France in December is cold, dark, damp, and quiet. It’s an ideal time to see winemakers since they are all bored and fattening up for the holidays. The harvests are complete, wines are fermenting, and there’s not much for them to do other than await the final orders of the season. So, I took advantage of this down time to check in with many of my producers. I covered over 3000 kilometers traversing a majority of the Loire Valley, Burgundy, two hours in Beaujolais (don’t ask…) before ending the voyage in Champagne. I saw a lot of people in a short period of time, so I’ve decided to break this writing into two parts.
The trip began with a 3.5 hour drive from Charles du Gaulle to the little village of La Bonhalle in Loire Valley’s Anjou region. La Bonhalle has a population of about 20 people (maybe 28) right on the Loire River outside of Angers. Besides the graffiti, the main visuals are the typical French country house with pink shutters and the 75,000 sq foot church along the Loire. My one bedroom apartment rental (Gȋte) was an ideal place to base myself for a few days. So, after a visit to the grocery store (the only place open on Sunday) and cheap bottle of Bourgueil, and I cooked that grub up a la Français and was sleeping by 9pm.
Chateau Yvonne (Saumur Champigny)
After a solid nights sleep I drove to the village of Parnay to see Mathieu Vallée at Chateau Yvonne. This was my 4th visit here and we were joined by his importer from Sweden and one of his restaurant customers in tow. Two young guys somewhat new to the business and very anxious to talk to me about Donald Trump- which I declined to do for the entire trip. I needed to focus after all.. The wines, lunches, and conversations with Mathieu are always a treat, and this visit was up there the best!
As I’ve written before-Chateau Yvonne dates back to the 16th century, but it wasn’t until 1997 when Yvonne et Jean-François Lamunière decided to recreate the abandoned vineyard with the help of Françoise Foucault of Clos Rougeard. In 2007 Mathieu Vallée purchased the estate and decided to keep the name Chateau Yvonne in hommage to the incredible work done by the previous owners. Mathieu has managed to improve the quality of the wines by reducing the amount of new oak used and by keeping tremendously low yields- among other things. The vineyards have been farmed organically since 1997 and biodynamically since 2012.
After barrel tasting for a few hours we headed to grab some wine in a storage cave in the village. This was strange…. It’s basically an enormous open cave cut into many meters of chalk with an iron gate secured by a skimpy lock. There are huge pieces of rock scattered about that had fallen from above. If it had been in the USA it would have been a lawsuit waiting to happen, but for Mathieu he just talked, and talked….. Pigeons, and pigeon shit covered most of the walls and beyond an even smaller cave was holding less than 600 bottles of Mathieu’s wines. Mathieu grabbed some older vintages and we headed to his dining room for a meal. I’ll be back for the rabbit stew please!
Domaine les Haut Noelles (Muscadet)
Although I’ve been working with these wines for a number of years, I’m embarrassed to say this was my first visit to Domaine les Haut Noelles. We first worked with these wines when the estate was owned by Serge Batard many years ago. We met Serge at one of the wine fairs in Angers. Serge was a pioneer in the Muscadet Grandlieu region, which is smaller, lesser know, and much closer to the ocean than the Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine AOC. He was one of the only producers to farm organically in the AOC- something very difficult to do being so close to the ocean.
In 2010 Jean Pierre Guédon bought Domaine Les Hautes Noelles, and continued to farm organically. He also recruited a young crew of competent and motivated workers to bring the domain to even higher levels of quality. The estate is located in the small village of St. Leger and the Grandlieu AOC lies next to the Grandlieu Lake – the largest natural lake in France. The estate has a total of 25 hectares of vines spread about into Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu and Gros Plant (AOP / AOC) and Vins de Pays du Val de Loire (IGP), and the grape varieties include Gamay, Chardonnay, Grolleau Gris, Grolleau Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet.
The wines are fantastic and better than ever. If you like nervy, nerdy, and razor sharp lightning bolt wines you should pay close attention to this estate. This was a tremendous visit filled with surprises- the standout being getting cornered at the winery by the salt Dom of Nantes, who proceeded to give me 3lbs of salt samples to try to pre-sell for him in Boston… Damn good stuff.
Le Domaine Richou (Coteaux de L’Aubance)
I’ve written about Le Domaine Richou in a prior post, so I’ll be brief. This was the first time I paid a visit to Richou and didn’t see Didier or Catherine. We typically have a 4-5 course lunch in their living room, and they are always the highlight of my trip. But, I believe they were both in Paris for an event, so it was me and Damien- Didier’s little brother who is the vineyard manager and also works in the cellar with Didier. Damien is enthusiastic, pleasant, confident, and has an accent I’ve never heard before in the Loire. Most accents I encounter are heavy ones from Burgundy, Rhone, and the Southwest- Loire is typically “the perfect French.”
Despite my brain being on overload to process some of his words, I was happy to spend some quality time with him. After a tasting of all the new vintage wines I decided to bring back the Coteaux de L’Aubance, which the name of a wine, and also the name of the sub-region Richou is located in Anjou. I brought this wine in many years ago, but I’m not so sure the market was quite ready for Coteaux de L’Aubance….. We’ll see if it is now. The L’Aubance river which separates Coteaux de L’Aubance from Coteau de Layon. Both regions produce late harvest Chenins, but L’Aubance is more comparable to a fine Spätlese rather than the more concentrated style in Layon. Just try it…..
The wines from Richou are among my favorites in the Oz portfolio, and all their cuvees in good years and bad, always over deliver.
Domaine Augis (Valençay)
What to say about Philippe Augis other than he’s a friend and a machine. This picture says it all…. He has big hands, and besides a part-time vineyard hand, he does everything by himself. Philippe sustainably farms 17.5 hectares in Touraine and Valency. 6 ha of Sauvignon, 1.5 ha of Chardonnay 4.5 Malbec, 1 ha cabernet Franc, rest Gamay.
The Valençay AOC was established only in 2004 with currently 200 hectares under vine and 21 producers. It’s the only AOC that is also an AOC for Fromage (cheese ). It’s a double shot AOC- you know…..
Other than having borderline crappy labels, his wines are expressive and unique compared to most Valençay wines. Although you are allowed to blend Chardonnay with Sauvignon Blanc in the AOC (which everyone does), Philippe uses only Sauvignon Blanc, and ages it in neutral barrels for anywhere between 3-8 months. A ballsy move which gives his Valençay solid backbone and structure from wonderful fruit. His Valençay vineyards are all planted in a bed of silex, which is similar to some parts of Sancerre (although very limited). This is perfect for Sauvignon and malbec, or what I prefer to call Côt. He makes a sparkling Côt called La Rosee, and a stunning Cremant called St. Michele (named after his grandmother) made from 100% Chardonnay. One of these days I’m moving to Valençay to help Philippe so he can take a much needed vacation.
Part 2 to come sometime when I get around to it!