CASTING A backward glance at my first trip to the Loire, I see a younger man who supported discomforts that sound torturous today. I flew from San Francisco to New York, changed planes, landed in Paris, rented a car, and drove to the Loire. Twenty-two hours all told, with a nine-hour time change. Those days the excitement, the novelty, and the thrill of the chase kept me going nonstop from one cellar to another. It was a period of discovery—discovering wines, winemakers, discovering France—and the adrenaline flow kept my blood as warm as the Loire cellars were cold.
It was late fall, the hunting season, and I settled into a little one-star hotel. I collapsed into bed for a late-afternoon nap and two hours later struggled to emerge from that deep black hole of sleep familiar to all who have suffered jet lag.
The hotel dining room was animated and colorful, filled with hunters dressed to kill in their shiny black-leather boots and bright red coats. I shared the spirit that filled the room. I had my own hunting to do.
The Burgundies on the restaurant’s wine list were négociant bottlings priced higher than I charged at my wineshop in California. The Bordeaux selections were too expensive and too young. However, there was an intriguing collection of little-known Loire Valley reds: Chinon, Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, and Sancerre. Mixing research with supper, I asked the proprietor to bring up his best Loire red. He poured a Bourgueil. The price was painless, the color a promising bluish purple, the aroma loaded with berrylike fruit, the flavors original and delicious, so delicious that I asked him to prepare a few tenths to take along in the trunk of my car to share with friends and winemakers along the route. Thus began my love affair with the Cabernet Franc of Chinon and Bourgueil, wines which at their best have such a strong personality that novice tasters are often startled. After that initial taste, it will be love or hate. It is no different than one’s reaction to an individual with a strong personality.
The hotel proprietor, seeing my appreciation of his Bourgueil, next recommended a Sancerre rouge. I had thought all Sancerre white. No, he said, there is a small proportion of Pinot Noir planted there. The wine was brilliantly vinified. Anyone who could produce an impressive Pinot Noir in an unlikely place like Sancerre deserved investigation, so I jotted down the name of the domaine, which I must call Domaine X for reasons that will soon be obvious.
A duet of hunting dogs and church bells woke me up early the next morning. There was a bright glitter of sunshine that did nothing to thaw the brittle chill in the air.
I had two days for Sancerre. Domaine X was one of several producers I visited, including a large négociant who appeared to own most of downtown Sancerre, and whose name was sarcastically mispronounced by certain proprietors so that it came out meaning “half-water.” A disturbing number of wineries had decorative oak casks outside and stainless-steel tanks inside their cellars. But the visit to Domaine X deepened my understanding of wine and helped set me on a course which I follow to this day.
Truth be told, Monsieur X was a wry, crusty old fellow who wanted to talk about his absent son more than anything else, including wine. His son, who spoke several languages fluently, who had been around the world four times already, and who would one day take over the wine domaine—that is, if he was not elected president of the republic first. “He’s in Indonesia right now,” Monsieur X said, checking his wristwatch.
One after another, all day long, each Sancerre blanc I had tasted had been drawn from either glass-lined or stainless-steel tanks. There was a pleasant, easy sameness to them. Some growers were preparing to bottle their wine a mere six weeks after the harvest! It is simple. You heat your cellar to speed up the fermentation, then you run your wine through a sterile filter before bottling it. Your worries are over. The Sancerres of Monsieur X were still leisurely bubbling along, fermenting in ancient gray oak barrels that had nurtured many a vintage. I came from California, where new oak was a sign of seriousness and quality. Why did Monsieur X use old barrels?
“New oak masks everything,” he growled. “The virtues and the flaws. I have nothing to hide behind the taste of new oak. On the contrary.”
I was struck by the fact that fermentation in barrel produced a wine with more depth, more dimensions to it, than those from stainless-steel tanks where the wine is boxed in tight as a knot. In barrel there is an exchange between the wine and the air. The wine breathes through the pores of the wood. And the air it breathes has certain aromas, the cellar smells, which, however imperceptible, are soaked up by the wine. Perhaps that is why whites that see glass only, or stainless steel only, seem one-dimensional in comparison. Of course, if the winemaker is not fanatically attentive, the wine in barrel can breathe too much, and instead of a beneficial evolution, instead of this subtle seasoning, you will have an oxidized wine. It is work to keep an eye on each barrel, to keep all of them constantly filled up to the top to avoid oxidation. Thus, the predominance of stainless steel today. It is easier, safer, and the large tanks take up less space. Something is lost, however.
A second difference between X and the others: he had not one Sancerre blanc, but three. There are different terroirs or soils at Sancerre, he explained, and he had vines planted in three types of soil: limestone, flint, and clay. At the other domaines, it would have been a matter of selecting for purchase the cleanest, best-balanced Sauvignon Blanc, because the fruit dominated. At Domaine X, the Sauvignon character was evident, but only as one part of the taste impression. More important was the personality imparted by the soil in which the vine nourished itself, because the wine from each soil type was vinified and bottled separately with the specific vineyard name on the label. Here were wines from the same grape, the same cellar, vinification, and vintage, but tasting them side by side, one encountered three remarkably different personalities. And the wine from flinty soil, for example, consistently showed the same personality traits no matter which vintage we were tasting, being leaner, tighter, with a stronger mineral flavor than the other two. If only everyone could make such a comparative tasting, I thought, instead of those silly blind tastings that are such the rage. Here was a comparative tasting that deepened one’s awareness of the mystery of wine.
The third striking aspect was the old winery itself, which had been constructed on different levels of the hillside in order to permit racking and bottling by gravity flow. By avoiding mechanical pumping, Monsieur X produced bottled wines which retained all their nerve and vigor. Subsequently, I began to make inquiries about bottling methods a routine part of my visit to new wineries.
The point is, Monsieur X’s wines were not one-dimensional quaffers like so many Sancerres. They were more serious, more exciting to taste, because observing and defining their personalities engaged the intellect and the imagination. Rather than leaving the impression that wine is simply another beverage, they inspired the notion that wine can communicate something.
For several years I imported the Sancerres of Domaine X. In certain vintages I would buy the wine from all three terroirs. I cannot say that they had a fabulous commercial success; wine with a pronounced personality appeals to a small part of the public. But I took great pride in selling them because I believed I was importing the best. Imagine my emotions when I showed up one fine spring morning and was received by the son. He had thrown up a new barnlike winery building and filled it with stainless-steel vats. The reflections shimmering off the tanks gave the impression of a circus hall of mirrors. My face appeared two feet long. There was a new centrifuge. There was a special tank for refrigerating the wine down below zero to eliminate the possibility of tartrate crystal deposits. There were various pumps and filtering devices. The place looked like a winery-equipment showroom. Even worse, it smelled like a sulfur-dioxide factory. Where were those solid, proven old casks gently bubbling along? Where were the beautiful wooden tools like the hand-carved mallet Old Man X had used to knock the stoppers loose from the bungs of the barrels?
I could not restrain myself. I asked why he needed to centrifuge, cold-stabilize, filter, and dose his wines with massive quantities of sulfur dioxide (SO2). This fellow was taking no chances! He led me into his office, strutting like a rooster, a cigar poked into his bushy beard, his head blown up into a big balloon of self-congratulation. He pointed to a map of the world tacked on the wall behind his desk. I was represented by a colored pushpin stabbed into California. England had one too, and Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and so on. He stabbed a finger at a lone pushpin lost in the middle of the African continent. “I sell fifty cases a year here,” he said, “and there is no way to know what the shipping conditions will be. I have to protect my wine so it won’t spoil.” Here was a man willing to strip his wine of its character in order to protect fifty cases.
I tasted the sulfur-laden wines. They were all alike, poor things. I walked out without placing an order. I drove away swearing out loud. That horse’s ass ruined my Sancerre!
Touring the wineries in France over the years, I began to see that my experience at Domaine X was representative of a general evolution in French winemaking, and finding the old-style wines in each region and educating my clients to the diversity and virtue of those wines became a kind of crusade to me.
* * *
After Sancerre I headed west into the Touraine to investigate their reds. I found a Chinon and Bourgueil that I imported and presented to my customers as little country wines because that is what they were, nothing more or less than pretty little quaffers fun to drink cool for their berrylike fruit. As is often the case, a first visit to a new region did not turn up the finest wines. It serves as a scouting trip, and hopefully I will stumble across something of interest, good wines to whet the appetite of my clients, or perhaps some leads for subsequent visits. The wines I bought were not monuments to the vintner’s art, but they were unlike the California reds of the day, which seemed to be the result of a contest to see who could turn out the biggest alcoholic monster. Open-minded tasters appreciated those Loire reds. One said they tasted like “Bordeaux Beaujolais” because of their Cabernet character and their youthful charm.
Then, on my next trip to Burgundy, Jacques Seysses at Domaine Dujac told me he had recently returned from a tour of the Loire vineyards with a small group of Burgundian winemakers. One wine stood apart from the rest, he said, the Chinon of Charles Joguet. I jotted down Joguet’s name in my notebook and a few days later drove off to find him.
There is no autoroute from Burgundy to Chinon unless one drives all the way up to Paris and south again to exit at Tours. I took country roads that zigzag aimlessly across the landscape from one small village to another: Varzy, Donzy, Cosne-sur-Loire, Vailly-sur-Sauldre, Aubigny-sur-Nère, and Souèsmes, villages in which anyone visible gazes intently at your license plate, trying to divine from the last two digits where you hail from. One has the impression that this is the high point of their day, and on the surface at least the villages seem deathly dull. After Sancerre, in the Sologne, the forests crowd up to line the route, and at that time of year the autumn leaves swirled behind my car as I sped along, trying to keep up with the setting sun.
I arrived late at Joguet’s village, Sazilly, near Chinon, and was later still because I could not find his house. There was no sign to indicate it. Little light remained. It was painfully cold. The ground crunched underfoot. As I poked my nose through the opening of a tall hedge, I came upon the eeriest-looking person I have ever seen, a twisted, gnomish, hunched creature who peered up at me with difficulty because he could not turn or bend his neck and had to lean his body sideways and down in order to meet my eyes. I would not have been more surprised had I seen a witch on a broomstick.
“Monsieur Joguet?” I inquired.
He tugged at my sleeve and led me to the side door of the simple bourgeois house. He knocked crisply and sidled off into the icy ash-colored twilight. I heard irregular footsteps within. The door swung open and there in the light I beheld a second warped figure whose head tilted at a weird angle. He offered his hand for shaking and there was a finger or two missing. My God, I thought, there is a whole colony of them. Oh well, anything for a decent bottle of wine. But I also noticed that the eyes were full of fire and intelligence and a dash of self-humor. It was Charles Joguet.
My gnomelike guide, I learned later, had assisted at the domaine all his life, working the vines, tending the goats, rabbits, and chickens. He was not a Joguet; it did not run in the family. No, Charles had recently suffered an automobile accident. His tilt was temporary, due to the cast and metal brace he wore to help mend his broken vertebrae. The fingers? An old tractor accident. The magic? He has it.
We began tasting with his newly vinified 1976 out of barrel. The nose was thick with black currants and violets. It was sizable on the palate, too. Ripe, rich, and succulent, it felt as if it must be staining my tongue purple. A serious, extravagantly flavored wine, this was way beyond the little country wines of my first trip. Very simply, at that stage it was the finest 1976 red I had tasted from any of the French vineyards. A Chinon! And Charles had never laid eyes on an importer. I felt like Columbus discovering the New World.
From the winery we trudged through the dark across a field. Charles opened an old wooden door into the hillside. We entered a limestone cave with a dirt floor. It was furnished with hundreds of old bottles. I have never been colder than in that cave. My teeth chattered and my hand trembled when I held out my glass for a taste of 1975, followed by 1974, 1973, 1971, 1969 …
Have you ever seen someone in a back and neck brace pulling corks? But I could not taste a thing. The wines were close to freezing, but the corks kept popping as he moved onward, or rather backward in time: 1966, 1964, 1961. Finally we took his 1959 back to the house and resorted to swirling our glasses over a wood fire, trying to liberate a bit of the wine’s icebound aroma.
Then Charles took me to dinner at a nearby truck stop, Sazilly’s only restaurant. He left the bottles behind, all those old Chinons from which only a taste or two had been poured, and we served ourselves glasses of the same plonk the truckers were drinking. The bulk stuff. Plastic bottles. Barely wine.
“Too bad,” I told Charles. “It’s the first wine I can really taste.”
“It’s not shitty,” he said. “It’s ultra-shitty. Shit-de-merde!” he exclaimed, laughing as he pounded his glass on the table. “Shit-de-merde” must be the ultimate franglais. Charles is endlessly scatological and endlessly pronouncing maxims: “Everything is possible!” he might offer, then: “Nothing is possible! Wisdom is all; wisdom is shit. Everyone seeks love; love seeks no one.”
“Why didn’t you bring one of your own wines?” I wondered, taking another sniff of our plonk. It smelled like vinegar with a bit of complexity from the plastic.
“The proprietor would take it as an insult,” Charles answered.
The food was good family-style cooking. Above all, it was hot. I stopped shivering. That winter of 1976 was a cold one as Mother Nature made up for the previous summer’s blazing heat.
When I returned to Sazilly in the spring, Charles repeated the tasting, vintage by vintage, and I have been an enthusiastic believer ever since. His 1959 would convert even the most leaden palate to the charms of Chinon. And his 1976 continued to develop beautifully. The Dionysian new wine aromas had diminished; there was a more complex smell to it, an elusiveness, so different aromas came and went. I imported a special cuvée of old vines, pricey for a Chinon, and I finally managed to sell all of it even though most wine buyers at that time were preoccupied throwing their money after those hard, dry, tannic monsters that Burgundy produced in 1976. One restaurateur called me to say that he had always loved the Chinons that he tasted in France and that Joguet’s 1976 was the finest he had ever tasted. When he heard the price he rang off, telling me Joguet’s was too expensive. At six dollars. Meanwhile his wine list offered many a Burgundy and claret at over a hundred dollars per bottle. I sat mulling it over while Charles whispered “shit-de-merde” inside my head.
As a young man, Charles Joguet left Sazilly for the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and studied painting. Then his passion turned to sculpture. He traveled to Italy to study the Old Masters, then to America to experience New York for a few months. But he returned to the vine (“instinctively,” he says) after the death of his father in 1957. He began to split his time between the bohemian life in Paris and the winegrower’s life at Sazilly. The dual existence continues today, and his brilliant wines reflect his artist’s temperament and his commitment to family tradition.
It is not only that Joguet makes good Chinon: it is that he is one of the rare vintners whose wines can be gripping aesthetically, spiritually, and intellectually, as well as sensuously. Of course, it is impossible to know how much my judgment is influenced by the fact that I know the man, as well as the wine. One has the impression that Charles is out there on the edge, willing to take risks and willing to accept losses in order to make magic. There are not many like him in the world of wine. Those who have seen a Judy Garland concert performance will understand, the way she would take over a song, the emotion, the commitment, and the risk with which she invested her performance. I see Charles as a performer, and his wine is his song or act. He refuses to play it safe. He might ruin a cuvée because an improvisation or inspiration during the vinification did not work as he hoped. With the next cuvée, for the same reasons, he succeeds beyond all expectations. It will express something to you, something you understand on a certain level but which cannot be translated into words. But then musical expression presents the same dilemma. When one tries to put what it says into words, it sounds ridiculous.
There is always some crisis threatening to engulf him and bring him down. He is perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy. Most people do not understand that it costs more to make a good wine than a mediocre wine. Right off the bat, there is the question of quantity, the yield per acre. If you allow your vines to produce twice as much juice, your wine will seem diluted but you will have twice as many bottles to sell. A great Chinon should cost more than an ordinary one. Charles does whatever he must for quality, and when he thinks of money, it is to wonder, “How am I going to get by for another year?”
He was swindled by the company that constructed four new fermentation vats for him. The lining on the inside of the vats was not stable. He sued. He won. Meanwhile, the contractor had gone bankrupt, so he lost after all. How was he going to raise money for another set of vats in time for the next harvest? He was under the impression that his bankers had already heard one lament too many.
Along came a further exercise in ecstasy and despair. A friend told Charles that he had something interesting to show him, a piece of land for sale called Le Chêne Vert, or “The Green Oak.” “I had heard of it,” Charles says. “The origin of the name is known. There had been an eight-hundred-year-old oak there which was cut down about four hundred years ago. So I went along to look at the property, the cellars, the soils, the vines. That afternoon there was a splendid sunset illuminating the old city of Chinon. I knew that Le Chêne Vert was one of the two parcels originally planted by the monks here in the eleventh century. They introduced the Cabernet Franc here, and they knew what they were doing because Le Chêne Vert is certainly the most extraordinary site for the vine at Chinon. But half of it was grown over wild, the other half with untended old vines which had to be ripped out. The terrain is steep and uneven, very difficult to work. What a job, I thought, to put it into shape for replanting. None of the other winemakers was interested in it. It was to be sold at auction. It is an old custom here, une vente à la bougie. There is a candle burning on a piece of wood, and when the flame burns out, the auction is over. It takes about two or three minutes. I was curious to see what the land would go for, so I went to the auction. The only serious bidder wanted it as pasture for his sheep! No one thought I would buy it, especially me. At the last moment I opened my mouth and voilà, the candle went out. I said to myself, ‘Zut! Where will I find the money?’ It was cheap, but when you are broke, nothing is cheap.”
He survived it, walking the financial tightrope through several years, but now he says his gamble is going to pay off. Le Chêne Vert, once the vines are of sufficient age, will produce his finest wine. That is what Charles means by “pay off.”
One evening after dinner together in Chinon, I invited Joguet to my hotel room to taste a couple of red Burgundies that had interested me. I like to taste with him because he always gets right to the heart of things, and those who shop for wine armed with those idiotic vintage charts would do well to pay attention to his appreciation of the two wines. Both were of extremely good quality, I like to think. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to cart them to Chinon in the trunk of my car. One was from a grand cru vineyard and it was from 1976, a red Burgundy vintage which had attracted a stampede of consumer interest in the United States. The second was a little Saint-Aubin, 1973. With that name and that vintage, it would make about as big a splash as a Pinot Noir grape falling into the Dead Sea.
Joguet held his glass up to the dim yellow light. French hotels do not waste bucks on bulbs. The 1976 was dark, big, powerful. The 1973 was pale and light-bodied. He tasted each.
“The 1976 has not yet come together,” Charles said. “One must wait a few more years. But you know, it will be of a unit, of a whole piece, for a very short time. The different parts will align themselves into a harmonious unit and then pass very quickly out of harmony. You will have to jump on it and drink it up during a very short period of time.
“The 1973 will never be great wine, but it is fine, an intelligent wine, the most difficult to make. One sees all of it, the Pinot Noir fruit, the terroir of that particular site, the structure, the perfect harmony of all its constituent parts. In each aspect of the taste experience, from the aroma through to the aftertaste, there is nuance and surprise. It may not be a wine for everyone; it took intelligence to make it and it takes intelligence to appreciate it.”
My job is not only to taste and buy wines; I must sell them, too. I imported a good supply of that 1976 grand cru, one of the better red Burgundies of the vintage, and watched it fly out of the shop by the carton. Wisely, I did not have the courage to buy more than a few cases of that exquisite little 1973, and they sat around forever. The customer reaction upon tasting it: “It’s too light,” as if, to be considered worthwhile, a wine must be black and powerful. Study the vintage charts, however, and you will see that the hot years, whose wines are dark-colored and full of alcohol, receive the highest ranking. Vintages of light-colored, light-bodied wines, no matter how aromatic or how fine the flavors, receive low marks. Such judgments are far from a serious appreciation of fine wine. I do not care whose vintage chart you choose, you could turn it sideways and upside down and it would still be no less helpful as a guide to buying a good bottle of wine. Vintage charts are the worst kind of generalization; great wine is the contradiction of generalization.
* * *
One day Joguet told me that I should meet an old négociant friend of his near Vouvray—René Loyau, or Père Loyau as he is called by those in the local wine trade. With a wrinkle of disgust, my anti-négociant bent expressed itself. “You’ll see, this négociant is atypical,” Charles said.
The first time I did see René Loyau he was in his icy chalk-walled cavern above the banks of the Loire River seated at his ancient Rube Goldberg–style, pedal-driven labeling contraption, dressing his bottles one by one. “I do everything by hand,” he was to tell me later, “and no one ever lays a hand on the merchandise but me.” A strange négociant! Loyau’s is no factory operation with tanker trucks lined up outside, no rows of clerks to handle the paperwork, and no offensive glug-glug pumped out under the fanciest labels. He has no office other than the desk in his apartment—no secretary, no typewriter, no computer. In his cave, where the work is done, there is not even a telephone. “I need tranquillity here,” he says.
Père Loyau was born on August 26, 1896, nine decades ago. He is mystified that his son, who ran a tabac in Tours, retired before he has. Loyau is five foot four, wiry (I saw him lift two full cases of Vouvray at the same time), white-haired, and invariably appears in a dapper, tightly knotted necktie.
His cave is indeed a cave in the hillside: chalk walls, dirt floor, stone-cold. Once I met another old fellow, an octogenarian, who had worked all his life under refrigeration in a meat-packing plant, and like Loyau he had a delicate, rosy, remarkably wrinkle-free complexion. Is the icy cave also responsible for Loyau’s incredible exuberance? Let us hope the wine of Vouvray contributed something, because we can all lay our hands on some of that.
Loyau is a man worth listening to. He speaks with the wisdom of nine decades. Unfortunately, repeating his words does not convey the wonderment and awe he expresses when he discusses just about anything. For René Loyau the real world is the most incredible thing one could possibly imagine. It is miraculous, mysterious, profound. He sometimes flashes a look of pure amazement, like a baby who has just discovered how to rattle a rattle. Beaming forth from the visage of a ninety-year-old, it is an unforgettable expression.
Loyau says that there are two qualities responsible for the worth of a man, “intellectual dexterity and physical vitality,” and he has maintained both qualities despite his age and despite the cataclysmic events of two world wars. Twice he was ravaged and twice he came back. From the war of 1914–18 he returned with his lungs in ruin, thanks to poison gas. He spent three years in the hospital and one in a sanatorium. Upon his release, he worked in the wine business with his father until 1930, when he and his wife took over the Hôtel des Négociants in downtown Tours. On June 19, 1940, the German Army stopped on the banks of the Loire across from Tours. They blew up the bridge, which Balzac called “one of the finest monuments of French architecture,” and with it went the water lines into the city. Then they attacked with incendiary bombs. There was no water to fight the blaze, so thirty acres of the old city burned to the ground, including Loyau’s hotel.
“When I think about it I don’t know how we started over again. We were completely ruined! Our hotel had eighty rooms, all furnished, plus the restaurant … But one has to go on. I had two sons in school. I had to hide them from the boches. They took my third son to Germany. We had to suffer ghastly horrors. My father had to be committed; he lost his mind. But my wife, she was extraordinary, very patriotic, very courageous. We survived. But, you know, all of that forms a man, it gives a man character. You have spirit, you resist, you fight, but you become more generous, nobler in a sense, because you have seen such misery. Truly, those were extraordinary times, educational, but alas, brutal.
“We started again with a little bar in a wooden hut near what is now the post office. We had no car, so I transported my wine in a little chariot behind my bicycle. To get to my cave, I had to cross the Loire by boat because the bridge was down.”
Today, Loyau is an old master at what I do. He visits the growers, tastes, and selects. However, he buys wine by the barrel, then trucks it back to his cave, raises it, bottles it by hand, and sells it under his own distinctive label. After a visit to his cellar, after hearing him discourse upon the history and mystery of wine and the complexity of events that go into creating a good bottle, drinking an ordinary wine seems like sacrilege.
The fissure in the hillside that forms the entrance to his cave is too narrow for a vehicle to pass through. Once you are inside, the stone walls widen a bit and upon each side of the path that descends deeper into the cave one sees the finished product stacked ready for sale in bottles and cartons. The womblike cave is vaguely cross-shaped, and in the most spacious part, at the center, there is a wooden table with tasting glasses and a corkscrew. It smells like earth and wine and barrels.
When I arrive, we always begin with a tour of the bottled wines to see what is available for purchase. These lie in a little wing off to the right. There are no bins, simply piles of unlabeled bottles stacked on the dirt. A little dime-store chalkboard leaning against each pile names the wine’s provenance. There is one pile of around two hundred bottles of Moulin-à-Vent from the Beaujolais, another consists of a few dozen Gevrey-Chambertin. Loyau points out this and that, commenting on some, ignoring others, so I check out each pile myself in case he skips something which might interest me.
“This is a Vouvray from selected grapes,” he says, “the smallest, ripest bunches. That is what makes an extraordinary Vouvray. I have some 1976 from hand-selected grapes like this. It is 17.5 alcohol!
“This is a 1978 Vouvray. I don’t know what has become of it because I haven’t uncorked one in a long time. I bottled one barrel of it for aging.”
As we descend farther away from the single lightbulb that lights this wing, Loyau pats his coat pockets to find his glasses. “I don’t see very well, you know, but for the past two years I see better than I did.” He raises his eyebrows and peers up at me bright-eyed as if nothing could be more miraculous. “It is true, monsieur! At a certain age your sight comes back, rejuvenated.”
He waves his hand at another pile of bottles. “Here is a Chinon, but it is nothing spectacular. You buy yours from Joguet, a good fellow, serious. You have chosen well.
“I just finished bottling this Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I have been buying from the same property for fifty years. Now I deal with the grandson.”
When Loyau names the domaine, I recognize it. “I visited him last year,” I say. “I tasted his own bottling, but it is nothing like the Châteauneuf I buy from you. In fact, I thought his bottling was rather ordinary.”
“One has to select! I taste all his cuvées. He has eighteen hectares [forty-three acres], and most of his wines are on the flatlands. You see what I’m getting at? I select. The proprietor combines his cuvées to make a single wine of it. A generalization. What I take is from the hillside vines. Of course I must pay extra for it, but then I have something to my taste. I warn him to give me exactly the cuvée I selected, because if he sends me another I’ll send it back.”
He points to a row of four bottles. “That is a 1976 Charmes-Chambertin, but that is all that remains.” Next to it is a stack of three hundred bottles. “That is another Chambertin, but it tastes completely different. The Charmes is feminine, a pretty young maiden, while this one is a man who has something in his pants. In Burgundy, you know, the finest wine is harvested in the middle of the slopes. At the top there are the trees, then all of a sudden the soil changes. It becomes poorer. The middle, that’s it! After that, there is the plain, the flatlands. Zero! In the wine trade, one has to be aware of the differences. One time at Meursault, an old fellow sent me a Puligny villages instead of the Meursault-Perrières I had ordered. I told him, ‘No way, I’m returning the barrel to you, and if you want the money, send me my Perrières.’ He blamed his son for the mix-up. A Puligny, that is a flatlands wine. It is not at all the same as a Perrières from the slope. I caught him because I remember tastes.
“Some people call me le vieux goûteur, the old taster, because at tastings of old wines I always find the vintage. In France you never have the same year. Each year gives its own character. One has to be aware of these things in our profession. Once I arrived at the estate of a grand monsieur at Chinon. I shall always remember that splendid fifteenth-century house with its magnificent furnishings. He had a bottle for us to taste, a sort of contest, you know, to guess the vintage. There were local négociants, winemakers, agents, enologists, mayors … Some said 1933, some 1928. The monsieur said, looking at me, ‘And you, you have not said anything.’ I told him that I had written my guess on a piece of paper and placed it in my hat so the others would not accuse me of copying them. I took off my hat and gave him the piece of paper. ‘You are right,’ he said. ‘No one else guessed it correctly. It is a Bourgueil 1906.’ I went on to tell him that the taste reminded me of a wine I once bought three vintages in a row from a Monsieur Landry, from a little parcel of vines behind a church called Le Coudreau. He was astonished because his 1906 had been purchased by his father from the father of that same Monsieur Landry!”
How had he identified its origin so precisely?
“It is a memory for tastes. There is a certain aftertaste in which the character of a wine manifests itself. The 1906 still had a little taste of wild plum and a suggestion of hawthorn blossom that reminded me of the cuvée Le Coudreau that Monsieur Landry sold to me.”
Wine can express extra-vinous qualities. Tasters often find black currants, for example, or mint, or eucalyptus, and so forth. The Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet from California’s Heitz Cellars is a dramatic example. Where does that characteristic aroma come from? How can vinified grape juice smell like another fruit, a flower, or a leaf? To Loyau there is a simple explanation, and he has proven his theory to his own satisfaction time and time again.
For example, when he was tasting in the cellars of a grower in Gevrey-Chambertin: “All his older wines exhibited a strong smell of wild currants,” Loyau begins, wide-eyed with the wonder of it all. “However, in his more recent vintages the same aroma was not to be found. Mystère!”
He draws out the word and lets it hang in the air. His eyes narrow with cunning as he leans toward my secretary and taps her four times on her left breast. For emphasis, I presume, the old fox.
“I inquired of the grower,” he continued with satisfaction, “and asked when he had torn out the patch of wild currants near his vineyard. Of course I had never seen his vineyard. It was pure deduction. And wouldn’t you know it? There had been wild currants growing right up to the stone wall that separated his land from his neighbor’s until … his neighbor cleared the patch of currants in order to plant vines!”
Loyau broke into an absolutely devilish grin and chuckled deeply. Then the professor in him reappeared. “There is only one possible explanation for this mysterious transfer of aromatic quality from one type of vegetation to another. Bees! The bees gather nectar from blossoms—in this case, wild-currant blossoms—then they alight on the grape blossoms, their little legs fuzzy with pollen from the currants.”
Cross-pollination? Or nature’s own genetic tampering? I have not presented Loyau’s theory to a biologist because I would hate to see his romantic notion dissected, but I always think of it when I am tasting in Bandol, where black-cherry trees are planted alongside the vines. Their flavor has a thick, ripe presence in the aroma of Bandol’s wines. Or in Cornas, where orchards of apricot and peach grow at the bottom of the terraced slopes, or at Nuits-Saint-Georges, whose wine often displays such heady cassis overtones.
After collecting a dozen bottles in a straw basket, we return to the central cave to taste them. We begin with a series of Vouvrays. Vouvray has always been Loyau’s home ground, and his Vouvrays his most exciting wines. After World War II, Vouvray enjoyed a vogue in the United States. Frank Schoonmaker thought Vouvray’s popularity was due to the fact that the Allied headquarters was at nearby Tours, and the soldiers on duty there simply acquired a taste for the local white. But Vouvray has passed out of vogue, perhaps because it has become a lesson in frustration to locate a good one. Today, to most wine drinkers, Vouvray has come to mean a sulfury, insipid, slightly sweet white wine. However, a well-vinified Vouvray from one of the great vineyards is one of France’s noblest whites.
Vouvray’s wine is a product of what we call the Chenin Blanc grape, but I prefer the local name, Pineau de la Loire, and Loyau is of the opinion that the original plantings of Pineau were Pinot, the Chardonnay, imported to Vouvray from Burgundy. Over sixteen centuries or more, the plant evolved ever so slowly as it adapted to Vouvray’s soil and climate. Even today, Loyau says, certain Vouvrays show a striking aromatic kinship to the Chardonnays of the Côte d’Or. I have no opinion beyond finding Loyau’s theory intriguing; however, I can say that the aroma of a good Vouvray is more reminiscent of Meursault (minus the new oak) than it is of the California rendition of Chenin Blanc.
Although produced from this single grape variety, Vouvray yields more than a single type of wine. The fact that Vouvray appears in several different guises must render it difficult for the public to comprehend. But once sorted out, the multiple personalities of Vouvray become an attraction, a complete little cosmos of wines ranging from gay to profound.
Vouvray can be a sparkling wine with a froth like champagne’s. Such bottles are labeled Vouvray Mousseux.
Or it can offer a more delicate bead, and these are labeled Vouvray Pétillant, whose light sparkle might arise intentionally or not, because in the traditional cold chalk cellars, Vouvray exhibits a natural desire to pétiller, or sparkle. A generous dose of sulfur dioxide will suppress this desire, but that is a bit like whipping a dog for wagging its tail. Instead, one might regard Vouvray’s tendency to pétiller, to revisit the ebullient days of its infancy, as an additional charm. What harm is there in a subtle effervescence, a liveliness on the palate, which also serves to propel and rejuvenate the aroma? For some reason, many tasters seem to be threatened by such a spirited display of energy, so most Vouvray producers resort to all sorts of technical shenanigans to keep their wine still. Vouvray Pétillant has practically disappeared from the marketplace. When I imported a few cases, customers returned it because they thought it was still fermenting. In the Vouvray cellars, however, the pétillant continues to be produced. It is poured for friends and downed with great pleasure.
As for still Vouvrays, they can be dry (sec), off-dry (demi-sec), or unctuous and botrytized like Sauternes (moelleux). They can be fresh, seductive wines that drink well right out of the barrel, or perfectly developed old masterpieces after several decades.
One must not make the mistake of saying “I don’t like Vouvray” because one encounters a bad one. Vouvray can be many things, from gutter rinse to a work of art. But the same is true of the wine of any region.
Loyau begins the tasting with his Mousseux, a sparkling Vouvray that he makes by the méthode champenoise. It is his pride and joy. “I make one like no other,” he says, gently twisting out the plump cork until a little whisper of sound and a curl of smoke escape from the bottle. “No one vinifies it like I do. They all want to hurry it along too much. Here is how I do it: I buy one hundred hectoliters of wine from three different cellars because I want the Mousseux to be from a blend of soils. That is important. From the three I make a single cuvée. If you don’t blend from different soil types, you will end up with a goût de terroir amplified by the second fermentation, the fermentation in bottle, which produces the sparkle, and so the goût de terroir would have too great an influence on the taste. It would be disagreeable. But if you blend your soil types, there is a strange phenomenon, the same phenomenon that is produced by mixing colors of the rainbow. Blend the fundamental colors of the rainbow and you obtain white, le blanc! Strange, isn’t it? And with Mousseux one observes the same phenomenon. I blend my soils until I find le blanc. That is how they do it in Champagne, only now they plant no matter where and they sell the wine within a year of the harvest. I hold mine for four years before selling it! When I find le blanc I put it into bottle, adding the yeast and sugar solution to induce the second fermentation. Then I lay the bottles down and I don’t touch them for at least three years.”
There are two Mousseux to taste, a 1978 and a 1976. Loyau remarks that the bead of the 1976 is quite fine. “You won’t find such a fine bead in those champagnes that are disgorged too young. We are champagne’s biggest competitors. Since they no longer make it as it should be made, the clients come here to buy. I have never sold so much Mousseux. Look at the pellicule.”
“One says pellicule—dandruff—for bead?” I ask.
“Pellicule, it means any very small particle. Like the pellicule on the skin of a grape, which is also called the bloom. If you rub a grape with your finger, you will see the powdery bloom. It is the source of a wine’s breed. I am sort of a professor, you know. I receive students from the University of Tours here in my cave. One day there were several students here with their professor, and I explained to them the importance of the bloom. It is also the most important element in wine’s fermentation. Afterward the professor said, ‘But I didn’t know that.’ Imagine, a professor who does not understand wine.”
When I express a preference for the 1978 because of its novel, exotic aroma, Loyau hesitates. “Perhaps … but that harshness in the aftertaste…”
It is Père Loyau’s gentle way of telling me that the 1976 is a finer wine than the 1978. When I retaste the 1976, I can see that it has more finesse from start to finish, and that the 1978’s violent aroma must seem a touch vulgar to him in comparison. Finesse is a word that does not have much meaning to American tasters, who use it when they are trying to find something positive to say about a light-bodied wine, but to a serious French winemaker it is one of the most complimentary words in the vocabulary, and to appreciate the noblest French wines one must learn to recognize and appreciate finesse. Most important, finesse is not another word for “light.”
“My Mousseux has this aroma because it rested sur lie,” Loyau continues. The lie is the natural sediment which falls from a wine during fermentation. “When you leave the wine sur lie, on its lees, you are beginning with a wine that has suffered certain violent manipulations, whose flavor bacteria are atrophied, neutralized. They are the living matter in a wine. They must be revived, renewed, if the wine is going to have any aroma. The lees restore the wine’s taste and aroma.” He raises a finger in the air, an exclamation point. “Very important!”
My thoughts turn to the cellars I have seen full of glittering instruments designed to remove any trace of living matter. When one tastes a wine that is alive, it can be a shock. Think of the difference between eating canned peas and those harvested in the morning dew. They could be two different species. Yet the wine world hurtles forward after a sort of canned-pea perfection, and we have reached the point at which wine drinkers confronted by a living wine are sometimes startled enough by the aromas coming off it that they decide the wine must be off.
“But my way takes time,” Loyau says. “Three to four years. It is costly. Imagine, the others have sold three vintages and collected their money. But one cannot be guided by profit. If you are, you end up with nothing of value. No, you must do whatever has to be done. And look, look at what you have in the glass! Your clients should understand all this, monsieur. You must explain it to them.”
I picture myself trying to convince a client to buy a sparkling Vouvray because of the dandruff on the grape, blending different soil types to achieve le blanc, and nourishing the flavor bacteria by leaving the wine three years on its lees. Mention bacteria and you have lost 99 percent of your clientele right there. No, most wine buyers are more interested in what their vintage charts have to say.
While Loyau uncorks a series of still Vouvrays, I ask him if he can find a barrel of a good Montlouis for me. Montlouis is also from the Pineau de la Loire, grown across the river on the Tours side.
“It is difficult to find anything decent at Montlouis,” he replies, rinsing our glasses with a splash of the next wine in order to eliminate any trace of that wildly aromatic 1978 Mousseux. “Montlouis produces too much wine. No matter where you are, if your vines overproduce you cannot make great wine. Here, taste this, a 1981 Vouvray sec. The production was thirty-five hectoliters to the hectare. This year at Montlouis they brought in 120 hectoliters to the hectare! Need I say more?”
His 1981 dry Vouvray shows a crystalline sensuousness. There is a vibrant nervosity at the wine’s core, while outwardly it seems tender and supple.
“In theory, our sec must not be too acidic,” Loyau says. “All this is subtle, you know. There is a certain suppleness here, which is typical of the vineyard, which is called the Clos des Roches…”
He pours another 1981 sec.
“… while this one, a Vouvray Clos du Petit Bois, shows above all a striking freshness, like freshly picked grapes.”
Vineyard names rarely appear on Vouvray labels, but they should, because the vineyard site is the genesis of a wine’s quality, whether you are in Burgundy, the Loire, or wherever. And Vouvray’s vineyards have names, lovely names. Wine is subject to fad, and when Vouvray again rises to the position it merits, we will see the specific vineyard sites designated once more on the labels. Here are some of the highly regarded growths, with Loyau’s comments on the origin of the names:
LA BOURDONNERIE. A wild site where bumblebees (les bourdons) seek shelter.
BEL AIR. A well-situated site that has a pretty appearance.
BARGUINS. A vineyard created after much hesitation by the proprietors. They shilly-shallied (barguigner) for a long time before deciding to plant.
BOIS RIDEAU (forest curtain). A forest rises above the vineyard, sheltering it from frost and hail.
GAIMONT. A knoll that receives lots of sunshine.
PARADIS. Vines that produce the fruit of the Creator.
LES GAIS D’AMANT. A site preferred by lovers.
LES MADÈRES. A vineyard near the village of Vernou whose wine in certain years has a flavor reminiscent of Madeira.
LA RÉVEILLERIE. A vineyard with an eastern exposure that receives the earliest rays of the sun (réveil = awakening).
LA QUEUE DE MERLUCHE. A parcel of vines that is shaped like a salted cod’s tail, which we call merluche (queue = tail).
Pierre Brejoux’s book Les Vins de Loire (1956, available so far in French only) names forty-six vineyards from an ancient classification of Vouvray’s terroirs, and points out that many of the names have something to do with hillside locations: Gaimont and Moncontour, for example. Indeed, there is a Clos le Mont listed, as well as a Clos le Petit Mont, which Monsieur Loyau is pouring into our glasses.
“1976 sec,” he announces respectfully. “Perhaps the most successful Vouvray vintage since 1947.”
A rich golden wine, well-structured, with plenty of sap and vigor, it is amazing how slowly and beautifully a fine Vouvray develops with age because normally one thinks of it as a rather feckless wine. The best vineyards, those chalky hillside sites, invest it with the backbone to support such an unexpected potential for aging.
Next Loyau pours from a mold-covered bottle that looks like a champagne bottle, but what fills the glass is not sparkling. The robe is deep gold with glints of green-tinged amber. I hold up the old bottle. It must weigh three times today’s wine bottle. “If you are pleased by this 1959 sec,” Loyau says, beaming, “I still have a little cache. It came from the same vineyard, Clos le Petit Mont.”
When I say that no one in the States would believe that twenty-seven-year-old dry Vouvray could still be drinkable, Loyau leaps up with the agility of a man sixty years younger and grabs me by the arm. “But, monsieur, I have bottles over a hundred years old. Come here, look at this, the cave du patron,” and he leads me through a little iron gate into the smallest part of his cave. There are bottles in racks, others stacked in little piles in the dirt. All are of that dark, heavy glass that they once used to protect their precious Vouvrays.
Loyau stoops and picks up one of the bottles and cradles it in his arms. “This was harvested grape by grape like they do chez Lur-Saluces. It is a Vouvray Moelleux, 1945. Next to it, those are 1947s. One is a Clos du Bourg, which is a great growth like Petit Mont. This one is Fouinières. Here are the 1921s. This is from 1919, but it is not as good. I give it to my grandchildren. They like to add cassis to it, make Kir out of it, and it is delicious! There, look at the vintages: 1874, 1858, 1847. In all the world of wine, Vouvray and Sauternes are the two that age the longest.”
He picks up a bottle of the Fouinières and Clos du Bourg, and we return to the table and our wineglasses.
“In 1947 I bought the entire harvest of Les Fouinières, twenty-five barrels. The proprietor was Monsieur Gaston Martin, but he is dead now, and alas, he had no children to follow him. It is still distinguished by a certain freshness, isn’t it? The Clos du Bourg is similar, but it has more scope, more length.
“I don’t uncork these very often, you know. I keep them for my five grandchildren and their children. I want them to know the experience of tasting wines like these. I never open them alone, but it gives me great joy to offer them to people who appreciate them.”
After rinsing our palates of those sweet 1947s with a taste of Mousseux, we turn to Loyau’s little collection of handpicked reds. There will be wines from the Rhône, Beaujolais, and Burgundy, and his passionate commentary will continue on into the late afternoon. My energy ebbs before his. What a man!
When I telephoned René Loyau to express my best wishes on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, he told me he was considering retirement.
“I am here with my family,” he said. “We have uncorked some old bottles. One of them is a little older than I am, an 1874. It was a wine given to my father for a service he rendered to the Château de Moncontour. It is showing well, but that is altogether normal because it comes from one of the best slopes. I still have some 1858, but I’m saving it for my hundredth birthday. You know, these Vouvrays, they hold up a long time.”
* * *
Instead of pointed down into a glass of the local wine, tourists in the Loire usually have their noses aimed skyward as they gaze at one of the region’s countless grand châteaux. These are not the stolid, bourgeois châteaux of Bordeaux. These are breathtaking monuments to the aristocratic splendor of another era, works of art in themselves, and much of French history transpired within their walls.
Joan of Arc was transformed from peasant girl to historical figure within the stone walls of the château at Chinon. Richard the Lion-Hearted died there. One of its proprietors was the sinister, ingenious Cardinal Richelieu.
Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the chapel of the château at Amboise. Louis XIV, the Sun King, used the same château as a prison.
Each château has its story, horrible and sublime, each its allure. However, all the treasures of the Loire are not aboveground, and a side trip to visit the wine cellars of Vouvray can be just as striking an experience for the wine-impassioned as a tour of Chenonceaux would be for the history or architecture enthusiast. Not only wine cellars burrow into the chalk cliffs overlooking the Loire River; there are human dwellings, too. Along the river there is a stretch of carved-out homes whose front doors are hinged to the rock and whose windows are cut out of it. They are not prehistoric sites left by troglodytes; they are still inhabited.
When you descend into one of the cavernous wine cellars and taste a gay, flowery Vouvray, you understand that this is a perfect environment in which to raise fine wine. Nowadays when I see a winery storing its wine outdoors, even if the stainless-steel tanks are temperature-controlled, I drive on past. As in rearing a child, the details of the home environment form a wine’s character. Underground there is a confluence of factors beneficial to a healthy evolution: the cold temperature, the humidity, the mineral walls. Vouvray’s wine is born underground where the vine roots suckle the cold, humid, chalky earth. The roots are wood. And there you have the constituents of a good cellar: low temperature, humidity, earth and wood smells. The air, the light, and the warmth of the sun, so essential to the health of grapes, are enemies of wine. What ripens the grape cooks the wine.
Wine is happy resting in the caves of Vouvray. Look for a similar environment for your personal wine cellar, because, even in bottle, wine prefers to develop in the same conditions under which the vine roots were nourished. It is as if it never left the womb, and a bottle of wine which has the luck to remain in such conditions is really born only when the cork is pulled.
While it would be an improbable event these days, should you find a restaurant around Tours serving a fresh fish from the Loire, poached and sauced, summon up a bit of courage and order a Vouvray demi-sec to accompany it. The marriage is a good one, and serves to illuminate what seem to be three contrasting but harmonious layers to the demi-sec, the velvety outer texture, a ripe, saplike intensity, and a snappy algid core.
* * *
Vouvray’s chalky hillsides are not the only site that invests the Pineau de la Loire with a certain magnificence. Some tasters prefer the flintier dry white from Savennières, whose vineyards lie farther west toward the Atlantic, just past the city of Angers. The little highway between Tours and Angers runs along the banks of the Loire, which makes it difficult to concentrate on driving because rivers have personalities. While the Rhône is powerful and swift, the Loire glides along with a stately air and makes you feel as if you are in too much of a hurry. Above, the sky fights for your attention whether it is in its luminous, majestic, deep-blue phase or filled with mountain-sized, salmon-pink clouds. Had Cecil B. DeMille filmed the Second Coming, he would have selected the sky above the Loire as its setting.
The area around Angers is called the Anjou. On the south side of the river, the wines are sweet. Corteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux, these and other even lesser-known appellations are perhaps too dependent on their climate to develop a faithful clientele. In cold years, it is difficult to find a saving grace. In hot years like 1947, when the grapes are blessed by an attack of noble rot, then you have something memorable, great bottles to rival the Sauternes. Wines from even the finest domaines of the region have not had much impact in the States.
Across the river, however, at Savennières, there is a small quantity of dry Pineau produced, and if it is vinified in the traditional manner, the results can be fantastically good. Having tasted a good one, one can develop a weakness for Savennières, and for the wine buyer who gives a damn about price, it presents one of those happy situations, a great wine, a noble wine, but little-known and consequently undervalued.
If Vouvray has the chalk, Savennières provides the blackboard, and the two wines are strikingly different. The change in the soil is first evidenced as one approaches Angers. In the blink of an eye, heavy black-rock-shingled roofs begin to predominate. The stony soil here contains schist, which splits into layers quite conveniently for home builders. It also accounts for the nerve and firmness at the heart of Savennières wine, for its finesse and the attractive tinge of bitterness in its aftertaste. The aroma can be grandiosely expressive; there can be a vibrant steely freshness to it, and suggestions of honey, flowers, and unexpected fruit aromas like quince, pear, and red currant.
If Savennières does not sound like the Chenin Blanc of California, neither does it taste anything like it. With other grape varieties such as Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay, the kinship between the California and French versions is easy to spot. With Chenin Blanc and Pineau de la Loire, the results seem totally unrelated. One can love Savennières and Vouvray yet remain aloof to Chenin Blanc. The difference is the soil, of course, and the climate. The Pineau is a late-ripening variety. Harvests usually do not commence until October, when the sun heads south and the daylight hours in the north grow noticeably shorter and shorter. This all means a long, gentle ripening season. The best vineyard sites have a southwestern exposure in order to catch the last gasp of sunshine. Other differences are due to the style of pruning the vines, the centuries of adaptation by the plant to Savennières soil and climate, the vinification, and myriad other details such as (who knows?) the brittle air of an Anjou winter.
There are only about a dozen wine domaines at Savennières. The most celebrated is the Coulée de Serrant. Its wine was drunk by D’Artagnan and his musketeer pals, thanks to the good taste of Alexandre Dumas. Was it Brillat-Savarin or Curnonsky who placed Coulée de Serrant alongside Yquem, Montrachet, and Château Grillet as the four most treasured French whites? Or was it Fernand Point, the great chef at La Pyramide, who began each day with a magnum of champagne and who tutored the likes of Bocuse and the brothers Troisgros? Whoever it was, Coulée de Serrant has long enjoyed an enormous if discreet reputation, and I had tasted old vintages which were quite impressive, so I was interested in importing it. However, accidents can happen to anyone, and the vintage for sale when I stopped by to taste suffered from excessive sulfur dioxide. In quantity, SO2 is a suffocating gas because it repels oxygen. For that very same reason, SO2 is a handy tool employed by nearly all winemakers. But if its malodor is detectable, a wine’s natural aroma will be smothered. Sulfur dioxide smells like a matchstick the moment it has been struck, and some tasters have mistaken sulfur dioxide’s matchstick nose for gunflint, an aroma, a desirable aroma moreover, produced by certain soils, including Savennières’s! After all, it is not difficult to tell the two apart. Sulfur dioxide sears the nasal passage; gunflint is subtle and fine. When I returned to Coulée de Serrant the following year to lay my hands on a good batch, it had already been snapped up by another importer.
Instead, I began working with the Château d’Epiré, property of the Bizard family, who still followed the old tradition of fermentation and aging in wood.
A Château d’Epiré is two things. It is a wine, and it is a sixteenth-century château in the village of Epiré. The winery itself is lodged in the château’s twelfth-century chapel.
I began importing Château d’Epiré with the 1971 vintage. Along with my order, Monsieur Bizard included a few samples of older vintages, the 1961 and 1947. Yes, Savennières is a white that ages well. And it is a wine particularly successful in what the wine journalists like to call “off-vintages.” The 1977 was lovely stuff and attracted a good bit of interest in the American wine press.
Everything went smoothly until 1985, when I arrived a few months after the death of Monsieur Bizard. The family was crushed. I was emotional. Tears flowed. And there were problems, they said, because Monsieur Bizard’s regular customers stopped buying once he was gone. Meanwhile, I noticed three new stainless-steel tanks standing on skinny, angular legs in a part of the winery where some of the old oak casks had once resided. Bizard’s charming daughter explained that he had enjoyed a good income from his rather large business in Paris which produced charcuterie for supermarkets. Epiré was his country estate, more pride and joy than profit maker. He could afford to ignore the bottom line, which was usually printed in red. They would love to continue crafting the wine practically by hand, but economic necessity would no longer permit it. To keep the price competitive with their neighbors’ wines, like their neighbors they would have to bring the vinification into the twentieth century. Making it in the old style was too labor-intensive. All those barrels to keep an eye on! And to avoid unhappy clients they had to make absolutely certain that the wine would never again throw a sediment.
Their dilemma gave us the opportunity to taste the same wine in two versions, the traditional and the modern-style vinification, side by side, because they had not yet converted all the cellar to tanks.
The modern style was already in bottle because modern methods allow one to coerce a wine to do quickly what takes months if the wine is left to its natural inclinations. It tasted bland and innocuous. It smelled of cardboard because it had been filtered through sheets of cardboard. Wine is incredibly impressionable. It is influenced by the most subtle details, from the soil in which the vines grow to a neighbor’s black-currant patch. Squeezed through the sterile pads, the poor wine expressed sterility and cardboard.
Then we began tasting, from barrel to barrel, cuvées from the same vintage that had been vinified following a tradition developed over many centuries. There was one big oval cask, called a demi-muid, that was ravishing. Here it is, I thought. This is why I drink wine, this why I put up with jet lag and cold hotel rooms. There was every reason to express my enthusiasm for the wine. They agreed sadly. Of course it tasted better. Yes, they would bottle it for me by hand this year, unfiltered, if I would accept responsibility should it throw any deposit. But this year’s might be the last like that because at the price there was no return, no profit. To survive, they had to change. It was depressing, and they were as dispirited as I was.
In fact, I would not buy the sterile batch no matter how low the price. What sort of person imports a wine he himself would not drink?
So I bribed them. I would pay a higher price, I offered, if they would continue to vinify grapes from their best parcels of vineyard in barrel, and bottle it unfiltered with a minimum dose of SO2. They agreed, and this special bottling, which is labeled Cuvée Speciale, is an example of Pineau de la Loire at its best, as it might have tasted a century ago.
So far, none of the vintages has thrown any deposit, but it could happen. It will happen, and when it does, some clients will return their bottles as defective. Deposit in a white is a thousand times less acceptable than in a red wine. I have noticed, however, that wine lovers have a great thirst for knowledge, so when someone returns a bottle to me because of a deposit, I return their money without quibbling. Only then will I explain why the wine has a deposit. It is quite possibly the sign of a natural wine, and if they want an unnatural wine there are plenty available and they would be better served elsewhere. When the customer leaves, it is more often than not with the very same wine in hand, and when he or she uncorks it, the pleasure will be greater because their understanding will be greater.
Three or four times I have seen an unfiltered wine go bad, a minuscule proportion of the unfiltered wines I have imported over the years. It may be unrealistic, but I believe that customers who have such a wine go bad in their cellar should accept the loss and shut up about it. Complaining scares your wine merchant, who in turn scares the winemaker, who then for reasons of security begins to sterilize his wines. And who gains from all that? If one loves natural wines, one accepts an occasional calamity. We would not castrate all men because some of them go haywire and commit rape. At least I wouldn’t.
* * *
There is a tribute due to the generations of anonymous vignerons who struggled to tame, nurture, and refine the Pineau de la Loire. Other grape varieties would have been easier. Summers are sunny in the Loire Valley and certain grape varieties would produce fruit ripe enough for harvesting in early September. But no, at Vouvray and Savennières, where the average harvest does not even begin until late October, the relevance and the inevitability of the Pineau de la Loire are now written into the laws of the appellation. Vouvray must be Pineau; Savennières must be Pineau. So the ancients took the hard road, and many winemakers still do despite the fact that the mass market, even the fine-wine market, shuns these masterpieces, despite the fact that the public would probably pay more for an Alaskan hothouse Chardonnay than for an exquisite Savennières. Perhaps the Pineau de la Loire, with its delicacy, its purity and finesse, is too baroque a wine to be well understood today. Or perhaps its day will come again. In wine as in the art world, tastes change. Our generation throws bundles of money after van Gogh paintings as if to make up for the absolute neglect by his contemporaries.
In the story of wine there is nothing more intriguing than trying to imagine the mentality of the ancient French vigneron. What a colossal oeuvre was created! It was a different mentality, certainly, guided by experience, taste, and instinct. The taste of the grape told them when to harvest. The taste of the wine told them when to bottle, what sort of oak to employ, the appropriate barrel size, how to prune the different grape varieties, and on and on and on. The traditions varied from village to village, depending on differences of grape variety, soil, and microclimate. The traditions that were in place at the beginning of the twentieth century were the result of centuries of trial and error. If the taste of the wine indicated that a steep, stony piece of land produced better wine, then that was the land they worked, regardless of the labor involved. If the public taste changed, they did not rip out their Pineau vines in order to plant Chardonnay. Do not think for a moment that they were ignorant people who did not know better. They seem to have been instinctively directed toward quality. Only in this century have we seen the hard-earned knowledge of the ancients discarded, almost overnight, in the name of progress. Witness the almost unanimous change in the Loire and in Bordeaux’s Graves district from fermentation in wood to fermentation in stainless steel. And now it has struck Puligny and Meursault, too. Witness the horrifying shift at Saint-Joseph, in the Rhône Valley, away from the steep, terraced hillside vineyards to the mediocre soil on the flat, easier-to-cultivate banks of the river.
Today’s mentality is different. The motivating instinct is different. Progress is no longer measured by quality; it is measured by security and facility.
Today, in order to prepare the soil for new plantings at Savennières, dynamite is often employed to pulverize the rock. No one can complain about that, but you might raise your glass to the fourth-century monks who did such chores by hand, inspired by a grueling obsession to produce a finer barrel of Pineau de la Loire.
Copyright © 1988 by Kermit Lynch
Preface copyright © 1988 by Richard Olney
Epilogue and “Kermit Lynch’s Twenty-five Most Memorable Wines” copyright © 2013 by Kermit Lynch
Photographs copyright © 1988, 2013 by Gail Skoff