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The winter light in the Loire is quite magnificent, in a low key way. A grayish pearly sheen that covers the gently undulating landscape, only occasionally pierced by soft sunlight. There is something grand in the understated nature of this landscape, something quietly medieval. It was my first time visiting this corner of France, and after years of drinking the wines, I felt myself most fortunate to finally walk this hallowed soil.
The visual scenery is not too imposing, yet there is a power emanating from this paysage of gentle hills, copses, scattered vineyards and the slow rolling of the Loire river. This landscape belies an incredible complexity of terroir, producing wines which are both expressions of the humble land and people who make them, and the myriad nuances that are manifest therein. Traveling west from the Pays Nantais to Touraine, I experienced an incredible variety of wine, wine styles, and terroirs. I was fortunate to stand in some of my favorite vineyards in the world; from pruning the vines of Clisson with Marc Ollivier of Domaine de la Pepiere, to surveying the prime exposition of Les Picasses in Chinon, to seeing the beautiuful old parcel of Les Ardilles in Cheverny.
After two devastating vintages, when many producers lost the majority of their crops to either frost or mildew, tasting the 2018s was a blessing. Apart from from some mildew pressure in the spring, 2018 was a year of bounty all along the Loire, with many winemakers reporting way above average yields. Francois Pinon said he hadn't seen a vintage like this since 1989, and after close to a decade of heavy losses in the vineyard, was incredibly happy to finally be able to harvest a full crop. In 2018 Domaine Pinon will be able to make the full range of their Vouvrays, from sec to liquoreux. There were even rumors of a first Goutte d'Or since the 1990 vintage! The summer was quite hot, with the wines achieving high levels of ripeness, with high alcohol as well. Thierry Puzelat of Clos du Tue-Boeuf told us that one of his wines came back without an alcoholic percentage from the lab. When he called up to find out why, he was informed they weren't able to measure it, as their scale only goes up to 15.2%. Fortunately acidity was not sacrified for ripeness, and many wines, though quite big, remain balanced, with the intensity of their fruit and mineral expression balancing out the higher alcohol levels.
I am quite excited about the 2018 vintage in the Loire. Tasting from tank and barrel showed a vintage that should be generous and accessible quite early, but should also have great aging potential in the more noble terroirs. We have a few 2018s from Olivier Lemasson on offer today, but we'll be seeing the majority of them in the next months/years. We have some new releases from previous vintages from some of our favorite Loire winemakers, and we're excited to share those with you.
Also, in a curious twist, one of the most exciting wines I tasted at the wine fairs in the Loire was Italian: a beautiful, strange animal of a Moscato from Alessandra Bera in Piedmont. Definitely worth checking out for those looking to push the boundries. Oskar Kostecki
Not an skin contact wine per se, but a fascinating one, which we think offers some of the characteristics folks might be looking for. Mindbending! These grapes from the 2000 harvest were destined for Alessandra Bera's Moscato d'Asti when something happened. The juice fermented to dryness and developed a layer of flor, which didn't die for 16 years. Always keen to push the boundries, Alessandra let nature take its course, and bottled this in 2017. An incredibly layered wine, it still has incredible freshness, and is unlike anything I've ever tasted. With great complexity, this shows notes of yellow flowers and white blossom, apricot, peach, peach skin, tangerine, grapefruit, grapefruit pith, lemon oil, resin, honeycomb and almond. The incredibly long finish is quite herbal, with chamomile and yarrow. It has a waxy, viscous texture, but doesn't lack for acidity. A real treat. Oskar Kostecki
Hervé Villemade's 2017 Cheverny Blanc is a lovely and versatile wine, made from 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Chardonnay grown on flinty sand and clay soils. The wine shows pretty aromas of pear, citrus, almond and stone with hints of boxwood and white flowers. The palate is supple with white and yellow fruits, ripe citrus, a bit of anise and herbal flavors and is nicely balanced with firm acidity. This is a delicious and refreshing everyday white that will accompany most seafood dishes, chicken, white meats and goat cheeses. David Lillie
Beginning in 2005, Domaine de la Pépière has produced this cuvée from a small parcel of 50 to 110 year-old vines within the Pepiere vineyard. Originally called "Granite de Clisson" after the unique bedrock in the vineyard, Marc has changed the name to "Clisson" to agree with the new INAO Cru Communal classification. The granite is covered with gravel and clay with large stones, ensuring good drainage and deep penetration by the roots into the fissures in the bedrock, bringing the mineral elements indispensable to this wine.Tasted in France in January 2018, the wine showed a pale gold color with lovely aromas of dried pear, quince, almond, lemon-confit and stone, ripe but quite fresh. The palate was quite dense, showing firm acidity and mineral flavors supporting white fruits, citrus, anise and almond, with terrific length. This is an excellent "Clisson" with attractive forward fruit for early drinking as well as firm structure for aging of fifteen to twenty years or more. David Lillie
The grapes for this new cuvée from Francois Pinon used to be included in the Silex Noir, but this wonderful vineyard, the Pinon's best parcel on a hill-top directly above their cellar, much deserves to be bottled on its own. The soil is clay over Turonian limestone, and the beautiful exposure gives ripe fruit that is normally vinified as a demi-sec. In 2017 the potential alcohol was not too high, so the Pinons vinified it as a dry wine, with 5.6 grams rs/liter. The wine shows elegant aromas of lime-flower, dried pear, lemon zest and stones. The palate is very saline and mineral with round white fruits, citrus and herbal notes with impressive density and length. A great dry Vouvray with fantastic minerality that will age beautifully! Normally thought of as a fish wine, the flavors and texture of this wine will make it pair beautifully with poultry and white meats as well. Highly recommended. David Lillie
The 2017 Trois Argiles has 17 grams of residual sugar, but more than enough acidity to balance that out. Coming from the heavier clay soils, this wine is slightly deeper and broader than the Silex Noir (black flint) with a rounder palate. Notes of citrus and orchard fruit, with white blossom, honey, and slight hints of candied ginger. A beautiful pairing with poached fish. Oskar Kostecki
Olivier Lemasson was able to keep alcohol down in this warm vintage, and this wine clocks in at only 11%. Made from 40-year-old Gamay vines (some of his youngest) and fermented semi-carbonically for 10 days, this is a beautiful and light expression. Both the palate and nose are driven by fresh and tart red fruit (raspberry, cranberry, pomegranate) and it's lifted up by high acidity and freshness. The palate also shows a slight crunchy minerality. A perfect chillable red. Oskar Kostecki
90% Pineau d'Aunis with 10% Gamay, this wine is a beautiful bright ruby in the glass, with the nose and palate showing a wonderful mélange of red fruit, spice, and floral notes of rose and violets. The wine is fresh and mouthwatering, though there is some structure here, with the tannins quite apparent, but very well integrated. Once again, Olivier Lemasson was able to keep alcohol levels incredibly low (11%) and overall this is incredibly pretty. A perfect way to start an evening, this is also a very versatile food wine, and it paired particularly well with soba noodle stir fry. Oskar Kostecki
The Baudry Chinon "Domaine" is always one of our favorite reds from the Loire Valley and it's a sensational value as well. All Cabernet Franc of course, a blend of 75% from a parcel in St. Louans, where the thin sandy clay over limestone soils give earthy well-structured wines, with 25% from gravel soils near Cravant, giving supple fruit and freshness. Organic farming, 2 week wild-yeast fermentation, aging in 5 to 10 year-old barrels or cement vats, bottled two Springs after harvest, with minimal added SO2, unfiltered. The Baudrys are making elegant, soulful, natural wines from their superb terroirs in Chinon. The 2016 Cuvée Domaine is a beautiful wine, showing a deep black/red color with complex aromas of black raspberry and red currant with musk, earth, violet and black pepper. On the palate the elegant black and red fruits are joined by cocoa, bitter chocolate, plum skin and intense mineral flavors that are framed in firm acidity. The texture is silky, yet earthy and stony with a bracing mineral finish and the lingering memory of bright red fruits. In other words, it's a delicious Chinon that will benefit from aeration or a few years in the cellar. Hold a few bottles until 2040 for a nice surprise. David Lillie
"Les Grézeaux" is at the bottom of the slope in Sonnay on a plateau of gravel with sandy clay soils above limestone that slopes gently down towards the Vienne, the vines are 60 to 70 years old. The wine is aged in five to ten year-old barrels with no added SO2, with a tiny amount added prior to bottling. Tasted from barrel in January of 2017 and 2018, the wine showed beautifully with very floral black fruit aromas and lovely density on the palate with black raspberry, spice and earth, firm and balanced but not overly tannic, with lush fruit lingering in the very long finish. This is a bit firmer and should cellar better than the more forward 2015 - it's a beautiful wine but we have about one-third of the normal allocation, so don't delay. Tasted from bottle in November 2018, the aromas seem brighter, crushed raspberry and black raspberry with stone, spice and floral hints. The palate is tighter and sapid with the mineral components firmly backing the dense black fruits, with stone, citrus and blackberries in the finish. Drink the 2015 now and put this away for five years, or give it a long decant if drinking now. Lovely wine. David Lillie
The Domaine cuvée from Olga Raffault is made up mostly of young vines from the Barnabes vineyard, planted on sandy soils right by the Loire River. This is a fresh and easy-drinking Chinon, displaying notes of red cherry, black cherry, raspberry, plum, crushed violet, cracked black pepper, and green bell pepper. Very approachable with soft, medium tannins, this a great wine to drink while the Picasses is maturing. Oskar Kostecki
Les Picasses is one of the greatest vineyards in Chinon - a south-facing slope of clay over porous limestone that retains water and nutrients, nourishing the vines. While the wine is amply fruited and enjoyable young, it has firm acidity and structure for long-term aging, up to 30 years and more depending on the vintage. 2014 was an excellent vintage for Loire reds, which generally showed vibrant fruit, fresh acidity and moderate alcohol. Not a "big" vintage but one of very pretty, well-balanced wines. The 2014 Raffault Picasses shows a bright, red/black color with aromas of morello cherry, red currant, blackberry and prune with hints of licorice, earth and black pepper. The palate shows silky tannins and sappy red and black fruits with chalky minerals and firm acidity, with a bit of the gamey, musky aspect of old-school Chinon. Earthy prune, plum and cherry fruits linger in the long finish. Please decant two to three hours in advance if drinking now, then serve a bit cool with roast chicken, pork or lamb. This will sing a different song after 6 to 8 years of aging, best perhaps 2026 - 2040. DL