Saturday, February 21, 2009

Loire part II: Domaine de Juchepie

The sweet white wines of the Loire region belong to the greatest sweet wines on the face of earth. Actually it is not valley of the Loire hosting the vines for these wines, but the valley of the Layon, a fairly small tributary of the Loire. The wines from this area, or actually some of these wines, deserve this statement about greatness. Because for many these wines remain more or less unknown. It makes the wines affordable, great, but obscurity is simply undeserved for the beauties produced here.


So why among the greatest? That's basically the combination of terroir (which comprises a whole range of factors...) and grape variety, chenin blanc.

To begin with the terroir. This northerly wine region produces wines with an attractive freshness, there is always good acidity countering the sweetness, it makes the wines digestible and pleasant. Then more local: the soil of the Layon valley. We visited Domaine de Juchepie in the commune of Faye, and the soil here consists of schist and heavy clay. Eddy Oosterlinck, who guided us around, advised us not to step into one his freshly ploughed vineyards, as our feet would soon grow into massive lumps of clay. In addition to this clay there is the local schist, which can be seen perfectly on the 'coteaux' of a little ditch along the road.

schist rock of the Coteaux du LayonTHE LOCAL SCHIST ROCK OF THE COTEAUX DU LAYON

And a third terroir-aspect: the mist that crawls up from the valley floor, up the slopes, in late summer and autumn. This helps the noble rot develop in the grapes. The pourriture noble that is so important for character of the sweet wines.

Then the grape variety. I have always found chenin blanc a fascinating variety, mainly for its ability to age. Tasting a matured chenin blanc can be an amazing experience. But Mr Oosterlinck pointed out another factor: the ability it has to express the terroir on which she (or he?) grows − the same which is said about the pinot noir. And it's true, both varieties are often at the base of very refined wines: wines that "let speak" instead of "speak". To compare: a speaking variety would be, for example, gewurztraminer or muscat (sometimes these types even scream...).


Oosterlinck − from Belgium − handles his plants and soil with great care. He practices biodynamic farming. That's beyond organic farming. For example Oosterlinck makes tea from nettle, horsetail and yarrow which he sprays on his vines. Horsetail (prêle) for example protects against downy mildew, a fungal disease which is most commonly fought by spraying copper. Thanks to the horsetail this quite inevitable practice can be minimised, and in some years even be completely skipped. And this keeps the soil healthy, alive.

Also, there is no vendange vert at Domaine de Juchepie. According to Oosterlinck, with green harvest the plant puts energy in shoots and bunches that are then later removed. Oosterlinck applies strict pruning before the growing season starts (leaving 10 buds for an adult plant, and 6 for a younger plant). A somewhat more risky approach, because with vendange vert you can decide later what you want to take away, and what not.


Well, we finally arrive at the winemaking, but this posting is getting to lengthy, so let I summarize that this is Slow and Non-Interventionist winemaking − e.g. no battonage and no soutirage. The wine always matures on oak barrels, this accounts for an open (and natural) character of the wines. Do not think you will taste oak, these super-intense sweets simply eat, devour, the oak, as Oosterlinck puts it − the oak has no chance...

The wine. I am drinking Les Churelles de Juchepie 2006, a sweet and super-intense moelleux (50 grams of residual sugar). Concentrated yet fresh. Spiced cookies. Mineral. The corpus is elegant, the texture suave, fat. Explicit acidity, giving character, freshness and 'line' to this wine. In short: very lovely and de-li-cious.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Domaine Leflaive: Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet 2000

If you have never heard of Domaine Leflaive and Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet, would you be fascinated by the bottle? The elegant classic design... the old-fashioned flourished letters singing Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet... the label Grand Cru... or wouldn't you? Could it possibly come across as just some random French wine with a difficult name? I wouldn't know.

Domaine Leflaive Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet 2000
Yesterday this wine gave us lots of pleasure. But also some stress.

Earlier that day I had picked the Leflaive from our cellar, and our almost two-year-old daughter insisted on joining me there. Like always − the cellar is exciting. Probably because it is locked most of the time. Anyway, she was there when I took out the bottle.

Hours later, when she was going to sleep, it took me quite some time (while frantically searching the house) to arrive at the thought that her teddy might be in the cellar... and indeed, there it was. Then I also realised that, as I left the cellar with her, she had tried to tell me we forgot her teddy bear... and I'd failed to hear what she was saying; perhaps I thought she was referring to... something with the Leflaives.

Leflaive's Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet still in the cellar
Surprisingly of course (...), the pleasure that the Leflaive gave us that night fully made up for this teddy-stress. What a wine!

Yes, it is what you expect from a good white Burgundy, and still the sheer beauty surprises. The nose is very intense, and you tend to think about pure fruit and (spicy) oak. Until you realise that the nose is explicitly mineral too. And that combined with the mature fruit (at Leflaive they do not necessarily sort out all botrytised fruit, which adds to the complexity of the wine), the oak... all this together marriages into something... wow... this scent is so complete and exciting that my first sniffs instantly gave me goose pimples! And that's a rare experience.

Tasting Leflaive's Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet 2000
With us was bottle 2160. Golden juice. Now I sense some smoke in the nose also. The wine is suave, and slightly creamy in the mouth, very intense, but also with a refreshing acidity (grapefruit). The finish is long. With nuts, butter and a hint of caramel.

The end is always difficult: the last sips, then the very last sip. Taste! And that was it, the bottle is empty. We decided it was smart to unplug with Champagne, and so we did.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Loire part I: Philippe PICHARD

When I talk about my wine business, I tend to say that "I am in a constant search for great wines". I am not necessarily looking for organic wines, but with the outcome of my quests a great wine often turns out to be an organic wine, or even a biodynamic wine.

Another outcome, one which I used to mention to my audience quite regularly: most of the winemakers that I work with are young people − winemakers who decided to "do it their way", i.e. different from what the previous generation did. Most often heard: they bring down yields, start working organically, and try to intervene as least as possible during the process of vinification.

This weekend I returned from the Loire valley, where we spent a week long tasting wines (the first two days at the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers), and visiting winemakers.

On this trip I was happy to receive a clear message: the age of the winemaker is not related to him or her being innovative, i.e. being interested in new ways of farming and winemaking. We visited three older winemakers (just a coincidence), all three very passionate about the new directions they had chosen. Three youthful spirits: Philippe Pichard (Chinon), Eddy Oosterlinck (Coteaux du Layon) and Evelyne de Jessey-Pontbriand (Savennières). It was inspiring − especially for someone who just turned 40, then the mind is open for these kind of messages.

In this posting I briefly present Philippe Pichard − the rest follows later.

Thursday 5 February 2009:
Philippe PICHARD, Domaine de la Chapelle, Chinon

Avoir l'amour du vin, c'est d'abord aimer sa vigne. The poet is Philippe Pichard, vigneron in Cravant-les-Coteaux, the best known village of the Chinon appellation (besides the small town of Chinon itself). These words might come across just romantic, but it is a simple truth that if you want to make a great wine, at least the grapes for the wine should be great. And although already in his fifties (I would guess...) Pichard's love for the vigne recently made him convert to the principles of biodynamic winemaking. A big step, showing his determination.


But my interest in his wines started with tasting his wines, which I did in Angers at the Salon. Chinons can be lovely, but there are plenty of Chinons that aren't (they can be unripe, they can be hard, they can be rustic etc.). Pichard's Chinons are full of life, with vital fruit. His wines are supple and pure, with a pleasant texture and an attractive freshness. Wine as it is meant to be.

Red Chinon is exclusively made from cabernet franc, and Pichard makes four different wines from this variety, from different soils. For this moment I brought to Amsterdam his basic Chinon, the fruity and straightforward Gravinières 2007. This wine comes from the gravelly plains close to the river Vienne, from vines ranging in age from 10 to 30 years. This is a fairly light, and easily digestible Chinon. It nicely combines the love-it-or-hate-it idiosyncrasies of the cabernet franc (e.g. the hint of school paint in the nose) with the ease and accessibility of a lunch wine. And I like the slight mineral touch it has.


His Varesnes and Trois Quartiers both have more structure and intensity, but more or less belong to the same league of wines. The barrel-aged l'Ancestral is different, somewhat more like a Bordeaux si vous voulez. Oak, darkness, power... a serious wine for on the dinner table. It comes from older vines from siliceous and clay soils.

Anyway, according to Chinon-based courtier Charles Sydney Pichard belongs to the category of "Fastest-Improving Producers" (in Tom Stevenson's Wine Report 2009). I think I have nothing to add to that.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Is wine an aphrodisiac?

It might sound like a silly bugger question, but I assure you much has been written on this subject, so much in fact that one hardly knows where to start reading. So let's begin with The Holy Bible. The book of Genesis recounts how Lot's daughters used wine to get their father drunk, so they could, uh, have sex with him (Gen 19: 30-36).

This is more bawdy and sordid than Chaucer, but that's old world times for you and it was necessary to propagate the species. As we are told that Lot "was unaware" of what happened, we must conclude that he was completely bombed, yet seemingly not so bombed that he couldn't finish the business at hand, as "both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father."

The ancient Babylonians forbade the use of alcohol at nuptials. This may be due to ancient hands-on experience with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Things get even more confusing if you go to China, as almost everything from ground-up caribou antlers to bear gall bladders is considered an aphrodisiac there. The pre-Viagra age led to some interesting and exhausting pursuits to discover that mysterious elixir.

So why wine? In this modern age there are so many medicinal claims made about wine on a regular basis that I'm not sure which I should accept as reasonable and which are ridiculous. Apparently red wine can prevent everything from cancer to gum disease, so I was not completely surprised when I discovered (15 years late) that the British scientific journal Nature claimed "that the intake of alcohol can increase the levels of libido in women. According to this research, alcohol raises the testosterone level of women, which coincidentally entices those who lack sexual interest and desire." I just wonder if any of this is true. I can't speak for women, but I drink wine for pleasure, but not that kind of pleasure.

Biochemical reactions relating to the libido in the female anatomy aside, there is no doubt that wine has its romantic side and that might be referred to as sexy by some, especially by those who market wine, but also those who enjoy it. But what is well known since antiquity is that alcohol impairs judgment and releases inhibitions. For this reason when I was a teenager we affectionately called Lemon Gin "panty remover" and it is interesting to note that 30 years later, it still retains that definition in the urban dictionary.

Thank goodness we don't use terms like that in the wine world, although the words we use to describe wines sometimes do have sexual connotations: a wine might be sensual or seductive or have good legs, but please don't tell me a wine is sexy, because I'm not sure what that means and I don't want to ponder it much either.

There you have it: wine is sexy but a bottle of wine is not sexy, but apparently it is an aphrodisiac, but for women only. Or at least that's what they claimed to discover way back in 1994.