Noel Blanc 2019: An Ode to La Loire

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This years’ Noel Blanc, an annual extravaganza of the great white wines of France, was the result of the purchase of a single magnum of 2002 Henri Bourgeois Sancerre La Bourgeoise at the Domaine in Chavignol in 2005. On December 14, a group collectively known as the HKG Wine Geeks, gathered at Hip Cellars’ Another Place to celebrate the breadth and depth of the white wines from the Loire Valley through its appellations, producers and certainly vintages. Our inimitable host, KP, presented the group with six well curated flights of whites from the Loire Valley.

Upon arriving, we were greeted with a buffet of 6 Blanc de Blancs to whet the palate, featuring: 2002 Cazals, Clos de Cazals, 2016 Valentin Leflaive Extra Brut, 2014 Ulysse Collin Les Perrieres, 2008 De Sousa & Files Cuvee des Caudalies and 2003 Nyetimber in magnum. My vote went to the 2008 De Sousa Cuvee des Caudalies – with a slight personal bias, as I did my Master’s Degree with Charlotte de Sousa.

Lineup-Loire

Flight 1 – Along the River, parts A & B
We enter the main room and are greeted by a fleet of glasses, 13 per person, to see us through our afternoon. Flight one, aptly named Along the River (A), was split into two parts to take us through the many different varieties and styles seen travelling west to east along the river. We began in the west, by the sea with a quartet of Magnums of Muscadet.

Our first pair, 2018 and 2014 Louis Metaireau Grand Mouton, both showed the salinity typically seen with Muscadet, with the 2018 edging ahead with its purity. Next up, a duo of 2011 Domaine de l’Ecu : Granite and Orthogneiss – the two rock types seen in Muscadet. Age may have gotten the better of the Orthogneiss as it tasted of wet cement, but the Granite was incredibly mineral, very lean and had spice notes running through.

We moved next to Tourraine, specifically Montlouis, with a duo from Jacky Blot’s Domaine de La Taille Aux Loups. A domaine that focuses on site specific Chenin Blanc with old vines, low yields, no Malolactic fermentation and no battonage (lees stirring). The duo, 2016 Venise Cuvee Parcellaire Monopole and 2015 Clos Mosny come from opposite sides of the Loire River, Vouvray and Montlouis respectively. The Parcellaire was very angular and pretty, while the Clos Mosny showing more volume and voluptuousness than its neighbour. These were the perfect intro to our next stop along the River.

We now traveled back west along the river to Saumur-Champigny, to peak Chenin Country, with five wines from Saumur’s famous Breze vineyard. Said to have been one of Louis XIV’s favourites, these are very high expectations to have. Saumur has become very exciting place for wine in the Central Loire, as in the past decade Chenin Blanc based whites have gained a reputation for their depth, particularly among white Burgundy lovers. Of which there are quite a few of us in the HKG Wine Geeks!

Our Saumur Blanc Breze journey begins with a 2015 Chateau de Breze Clos de la Rue – home to one of the oldest vineyards in the Saumur, planted in the 15th Century. We next have a mini vertical of Guiberteau’s Breze, 2015, 2014 and 2010. The 2015 sees our first foray into bottle variation, half of us had the luck of the draw. The 2014 was what could be described as what PYCM would do if he had a crack at Chenin – very juicy, still reductive and a strong spicy backbone. The 2010 was open for business, an increase in complexity, notes of beeswax, great length and wonderful structure. This was my flight winner. Our finale of Flight 1 (A), was the King of Saumur, a 2010 Clos Rougeard Saumur Blanc Breze. Delicate, floral, a denser example of Breze Blanc than the 2010 Guiberteau, it sparked a debate across the table. Is this 10x the quality of the Guiberteau given the price difference? Some picked it as their flight winner, others picked the Guiberteau.

FLIGHT-1(A)

Flight 1 (B) continues along the river to the world of Sancerre and Sauvignon Blanc, the other dominant grape variety in the Loire. We begin with a trio of Sancerres from Francois Cotat, who produce old-style Sancerre. A duo of 2014s, Les Mont Damnes, Les Culs de Beaujeu and 2010 Les Caillottes. I had very high expectations for Les Mont Damnes, given it is one of the top vineyards in Sancerre, and sadly it did not match them – we found it quite underwhelming. The 2010 Les Caillottes on the other hand, was on fire! With nine years of age, it was hard to believe, as it was lively, still very perfumed, and altogether an exciting wine!

Our next Sancerre producer is a personal favourite of mine, Henri Bourgeois. The brothers, Arnaud and Jean-Marie, always great you with a smile, and their passion for the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume can be felt in every glass. First up, their 2015 Sancerre Jadis, a cuvee coming from Kimmeridgian marls, recognizable for their small fossilized oyster shells, where the brothers maintain low yields to create this complex, exotic and honeyed example. The next wine, the 2002 Sancerre Bourgeoise, is the reason we are gathered together. Made from old Sauvignon vines growing on flinty slopes first worked by the monks of Saint-Satur, it is a very special wine. Seventeen years young was the group’s conclusion! This was quite an eye-opening wine for the group, as I do not think many of us expected this to be showing as well as it did. It was juicy, vibrant, waxy and perfectly aged, thank you KP!

To round out the first flight, I had brought two wines to share blind with the group: 2016 and 2015 Les Champs Libres made by Bordeaux’s Chateau Lafleur in the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation. Why bring in a white Bordeaux you may be asking? I felt that background of the wine seamlessly tied together the last three editions of Noel Blanc : 2017s White Bordeaux, 2018s White Burgundy and 2019s Loire Valley edition. The wines are made in Bordeaux with Burgundian wine making techniques using Sauvignon Blanc clones from Sancerre. Guesses ranged from ‘New World’ to most likely somewhere in the Old World… we need to work on our blind tasting a bit. A fun interlude before we buckled our belts and got into the rest of the afternoon.

FLIGHT-1(B)

Flight 2 : Rock Solid
Flight 2 is a vertical of Didier Dagueneau Silex : 2015, 2014, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2002. With a special finisher, to be mentioned at the end… Didier Dagueneau is one of France’s great, iconic estates, making singular, age-worthy Sauvignon Blanc fro the appellation of Pouilly Fume. This was one of the first estates in the region to experiment with single parcel wines, first with En Chailloux in 1982, the infamous Silex in 1985 and later Pur Sang (Thoroughbred in French) in 1988. The Silex is made from soils riddled with flint, and the label is simply the name and a photo of a flint rock.
Didier Dagueneau was until his untimely death in 2008, the wild man of Pouilly, with the mission to bring the quality of Pouilly Fume’s wines to the highest level. The wines are today made by his son Benjamin who seamlessly took over the wine making from his father. Of the Silex’s we had, only the 2002 was made by Didier, the others by Benjamin.

Working our way from younger to older, the 2015 was a perfect beginning: You can feel the future, it was bright, very fresh and simply delicious. 2014 not classic and had sadly fallen victim to the Lady Bug syndrome often seen in 2004 White Burgundy. 2012 had hints of capsicum and grass, but very classic – a stunner already. 2011, a step up in complexity against the three previous vintages and already very drinkable. 2010 : reductive and a bit too linear at this stage. 2009 : A very pretty nose, and with time the palate did open up but still remained quite restrained. Our oldest Silex was the 2002, a wine made by the Grand Master Didier. There was a notable difference in winemaking style, and as yelled out on the table by another guest, ‘orgasmic’.

To finish the flight of wines from The Rock was the very rare, near mythical Didier Dagueneau Asteroïde 2010. This cuvee is made from 18 rows of un-grafted vines, aka pre-phylloxera, and produces approximately 100 bottles per year. This is certainly a Wine Geek’s Wine, and one we were very thankful to two brothers for sharing with us! I found it to be on a different level to the Silex’s, it was in contrast very delicate, incredibly balanced and very pure in its Sauvignon fruit – no hints of green-ness here! Do I think it needs more time than the 2010 Silex? Yes. Am I incredibly thankful I got to try it? Most definitely. This is a wine that if you pop it into Google, will yield little more than a sentence to describe what it is. What a way to finish the Dageneau Rock Solid flight.

silex-flight-2

Flight 3 – I Need to Breathe
Our third flight takes us to the world of biodynamics and Nicolas Joly. I had the pleasure of visiting the domaine in late October 2010 when the winds were howling, and Mr. Joly kept us outdoors for almost an hour describing his approach to winemaking and his passion for biodynamics. It remains one of my most memorable of 400+ winery visits that year.

Back to 2019, and our host had put together a vertical of the Savennieres Coulee de Serrant. The vineyard was planted in the 12th century by Cisterciens Monks and has remained on vine ever since. It is now a 7 hectare Appellation d’Origine Controle (AOC) and a monopole of the Joly family, Grapes are harvested late, so that the wines gain in complexity. In the opinion of the Joly family, Chenin achieves complexity only when it is fully ripe. To harvest the most perfectly ripe berries, harvesting is done in several passes. In the winery, the process is as hands-off as possible. Only indigenous yeasts are used, and the family allowes fermentation to take place naturally, meaning they may last anywhere from 2 to four months, or maybe more. A terrifying prospect in the eyes of most winemakers, but this is what makes Coulee de Serrant a truly singular expression of Chenin Blanc.

FLIIGHT-3

The name of this flight brought our attention to two wines that had the following additions at the end of the wine name : 1 week (2014), 2 weeks (2004). What does that mean? Mr. Joly insists that his wines actually improve for several days after they are opened – hence the aptly named flight title “I need to breathe.”

To demonstrate this in practice, our host had lined up six vintages, 2014, 2013, 2004, 2003, 2001 and 1997, with the breathing exercises demonstrated on the 2014 and 2004. For the 2014, one had been opened on the day, and the second had been double decanted a week prior. Bottle 1 was very natural and zesty in a word, while its one-week older counterpart was much more expressive and together. Next the 2013, which unfortunately got sandwiched between the “air” discussions but was a very pure and fruit forward expression of Coulee de Serrant, not in your face but balanced and a nice drop. Our next Breathing pair was the 2004, again one opened on the day and one that had this time been double decanted two weeks prior. Bottle one was again, very tight, waxy and had a bit of animal character (to me). The two-week 2004 had an increased level in complexity, quite honeyed and again, more together as a wine tasting experience. The groups conclusion was that the bottles that had had the extra time to breathe were that they showed levels above what the day-of bottles were showing.

The last three wines of the Coulee de Serrant deep dive : 2003, 2001 & 1997. I felt that the 2003 was the winner with subtle florals and honeyed notes yet retained a youthful zest and a savoury, quite thyme like, undertone. The 2001 fell victim to bottle variation, and our side of the table unfortunately did not get the upper hand here. The 1997 was controversial: How much Brett can you handle without getting upset? Again, bottle variation here : if you got the less affected bottle, then you got one that had a lifted acidity on the nose, with intense honeyed, fino sherry-like notes. If you got the more affected one, then the preciseness was lost and became a flabbier experience.

To conclude, these are wines that have a real intellectual appeal, and deserve to have more attention paid to them, particularly with bottle age and especially when allowed time to breathe for their personalities to come to life truly shine.

Flight 4 – Is Age Important?
Our penultimate flight takes us to Domaine Huet, the winery of Vouvray. Founded in 1928 by Victor Huet and managed by son Gaston in 1937 until his passing in 2002, they are the standard-bearer for great, age-worthy Chenin Blanc. They make a range of Chenin Blancs that span sparkling (Petillant), dry (sec), semi-dry (demi-sec), Moelleux, or Moelleux 1ere Trie (“first selection”) from any of their three principal vineyards. They are : Le Haut-Lieu, 9 hectares, with soils of deep limestone-clay; Le Mont, an undisputable grand cru vineyard on the Premiere Cote of Vouvray, with less clay and more stone than Le Haut Lieu; and lastly the Clos du Bourg, believed by Gaston Huet to be the greatest of all Vouvray vineyards, with the most shallow and stoniest soils. This was a flight where favourites were hard to come by as each wine was a unique experience alone and together was an experience that still is hard to wrap your head around.

Our first wine of this flight is a 1997 Petillant Brut, made from grapes from all three vineyards and other small parcels on the estate. Mixed reviews from the group. A very faint trace of bubbles with notes of nuts, sousbois and oxidative notes on the palate, good acidity and well balanced. One for Chenin aficionados. The Le Mont Moelleux 1997, depending on the bottle you were poured, either had a strong backbone provided by the acidity, or had a flabbier, cardboardy finish. But both examples were the perfect introduction to the sweeter side as they both showed the sweetness, honeyed and Asian spices that carried through the remaining wines. The only Cuvee Constance of the day, a magnum of 1995, was hand carried in by the HKG Wine Geeks Founder, Mr. DJS. This Cuvee was first produced in 1989 and is a botrytized dessert wine made from one, two or all three vineyards. The 1995 was a treat. Viscous and youthfully zesty with honey and ginger notes, that was tamed and framed by the bright acidity If you have any in your cellars, enjoy!

FLIGHT-4

The trio of 1989 1ere Tries Moelleuxs from the domaine’s three vineyards was a spoiling treat. All three are serious wines in their own right, but combined, wow. Huet’s 1989s are legendary. Across the board, these Moelleuxs have serious depth and regal complexity, breaking them down per wine is not an easy feat. First up the Haut Lieu: “This is a serious wine,” is my first note. The acidity weaved its way perfectly through the layers of citrus (orange peel), honey, savoury herbal notes, and inherent waxiness of aged Chenin Blanc. The Le Mont was at first a bit musty, but as it opened up in the glass exuded candied ginger, orange marmalade, beeswax, and again tied together perfectly by the acidity. Excellent. Rounding out our 1989s, the Clos du Bourg. This was like a waterfall, as with each whiff and taste, the wine kept adding more layers to itself. What started with honey evolved to candied ginger, red apples and honey evolved to highlight the fresh acidity we had seen with its two siblings, with an added complexity not yet tasted. This trio walked the tightrope of sugar and acidity perfectly.

The following wine is to me one of the most mind-blowing tasting experiences I have every had. 1970 Le Haut Lieu Sec. I did not know what to expect with this, but it will be forever imprinted on my memory. The wine was so savoury, bone dry with not a hint of residual sugar, almost Fino Sherry like, slightly earthy, so powerful and as hard as it is to fathom this, not remotely ready for consumption. I had to read up on how this could be possible and came across a 2013 Jancis Robinson article about Domaine Huet. “Sec has residual sugar of 6-7 grams per litre. Most dry white wines have a sugar level of under 2 g/l but, according to Pinguet (current winemaker), a Vouvray this dry ‘would be horrid for the first 20 years’.” Almost 50 years later and this 1970 is likely on the lower than 6 g/l of sugar scale as it was just SO dry. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, such is wine.

To finish our fourth flight, a magnum of 1969 Le Mont Demi-Sec. Drier than I expected, but a remarkably well aged Loire white with complex, yeasty aromas, lifted by that tell-tale Huet age-defying freshness. Back to the Jancis Robinson article to quickly check sugar levels: The sugar level is typically 20-25 g/l but all the acidity makes the wine taste just off dry. The lower sugar level makes this a very tense, racy and nervy 50+ year old Chenin, and a glorious way to tee us up for our final flight.

Flight 5 – The Realm of L’Ancien
Our final flight of the day starts with a 1961 and ended with a 1934. With an span of 50 to 85 years in age we were very excited to see what the wines had to offer. The 1961 Le Haut Lieu Demi-Sec, still alive, began with an earthy chenin nose, and quickly changed direction when citrus and lifted mineral notes took over. Demi-Sec indeed, with its intense minerality, the wine comes off almost bone dry.

We next had a pair from 1959, thought to be one of the best vintages in the Loire in the 1900s. Beginning with another Chenin Blanc master, Moulin Touchais from Anjou. The vineyards are located further west along the river in the heart of the Coteau du Layon region. Since 1787, the Moulin Touchais cellars and surrounding vineyards have been owned and managed by the Touchais family. Their underground cellars contain wines dating back to the 1800’s. They have a unique harvesting strategy: 20 % of the grapes are picked while the fruit is still under-ripe and highly acidic, and 80% are harvest late, when the fruit has very high sugar levels and concentrated flavors. These two factors: high acidity and high sugar, determine their style, wines that are smooth and elegant. Aged for a minimum of 10 years before leaving the cellar, they begin to reach their peak after about 20 years. The 1959 Moulin Touchais was a powerhouse with pronounced nutty, butterscotch and Christmas spice aromas. The palate showed no signs of stopping, sweet but not cloying thanks to the high acidity content, and loaded with honeycomb, lemon, ginger and toffee. What a wine. The following Clos du Bourg Moelleux 1ere Trie was equally incredible with notes of honey, Asian spices, lanolin and again that characteristic Huet acidity.

Our last wine of the 1950s was a Huet Le Mont Moelleux 1ere Trie : I found it to be drier than expected for the sweetness level, still a dreamy wine, albeit beginning to fade.

The final two wines bring us further back in history, to before World War II. A 1939 Le Haut Lieu Demi Sec and a 1934 Le Haut Lieu Moelleux. Many of us did not have a frame of reference for what we could expect from these wines, but trusting our host, we dove right in. The 1939 Demi Sec was Oloroso sherry like in character, showing some oxidation and nuttiness, a resolved sweetness and hints of quince. The acidity keeps this wine alive and kicking, a very pleasurable wine. It’s hard to describe an 85-year-old wine appropriately, but I found the 1934 Moelleux to be simply delicious and utterly drinkable. Great complexity, honey, fruit had been dried out a bit at this point, but what remained is still lively. What a truly impressive wine to have been able to taste.

FLIGHT-5

Conclusion
This was a Noel Blanc that deserved much more time than was allotted– there is so much to digest and wrap your head around that when I first started writing three days after the event I went in more blue eyed than I did to the lunch itself. Finishing this a week later, it has all started to settle – this was a monumental Ode to the Loire. The Loire is a region of wine that does not receive near enough the amount of love and attention it deserves. It is rich in diversity of wine styles, grape varieties (20 counting the reds), climate, geography and geology.

Through this lunch, we tasted not only wine, but experienced a couple changing of the guards, the effect of allowing a wine (and a white no less) to breathe, the differing influences of bodies of water on the taste, picking passes (or tries), so many expressions of the same variety, world history, and most importantly, a tremendous love and respect for the grapes, vineyards, and techniques that ultimately make it into the bottle.

To quote a great friend, Sabrina Hosford, “This is what I love about wine and the people who dedicate their lives to produce it and the people who spend their time and their money to obsess about it.” The incredible generosity of this group of people who I am lucky to count among my friends will never be lost on me.