Of Female Rugby Players and Ballet Dancers! Let’s Continuously Study Very Seriously: Wines of the Loire and Northern Rhône
CAPE WINE ACADEMY – DIPLOMA COURSE – MODULE 2 – DAY 2
Saturday 12 May 2018
The 8.30 am rather than 8.00 am start at Morgenhof estate near Stellenbosch was welcome but made little difference compared with having just 2 rather than 3 lectures for continuation of the Cape Wine Academy Diploma, Module 2. The Module covers the wines of France in detail. We studied the regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy a month ago. Today, we moved north to the Loire Valley and East to the Northern Rhône.
It was over 6 months since Cape Wine Master Dave March last taught us. It was good to see him again as he has an incredible in-depth knowledge. I haven’t been to the Loire Valley but know of its wines. Fortunately for the wine student, it is simpler than Bordeaux. There are similarities of course in the influence of the ocean and the river. I didn’t know that the Loire is the longest river in France, at 1,000 kilometres, or that the river was the ancient boundary between Northern and Southern France. I did know about the famous châteaux – of which Dave had some great holiday photos to show – and the cities of Nantes, Angers (famous for its Anjou Rosé), Tours and Orléans. The châteaux were built for the mistresses of the rich Parisians who lived barely half a day away. How to have lived in style at someone else’s expense!
The region has a marginal climate for wine growing – cool and temperate – but then who knows the long-term impact of global warming and climate change. There are wines being made in England, Scotland and even Scandinavia these days. The wines of the Loire differ according to the major wine growing areas: Muscadet to the West in the Pays Nantais; Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc in the middle areas of Anjou-Saumur and Touraine; and Sauvignon Blanc with Pinot Noir in the Central Vineyards to the East. Along the way, Dave reminded to describe any wine region by its L-ocation, C-limate, S-oil, V-arieties of grape and S-tyle. ‘Let’s continuously study very sensibly’ was Dave’s useful reminder mnemonic.
The cultivars of the Loire are synonymous with their wine names, even though in France the grape variety traditionally is never shown on the label: Vouvray (and the ridiculously exclusive Savennières) is Chenin Blanc; Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé is Sauvignon Blanc; Chinon, Bourgeuil, Saumur and Anjou is Cabernet Franc; whilst Sancerre Rouge is Pinot Noir. The French of course love their food and to cook with wine. The highly acidic, mostly white wines are perfect accompaniments to the seafood, shellfish and oysters of the region.
Dave continued the theory in between tastings. It was a return to detect the differences between the Old World and New World wines (there were some South African wines sneaked in to test) that I have missed on my wine travels around the Western Cape. I didn’t taste Muscadet (not Muscadel which is very different) but did sample a Brut and a still, Sec Vouvray – and a South African Chenin Blanc – during the first flight of tasting. Purity, clean, minerality, restrained, elegant and more are the watchwords of Loire wines. There was a useful blind-tasting Top Tip too: slight pétillance (slight CO2 that has not dispersed as the white wine is bottled straight away after fermentation) could be a Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine or even a Vino Verdhe from Spain.
I learned too about the rebel winemakers like Nicolas Joly from the Savennières area by Angers (Chenins Blanc that easily can age for 50 or more years) who Dave enthused about, as well as that the sweet botrytised Chenin Blanc from the Coteaux de Layon is the only Grand Cru (1er Cru) outside Bordeaux. Saumur, on the other hand, produces earthy red low-bodied, smooth wines with perfumes of lilac and violets that are reminiscent of a Pinot Noir. Vouvray – grown on putty-like tufa limestone – has characteristic ‘gunflint’ or ‘match-struck’ aromas and flavours.
Our next flight for tasting contained 2 whites and one red wine, focusing on the Touraine region. The whites compared a Chenin Blanc from Touraine with one from South Africa. The Mont Louis Sur Loire wine showed more structure, a clean and linear form, restrained and with white pear flavours and aromas compared with the Nederburg wine. The latter showed typical New World power, depth and body with fruity flavours of naartje, dried apricot and marzipan.
The reds of the Touraine region and Chinon to the South of the River Loire, in particular, are mostly made from Cabernet Franc. They are known for their earthy style and the wine from Catherine et Pierre Breton was no exception. Earthy, musty, mushroom aromas emerged from on the nose that were unmistakeably French in character. There was less tannin than I expected to make for a lighter mouth feel on the palate. Dave described the difference in texture and overall feel as being like a ‘razor blade versus an axe’.
Whilst tasting, I was reminded how in South Africa we identify wines by their cultivar, with region perhaps coming after. A detailed knowledge of each wine-growing region in France is needed to be able to consider which grape variety/ies are used to make the wine. We stayed close for our next tasting flight which, like the Chenins Blanc, involved more comparison between France and South Africa. The Domaine de la Grange Tiphaine Côte Vieille Vignes Cabernet Franc was more purple in colour and showed the classic French ‘pong’ (as Dave called it) of leafy and mushroom notes. The Cabernet Franc from David Finlayson was bolder and spicier in style.
We moved further upstream along the River Loire to the Central Region beyond Orléans, the besieged city that was rescued by the peasant girl Joan of Arc for a momentous victory over the English. This is cool climate country with its long, cold winters, the constant risk of Spring hail and frost, and short warm summers. The soils are clay and limestone with the latter contained flint, known also as mineral-rich silex. The cool climate terroir thus provides the ideal growing conditions for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. These cultivars are the basis of the 2 most famous wines of the region: Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre. Sadly, we did not taste either.
Pouilly-Fumé, not to be confused with Pouilly Fuisse that is made from Chardonnay in the Mâconnais district in Burgundy, is an aromatic dry Sauvignon Blanc with a defined smokey or ‘gunflint’ character. Pioneered by another French wine-making rebel called Didier Dageneau, renowned for very low yields and experimentation with oak, Pouilly-Fumé is one of the most expensive Sauvignon Blanc in the world. Sancerre is also mostly known for Sauvignon Blanc – serious tasters only can tell the difference from Pouilly-Fumé – but also makes dry rosés and fruity reds.
Our last tasting before morning coffee break was a dessert wine from the Coteaux du Layon from vineyards on the opposite bank of the Loire South of Angers. Made from botrytised Chenin Blanc, the mid-straw coloured late harvest wine oozed complexity of raisin, dried apricot, lemon, lime, and quince flavours.
The morning break for coffee was most welcome and gave me the chance to clear my head before moving South East across France to study another important wine region, the Rhône Valley. Like the Bordeaux Region, the wines are split over 2 lectures. Today, it was the Northern Rhône with the turn of the Southern Rhône being on the final day of the Diploma Module. As with the River Loire, the vineyards lie close to the River Rhône as my next wine journey travelled South rather than East. We started as always with the L-ocation, C-limate and S-oils, the essential ingredients of the terroir that dictate the grape varieties grown, the wines grown and hence their styles and character. I remember well from holidays in the South of France the nuisance of the drying Mistral that would sweep up the dust and sand to ruin the sunshine outdoors. It was soon to become a regular part of my Rhône vocabulary due to its effect on the vines, positive and negative.
If the Loire Valley is best known for its zesty whites then the Northern Rhône is best known for its medium-bodied Syrah together with some interesting white wines. It is home to many famous and big name appellations: Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Condrieu to name but a few. Syrah is king in the Northern Rhône, to be blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre in the Southern Rhône for lighter fruitier wines, to make wines that are fine, dense and tannic with pepper and smoked meat spiciness, together with excellent ageing potential. Each appellation has different rules on the proportion of permitted white grape variety – Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne or Clairette Blanc – that can be blended with Syrah (or not). It was easy to tell this was a region that Dave enjoyed.
Viognier remains very much a niche cultivar in South Africa, below 1% by vineyard area, and used both for single variety wines and in Rhône-style blends. It seems unbelievable that this ancient grape, believed to have been brought to the Rhône by the Romans, should almost have become extinct. There was just 8 hectares grown in Condrieu in 1965, which is now the sole appellation to produce single variety Viognier from its 147 hectare of vineyards. Dave’s next tasting offering was a Condrieu Viognier together with one from South Africa. The side by side tasting reinforced my experience of Old World and New World wines. Both were unmistakeably Viognier, with the Stellenbosch wine showing flavours of violets and peach with some added acidity. The French wine was similarly perfumed, though more of pot-pourri, but noticeably less oily in texture for a cleaner and crisper mouthfeel.
Between the 2 Viogniers, I tasted a Marsanne from South Africa. Rarer still than Viognier (0.02% by area), I could not remember if I had sampled the cultivar before. I know I had tasted its lighter, floral Rhône sister, Roussanne, with which Marsanne is blended in many Rhône white wines. The Marsanne was heavier and thicker still than the typically oily Viognier, with aromas and flavours of marzipan. I don’t think I shall ever forget Dave’s metaphor that Marsanne is the female rugby player and Roussanne the ballet dancer!
As we toured South along the Northern Rhône, appellation by appellation – each with minor differences in the amount of permitted blended white grape in typical French tradition and protectionism – we turned to taste a selection of red wines. The next flight included a selection from the expensive ‘roasted slopes’ of Côte Rôtie – medium bodied, earthy, restrained Syrah with ‘lace’ tannins; the less fashionable Cornas – similarly fruity and restrained with tighter, firmer, grippy tannins and a less open structure; and St Joseph – lighter fresh fruits of pepper and blackcurrant. Crozes-Hermitage was not to be outdone as our final tasting of the day included 2 wines from the lower slopes of the Hermitage Hill that nestles against the Eastern bank of the River. The poor cousin to the best sites of Hermitage, the Crozes-Hermitage showed earthy mushroom aromas on the nose, less spicy than a South African Shiraz, with complex secondary red fruit flavours and tannins that gave bite and structure.
The day swiftly ended with a canter through the Jura region, towards the Alps and the Swiss border yet further East, albeit without tasting either of the renowned wines of the region. These included the Vin de Paille (or ‘straw wine’) that originated in France in the Jura. The sweet, dessert wine is traditionally made by laying ripe grapes on straw so they dry out and the juices concentrate, a technique dating back to Cyprus in the first century AD or even earlier. Very small quantities are made from the Savagnin grape that is related to the Traminer family and used also to make Vin Jaune. This ‘yellow wine’ is made with flor yeast and in a heavily oxidative style. The wine is similar to Fino sherry, unfortified and matured in sealed, old oak barrels for at least 6 years. The Diploma course notes tell that Vin Jaune is best drunk very old – up to 100 years!
Today was another day of learning that I much enjoyed – the tastings too of course. As ever, Dave impressed with his enthusiasm and a breadth and depth of knowledge that can be most humbling. As I left, and in a rush to make the Stormers v Chiefs Super Rugby game at Newlands at 3.00 pm, I mused on the wine regions of France. It’s not just those of Bordeaux and the Loire, of Champagne and Burgundy, of Beaujolais and the Rhône Valley, of Provence, Languedoc and Roussillon, of Cognac and Armagnac and elsewhere. It’s not just those of the Left Bank and Right Bank in Bordeaux, or the Northern and Southern Rhône, but much more besides. Every region has its own sub regions – think of the Pays Nantais, Anjou-Saumur, Touraine and Central Vineyards in the Loire Valley – each of which is yet further divided according to the specifics of the terroir. It is not without reason that Dave has drilled into me the importance of L-ocation, C-limate, S-oil, V-arieties of grape and S-tyle!
White: Loire Valley, France
2010 Brut Tête de Cuvée Vouvray (Chenin Blanc)
2015 Sec Domaine Huet Le Haute-Lieu Vouvray (Chenin Blanc)
2015 Bellingham Old Vine Chenin Blanc (South Africa)
2011 Domaine de la Taille aux Loups Mont Louis Sur Loire (Chenin Blanc)
2015 Nederburg The Anchorman Chenin Blanc (South Africa)
2007 Moulin Touchais Coteaux du Layon Late Harvest Dessert (Chenin Blanc)
Red: Loire Valley, France
2013 Catherine et Pierre Breton Chinon (Cabernet Franc)
2013 Domaine de la Grange Tiphaine Côte Vieille Vignes Touraine (Cabernet Franc)
2015 David Finlayson Cabernet Franc (South Africa)
White: Northern Rhône, France
2016 Rough Diamond Project Viognier (South Africa)
2016 Leeuwenkuil Marsanne (South Africa)
2015 Vignobles Verzier Chante-Perdrix (Viognier)
Red: Northern Rhône, France
2009 Indiscrète Chante-Perdrix Côte Rôtie (Syrah)
2013 Cornas Rhône (Syrah)
2014 Andre Perret St-Joseph (Syrah)
2011 La Matiniere Croz-Hermitage (Syrah)
2010 Domaine de Martinelles Croz-Hermitage (Syrah)