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Chinon: Burgundy in the Loire Valley
By Michael Apstein
Jun 30, 2015
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Chinon as Burgundy? At first glance, it is an unlikely comparison. Chinon growers use Cabernet Franc almost exclusively for their reds, while Burgundians use Pinot Noir. And Cabernet Franc is no winemaker’s Holy Grail, unlike Pinot Noir. Few consumers are passionate about Cabernet Franc, nor do they search for it the way they clamor for Pinot Noir. Cabernet Franc’s widely recognized downside is that it can convey an unpleasant vegetal character, reminiscent of cooked green beans or asparagus, when it doesn’t ripen fully. Many California producers combat this tendency by harvesting it very ripe and producing a robust red wine that is usually oak-aged and focuses more on power than delicacy. By contrast, however, producers in Chinon have managed to produce graceful wines without a hint of under-ripeness while keeping alcohol levels in check.

Limestone

For me, the presence of limestone in Chinon and in the rest of the Loire (where Cabernet Franc thrives) explains, in part, the similarity to Burgundy and gives the wines, dare I say, a certain delicacy. Limestone is everywhere and unavoidable. All of the buildings in the historic center of Chinon, including its imposing chateau where Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) convinced Charles the VII of France to continue to fight the English, are constructed from the vast limestone deposits where the Vienne and Loire Rivers meet. Deep underground caverns--so vast that you can drive a truck around in them--are now used as wine cellars (the Germans stored munitions there), and are legacies of the quarries from which the limestone was excavated over the centuries.

Transparency

Moreover, just as with Pinot Noir in Burgundy, Cabernet Franc in the Loire clearly reflects the site on which it’s grown. During my recent visit, at Domaine de la Noblaie, we compared wines from the same vintages made by the same winemaker that were made from the same grape--Cabernet Franc--but grown in vineyards located not more than a few yards apart. The difference between the wines, Chinon “Les Blancs Manteaux” and Chinon “Les Chiens Chiens” was staggering (just as with adjacent vineyards in Burgundy) and consistent from vintage to vintage.

Jérôme Billard, the winemaker and owner of Domaine de la Noblaie attributed the character of the wines--and their differences--to subtle differences in terroir. The two vineyards, though close to each other, are at slightly different elevations and have different exposures to the sun. Billard’s colleague, Etienne Goulet, technical director of both InterLoire, the local organization that fosters cooperation among the growers, and INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) the national agency that directs agricultural research, quickly and easily showed us dramatic differences in soil composition. He used a hand held “auger” which, with a few aggressive twists, produced a core of soil. A few more twists produced an even deeper one and before you knew it, he was retrieving cores two feet beneath the surface. Visually the soils were different: one was dry with streaks of white limestone while another from an adjacent vineyard was dark and clay-like. Goulet applied a couple of drops of hydrochloric acid to each. Bubbles appeared rapidly on the sample from “Les Blanc Manteaux,” indicating the release of carbon dioxide from limestone, while the sample from “Les Chiens Chiens” remained quiescent. “Knowing these differences in soil has transformed what I do in the vineyard,” said a smiling Billard.

Site Analysis Leads to Multiple Cuvées

Indeed, the enthusiasm and attention growers have for site analysis in Chinon makes the focus on terroir in Burgundy seem almost amateurish. For the last decade InterLoire and INRA have mapped the vineyards of the Loire by taking thousands of soil cores--one per acre--analyzing them and displaying the results on Google Maps. To put their task into perspective, the last time soil maps were made in the Loire, about 60 years ago, scientists took one core every 50 acres. In other words, soil maps from the 1950s were on a scale of 1:100,000 whereas the current maps have a scale of 1:5,000. Goulet summarized the importance of their work succinctly, noting that, “[This kind of mapping] allows the grower to fit specific vines and viticultural practices to a specific plot of land.”

Armed with this kind of information, growers are now producing multiple--and distinctive--cuvées of Chinon in contrast to the past practice of blending the wines from all their vineyards to make one, or perhaps, two bottlings.

The wines from Bernard Baudry, another top Chinon producer, for example, reflect and reinforce the concept of site specificity. Mathieu Baudry, the current winemaker and owner, works with his “retired” father to make five different reds, a white and a rosé. In the past Baudry made two. While he was on vacation several years ago, Baudry sketched a cross-section geologic map of the vineyards of Chinon that, at a quick glance, shows three basic soils: The valley floor near the river, which is sandy; the slope, which is chalk and composed of yellow limestone or white limestone and the plateau which is a mixture of sand, clay, and limestone. Grapes grown on sandy soil near the river produce Baudry’s Chinon “Les Granges” ($18), a charmingly light wine with mild tannins ready for immediate consumption that could be enjoyed slightly chilled. Not far away, still on the valley floor, but in more gravely soil with a higher clay content, Baudry has vines destined for his Chinon “Les Grézeaux” ($28), a wine with slightly more structure, minerality and weight, but still appropriate for early drinking. Once the grapes come from the limestone slopes, watch out for power and structure that mandates aging. Baudry’s Chinon “Le Clos Guillot,” ($32) from yellow limestone and clay soil, is weightier with suave, but apparent, tannins and lots of minerality. La Croix Boissée ($39), from white limestone (or, as it’s called locally, tuffeau blanc) is firmer still and muscular with silky tannins.

The increased production of rosé from Cabernet Franc in Chinon (it now represents ten percent of the production) is another benefit of matching site to vine. Growers have long known of sites that always produced under-ripe, herbaceous Cabernet Franc (one grower amusingly referred to such a site as his, “asparagus patch”). Understanding those sites now allows growers to pick Cabernet Franc early, capturing vivacity. By allowing only brief contact between the juice and the grape solids, they eliminate herbaceous polyphenols and wind up with a charming, dry and lively rosé.

There is, however, a downside to the rise of multiple bottlings of Chinon from particular producers. There’s no way for consumers to know the style of wine from what appears on front labels or most back labels. Some cuvées are named after family members or are given fanciful names, while others take the name of the individual plot where the grapes are planted. Unlike Burgundy, there is no official classification of vineyards into premier or grand cru. Consumers must ask their local retailer whether they are purchasing a light and fruity wine or one that requires cellaring. This absence of stylistic information on labels makes exploring the wines of Chinon more difficult, but given the pleasure they provide, well worth the effort.

Recommended Producers

In addition to Domaine de la Noblaie and Domaine Baudry, there are many other notable growers in Chinon who produce multiple bottlings that reflect their origins. I’ve listed three of them below. If you can’t find wines in your area from any of these five producers, ask your local retailers to suggest their favorites from Chinon.

Domaine Charles Joguet produces seven different wines--two “fruity” ones and five from single vineyards--from their 90-acres of Cabernet Franc. (They also have a few acres of Chenin Blanc.) Charles Joguet founded the estate in 1957 and his enthusiasm for Burgundy probably explains the vineyard specificity of the Domaine’s wines. Joguet’s 2013 Chinon “Cuvée Terroir” ($20) comes from sandy soil and combines spiced fruit with a delicate minerality supported by mild tannins. It’s a charming light red that weighs in at about 12.5% alcohol that’s perfect for chilling and drinking this summer. Joguet’s 2012 Chinon “Les Charmes” ($30), sourced from a plot containing clay and limestone, has more stuffing without being heavy. Its supple tannins allow you to enjoy it now. Two of Joguet’s other cuvées require cellaring. Their 2012 Chinon “Clos du Chêne Vert” ($49) comes from vines planted on a steep slope composed of yellow limestone. Very floral, it’s mineraly, firm and layered--a wonderful young wine--but probably needs a decade of cellaring to really show its full excellence. Similarly, Joguet’s 2012 Chinon “Clos de la Dioterie” 2012 ($46), from white limestone, would benefit from cellaring. But it is so elegant and precise that it is actually remarkably enjoyable now.

Domaine Olga Raffault, another star producer in Chinon, produces an “early drinking” Chinon, “Les Barnabés” ($20), from a mixture of gravely and sandy soil whose deep red fruit fruity profile would go well with burgers or a hanger steak this summer. By contrast, this house’s Chinon “Les Picasses” ($28) from a limestone/clay plot is far more serious with an edgy minerality and great length. Wonderfully fresh, there’s not an under-ripe nuance to be found.

Couly-Dutheil, one of the top names in Chinon, produces a Chinon from the sandy/gravelly soil near the river, “La Coulée Automnale,” ($19) that is a refreshing combination of bright fruit and earthiness that is well suited to informal dining. From limestone clay soil they bottle Chinon “Domaine René Couly” ($19), which is denser and richer, but still remarkably smooth and ready to drink. One of their top wines, “Clos de l’Echo” ($41), comes from a limestone patch virtually in the shadow of the Château of Chinon and displays incredible grace and elegance when young and dazzling complexity and suaveness after a decade of cellaring. It’s one of the stars of Chinon.

I suspect the focus on site specificity explains, at least in part, how the growers in Chinon have eliminated the unpleasant vegetal character of their wines from past decades. This accomplishment--obtaining full phenolic ripeness at low alcohol levels--has transformed the character of Cabernet Franc in the Loire in general (and in Chinon in particular) over the last twenty years and explains my current enthusiasm for these wines. Anne-Charlotte Genet, whose family owns Domaine Charles Joguet, sums it up nicely: “Phenolic ripeness is the key to avoiding the vegetal character, but to get that without other issues, you have to keep the tannins and sugar in check.”

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E-mail me your thoughts about Chinon at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

July 1, 2015