VINTNER’S TALES By Richard Household
Be brave and explore!
As winter begins to release her icy grasp on the countryside, life begins to rise up again. There is much to do in the vineyard to prepare for the new growing season. As spirits lift, I thought I would take this opportunity to suggest broadening your wine drinking and recommend some lesser known regions and some grape varieties that you might consider. Wine drinking is a journey of discovery! Take risks, try different things – it won’t always be successful but when it is, there is more pleasure to be had.
Let’s start with Chenin Blanc. It is a wonderful grape variety and, I think, hugely underrated. Most of us might associate this grape with South Africa but Chenin’s spiritual home is the Loire Valley. It makes some of the finest white wines, sparkling, dry and sweet. Crémant de Loire is a wonderful alternative to Champagne, great value and much better than Prosecco. Move away from the Prosecco! An excellent entry level sparkler is Bouvet Ladubay, produced around the famous old town of Saumur. Go and visit them and explore their huge underground cellars. Look out for the wonderful wines from Vouvray, Anjou, Savennières, Chaumes, Bonnezeaux and so on. These are amazing and historic wine producing regions that we don’t see outside France so much these days. They are all made from Chenin Blanc. In late Winter and early Spring these wines are magnificent – full flavoured with citrus and a hint of stone fruit, so lemons, oranges and some peach and nectarine with pear and a little honey. The wines are beautifully textured.
Last Summer I travelled quite a bit through the Loire and one the places I enjoyed the most was staying (and tasting!) at Château Soucherie, not far from Angers. The views out across the Layon Valley were stunning. They have two cottages where you can stay and I would thoroughly recommend it as long as you like dogs. We were the only people staying there at the time and they have an enormous great bear of a Bernese Mountain dog called Ixel, who roams the Château and vineyards making sure there are no unwelcome visitors. I came away with a pallet of wine and if my wife could have done, she would have stuffed Ixel in her suitcase and brought him home – he was the soppiest, friendliest ‘guard’ dog you will meet! For those wine lovers amongst you it is well worth a visit. The beauty of Chenin Blanc is that is makes everything from sparkling wine through to some of the finest sweet wines you will ever taste. Château Soucerie has small plot in the famous vineyard of 1er Cru Chaumes. The key here is the terroir, with its schist. It gives the wines a minerality and freshness to balance the sweetness – truly one of the great sweet wines of the world. They also produce my favourite Savennières called Clos des Perriers.
As you may have guessed from previous Vintner’s Tales, I do enjoy my visits to South Africa and this is where Chenin Blanc has become so well-known. Not all of it is good. Much South African Chenin is mass produced and not much more than alcoholic grape juice – best avoided! In the right hands, however, it can excel here and can produce wines of depth, flavour and enormous character. There are plenty of examples but I want to focus on Swartland. It’s a rather trendy region at the moment which would normally put me off but it’s worth explaining why you should look out for wines from this hot, arid and mountainous area north of Cape Town. Most of the vines here are very, very old and bush trained. Yields are ridiculously low but the resulting wines are rich, concentrated and powerful with wonderful fruit and complexity. The roots have to dig deep in search of moisture and many of the vines are planted on mountain slopes to help retain freshness. They are really interesting wines and no-one is making better examples than David & Nadia. Superb wines.
Another lesser known region is Blaye, one of the smaller and much less fashionable appellations in Bordeaux. Generally, we all buy wines from St Emilion and Pomerol or across the river from Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac and St Estèphe. It’s a bit of drive to get to Blaye and the wines have a reputation of being harsh, tannic and underripe. This reputation is out-dated and you can find some wonderful wines here. In addition because the region is not so well-known, the prices are really good! There is some white wine here, but mostly it is red and very good it is too. My favourite producer is an organic vineyard called Château Bel-Air La Royère. Corinne Loriaud is the hugely talented winemaker and she has some of the finest vineyards in Blaye. What makes them so special is elevation and the terroir. Blaye is hilly, much hillier than most other parts of the Bordeaux region and there is also the classic Bordeaux terroir of limestone and clay. Limestone gives the wine minerality and structure while the clay gives the wines a more generous texture and ripe fruit.
I’m not normally a huge fan of Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a wine that I might enjoy on a hot summer’s evening and then move on to something more serious but Corinne has a tiny plot of Sauvignon Blanc which she only makes a wine from in very good years. It is extraordinary! She is, however, most famous for her reds and her Grand Vin is a blend of Merlot (the most widely planted grape on this side of the river) and Malbec. Malbec is a Bordeaux grape – it went to Argentina from Bordeaux. It is being planted a little more again and Corinne loves it. She says that it brings spicy, earthy, rich character to blend with the juicy, fruity, ripe Merlot. The result is a superb wine that offers great value compared to the more famous wines from St Emilion and Pomerol. Blaye is worth a visit when you are next in the Bordeaux region. It is easy to stick to the well-trodden wine path of Bordeaux City, the Médoc and St Emilion but Blaye is a lovely old town with a majestic fort and great restaurants.
Be brave, explore and happy tasting!