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Savennières: Consistent Excellence from the Loire
By Jim Clarke
Jul 4, 2017
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For what is generally considered a uniformly cool-climate area, the Loire Valley can be confusingly diverse in its wine styles.   In terms of plantings it is two-thirds the size of Bordeaux, but as it follows the Loire river inland, it’s stretched over a significantly wider range of climates, from maritime to the continental.  It is home to red grapes both Bordelais (Cabernet Franc) and Burgundian (Pinot Noir); for whites, Chenin Blanc, in the central stretch, lies in-between Sauvignon Blanc plantings in the east (Touraine, stretching to Sancerre and Puoilly-Fumé) and Muscadet in the west.  And Chenin itself is capable of an amazing range of expressions -- dry, off-dry, sweet or syrupy, plus still or sparkling.  But smack in the middle of all that is one of the most consistent, distinctive and exciting of all French wines, namely, Savennières.

Let’s talk about consistency first, since Savennières--which is made entirely from Chenin Blanc--is in some ways the exception in the Loire.  First of all, I mean that the overall level of quality across producers is very high by global standards, and especially high for the Loire.  At a tasting in April featuring wines from all of the Loire’s major Chenin-growing regions, no other area attained such a uniformly level of quality.  Moreover, aside from sheer quality, Savennières wines also have a character that separates them from most of the other Chenin Blanc-based appellations of the Loire:  They’re reliably dry. 

This wasn’t always the case, and it’s still not universally true, but the vast majority of producers these days prefer to work in a dry style, so much so that one would have to go out of one’s way to find an off-dry or overtly sweet wine.  The appellation allows up to 8 g/L of residual sugar for wines labeled as dry (“Sec”), and while a few producers do make wines in the 5-6 gram range, sweetness is rarely perceptible as such, thanks to a laser-like beam of acidity that counterbalances the sugar and energizes the wine.  The sugar left in these wines after fermentation serves to fill out the wine’s body and lend a ripe profile to its fruit flavors rather than contribute overt sweetness.  Indeed, grapes harvested from Savennières are usually so high in natural acidity that they can seem hard and austere if not finished with a touch of residual sugar, especially in their youth.

An additional consistency among different producers’ Savennières is fullness and substance.  The wines have significant weight--14% alcohol is quite normal--though I should emphasize that few wines around the world retain so much mouth-watering acidity at this size.  That combination of weight and freshness, together with a density of flavor, can even make enjoying a young bottle an intense, even challenging, experience--many call for time in the cellar to unwind.

The soils in Savennières are predominantly schist and shale, in contrast to the limestone and tufa in other areas like Jasnières and Vouvray.  There is something in the character of these Chenins that reminds me of some of the Swartland Chenin Blancs in South Africa in their weight and minerality, although the latter don’t possess the jolting acidity found here.

If it weren’t for Chenin’s natural acidity, I would have saved this column on Savennières for colder weather, as the density, power and weight of these wines makes them suitable for a column themed along the lines of, “Great Whites for Winter.”  However, the zestiness that marks almost every rendition of Savennières keeps them lively and refreshing for summer, rather than thick or ponderous.  Granted, wines need to be refreshing to succeed in hot weather, but Savennières proves that wines need not be lightweights to be refreshing.

Some Recommended Savennières

In addition to the recent vintages listed below, note that many producers hold back library wines.  Often these are impressively complex thanks to additional aging, and some late-released wines from Savennières offer excellent value despite the inventory carrying costs they entail for producers.

Château d’Epiré 2015:  This shows notes of Asian pear, peach, and other stone fruits, with a hint of the “wet wool” character that can be manifested by Savennières.  Round and a bit softer than some, but still dry.  Intended to drink well young, whereas this estate’s Cuvée Speciale is meant to be put down for a few years before enjoying.

Patrick Baudouin 2014:  Tropical, with notes of pineapple and lemon, plus mineral and floral touches.  Round on the palate, with great length.  Aged for one year in 25% new wood, but doesn’t display any overt oak-derived aromas.

Château de Bellevue "Eclat de Schiste" 2014:  Another wine demonstrating that the best Savennières wines can soak up new oak without losing their balance, this was fermented in new, 400 liter barrels and then aged for a year in them.  This displays grilled pineapple and meyer lemon aromatic notes, with a medium-bodied palate profile and persistent minerality in the finish.

Chateau Soucherie “Clos des Perrieres’ 2014:  An acid-driven wine (malolactic fermentation is suppressed), this wine is marked by a saline, oyster shell character.  Citrusy and focused; nine months in old wood give this just enough roundness to enjoy now, but will open up more with age.

Moulin de Chauvigné “Clos Brochard” 2015:  With no wood and no malolactic fermentation, this wine might have turned out overly tart, but while the acidity is quite high, it is still textured and full.  Mineral, with a mix of tropical and stone fruit aromas.

Domaine du Baumard “Clos du Papillon” 2011:  While not a recognized AOC like Roche Aux Moines (see below) or Coulée de Serrant, this Clos is recognized as one of Savennières’ top sites.  The soils here have a lot more volcanic matter than elsewhere in the appellation, perhaps accounting for the juicy character in this wine and the Domaine du Closel.  There’s a wonderful pain d’epices aroma as well, alongside lemon and mineral notes.  Good length.

Domaine du Closel “Clos du Papillon” 2015:  Medium-bodied, with peach, lemon, lime, and floral notes upfront that deepen into orange zest, nectarine, and almond notes.  Harvested in two passes, the second typically including some botrytized grapes, and aged for 24 months in older wood.

Domaine FL Roche Aux Moines 2014:  Quite closed, with oyster shell and citrus notes, but richly textured on the palate, and great length.  Needs time to open up.  Savennières Roche Aux Moines is a 33 hectare cru owned by only eight winemakers, all of whom farm organically.  I don’t have recent notes on any older vintages, but intriguing spice aromas are a typical part of this wine’s development as it ages.

Domaine Aux Moines, Roche Aux Moines 2014:  Medium-bodied, but very intense and focused.  Floral, with some exotic spice notes along with touches of yuzu and pear.