of Denis' wines is labelled Reuilly Les Chênes de mon Grand Père – and 'chênes' or oak trees are Denis' other passion. He likes to choose the oak trees to make into barrels for this wine. I'm intrigued and ask how he knows which tree to pick:
'First the tree has to be 30-40 inches in diameter. It has to be tall and, the bark must have a fine grain. It is a huge responsibility cutting down a 200-year-old tree to make a couple of barrels from it. You don't want to make a mistake!' he tells us.
This was a passion inherited from his grandfather – the forest, 15km from Reuilly, has been in his family for many years.
Domaine Serol Wines from the edge of the Loire in the foothills of the Massif Central
Our next port of call is with Stéphane and Carine Sérol who are located in the very far east of the Loire's appellations. So far east in fact that our Rhône buyer Marcel Orford-Williams is actually the buyer for their wines. The Côte Roannaise is in the foothills of the Massif Central – far easier for Marcel to detour here from the south than for Jo to come across from the main part of the Loire.
The sandy, granite soils here and use of gamay mean the wines, unsurprisingly, bear a resemblance with Beaujolais, their much nearer neighbour.
They make a splendid white from viognier too. Again Condrieu, the white appellation of the Rhône Valley, is only a stone's throw away, so you can see why this would work. The 2016 we taste is floral, elegant with tantalisingly chewy fruit.
The lovely Stéphane and Carine Serol whose domaine in the Côte Roannaise is the 1st delimited appellation in the far east of the Loire Valley but comes under Rhône buyer Marcel's remit
Here too they are changing over to organics and will have certification from this year.
We move next door to the Sérol's neighbours who are based in the historic appellation of Saint-Pourçain which lies on the ancient pilgrims' route to Santiago. This little-known appellation, like its neighbour is based on granitic soils but it also has an unusual grape which marks it out as a little bit different.
It's called tréssallier and is unique to the region. Quite weird and wonderful, this white grape can be hard to work with (probably explains its rarity), but it takes well to a bit of oak responding with aromas of white blossom and flavours of 'agrumes' (citrus, grapefruit etc).
The family name their white 'Trésaille' after the grape which in 2016 is a great success. They had no problems here with frost, they say.
Francois Cazin's Cour-Cheverny is very popular with members but sadly the appellation has suffered from several short harvests recently
From the outer reaches of the Loire we head back into Anjou-Touraine to speak to François Cazin. Sadly François lost 80% of his crop in 2016. It's doubly unfortunate as this small appellation has been gaining traction in the UK but has suffered from a string of short harvests.
Unlike neighbouring Cheverny which is based on the sauvignon blanc grape, Cour-Cheverny is made from the rare romorantin variety. Its distinguishing features are the aromas of lime-leaf on the nose and a toasty, powerful but subtle fruit flavour. It has a pleasing richness about it but combined with a fresh quality too.
Let's hope that Mother Nature spares the romorantin next year!
Two 'independent vignerons' – it means that they own their own vines which they farm, then vinify and market the wines themselves
François' neighbour, Jean-Christophe Mandard, from whom we sometimes buy, has another unusual variety to show us. L'orbois certainly was a new one on me. Jean-Christophe is also unusual in making the grape into a single varietal wine. He explained that the variety ripens earlier than the more commonly found chenin blanc but that it is not dissimilar in style. It has nice lifted fruit and is quite juicy.
With heads full of new facts and unusual grapes, it was time to take our shuttle back into downtown Angers and find somewhere to grab something to eat on a wet February night!
Hard to think ahead to summer when the wines we had tasted would be coming into their own. But that is where Jo's skill as a wine buyer with experience comes in. I could just look and learn, oh and run and taste too!
Where to go next?
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