Tim Schwilke reminds us that it's all about the people behind the wine at the end of the day. He meets Bruno Sourdais in Chinon and Philippe Porché in Saumur-Champigny, two contrasting characters.
In the wine trade you come across many different characters and personalities. People come to the wine trade from various backgrounds. Some, like Bruno Sourdais owner of Domaine Sourdais in the Cravant-les-Coteaux region of Chinon, are born into it, whilst others like Philippe Porché from Domaine de Roche Ville in Saumur-Champigny are drawn to it. The meetings with these two over the next two days offered a fascinating juxtaposition of the wine trade and the different relationships that our buyers must develop and maintain.
Philippe Porché is a born businessman. Eloquent and charm personified yet clearly a man with objectives and ambitions. There is an adage in the wine trade that if you want to end up with a small fortune, you better start with a large one. Philippe made his fortune through French Supermarkets so whilst he clearly has a passion for wine, and in particular the Saumur-Champigny region (our time at Domaine Roche Ville was short as Philippe had to attend an election for the local vignerons committee which he is currently president of), he approaches the business with a sense of purpose and an understanding of the importance of brand building.
Philippe Porché from Domaine Roche Ville was instrumental in having Riedel design a new glass for chenin blanc
The investment in the winery and cellar door/events space is a clear indication that he is not taking this venture lightly. The little details such as branded varietal specific Riedel glasses are taken care of to ensure guests have a quality tasting experience and the views from the tasting room were rather spectacular. Most importantly though, and as Philippe was at pains to point out, the wine itself is the most crucial element of a wine brand and the range we tasted through did not disappoint. Focusing on just the two grape varieties, chenin blanc and cabernet franc, the wines all displayed a purity of fruit and length of flavour, in no small part to the high but balanced acidity. Philippe has high hopes for Domaine de Roche Ville and it would be a brave man to stand in his way of achieving those ambitions.
Bruno Sourdais holding court in his cellars
Comparatively the visit with Bruno Sourdais and his wife Sophie showed a smaller, less hurried and more romantic side of the wine trade. Based in the heart of the Chinon region, we had to take the long way to get there due to road closures caused by the snow. But we arrived to a warm welcome as Bruno took us on a tour of his Crevant les Coteaux cellars before a comprehensive tasting which was then followed by one of the better winery lunches I've been fortunate to experience.
Sadly my French has improved little since Year 10 at school, so I missed some of the finer details as Bruno talked about the history and philosophy of the domaine. However it was clear that Bruno was at home in the cellar, talking about each of the barrels with enthusiasm as he explained the respective soil, aspect, vine age and other characteristics that made each vineyard unique. Given the variations in terroir, Bruno keeps the wines separate throughout fermentation and maturation and a large proportion of his wine is sold directly from these barrels to customers who return year after year with their bottles, jerry cans and other vessels to be filled at source. When you compare this to the size and efficiency of other operations in the Loire and around the world, you have an appreciation for the hard work and commitment to quality and tradition that family owned and run operations such as Domaine Sourdais are based on.
Cabernet franc, my epiphany
Learning how well high-quality cabernet franc ages was one of the many things I learnt on this trip
Despite being friends with a Sydney estaurateur who started up a festival of cabernet franc and spending two days in Chinon in 2017, I had yet to warm to this grape variety. When you are brought up on rich opulent Australian shiraz, it's probably to be expected that you find Loire cabernet franc challenging. But whilst I kept telling myself that I should appreciate these lighter wines with high acidity and freshness, I could not help but find the vast majority 'lean, mean and green'.
It wasn't until Bruno started pouring some aged examples of his single vineyard wines, that the light bulb moment happened and I joined the ranks of cabernet franc admirers. This occurred somewhere around the late 2000s and by the early 1990s I was officially a cabernet franc advocate.
It may have helped that the wines were being paired with a simple but delicious spread of cured meats and pâtés, but as each bottle was opened, I was becoming more enchanted with the wine. The greenness was turning to complexity, and whilst the acidity remained high, this only provided freshness and life to the wines that were showing lovely secondary and tertiary characteristics.
A simple but delicious and seemingly never ending spread provided by Sophie Sourdais
Bruno continued to explain the history behind the vineyards, including a special plot that he purchases fruit in from his father-in-law as we moved onto cheeses and I was reminded why I love this industry so much.
People like Bruno and Sophie continue to work exceptionally hard because they feel a connection to the land. Bruno is the 6th generation of his family to live and grow a variety of agricultural products in Chinon. In his and Sophie's case they seek to pass on that connection through the form of wine in a bottle. They don't seek adulation or flash lifestyles, but take pride in their work and simply wish to represent their sites as best they possibly can and then to finally pass on the land in a better state than which it was given to them. It was a pleasure to meet the two Sourdais and I thank them for their warm hospitality and for awakening me to the joys of cabernet franc.
But as you would know if you have previously read any of these Travels in Wine posts, the life of a buyer on a buying trip waits for no one and it was time to say farewell to Bruno and Sophie and head on to Gratien and Meyer for the important task of blending the next edition of The Society's 'Celebration', Crémant de Loire which is one of The Society's top selling wines.
Where to go next?
> Crémant, Vouvray and Vino Vision
> Return to trip overview