A red dot in a sea of white (Chinon, France)

It was a little strange and unfamiliar at first, returning to winery visits and regions. Interestingly the last region I visited before my break was also in France, but was almost four months ago. I’d forgotten that fear of arriving late or not finding the winery but it came back a little bit. Visiting regions in the Loire Valley is almost like being in Inception as there are so many layers. For example you have the different parts of Chinon which sit around the town of the same name on the Vienne River, and they each have specific vineyards. Then Chinon is part of Touraine, which is then part of the Loire Valley. At this point we are already four layers deep, not including France and Europe. Chinon is the best known red wine appellation in the Loire Valley, although there is quite a bit of red vineyards mostly dedicated to rose in the whole region. They do make some white wine from chenin blanc, but it represents at most 5% of the vineyards and production. The important variety here is cabernet franc, and although there is more planted in Bordeaux, Chinon is the unofficial home of cabernet franc. Appelation laws allow them to use a percentage of cabernet sauvignon, but as sauvignon ripens later they don’t always get it to maturity in this cooler than Bordeaux climate.
Chateau de Chinon

My first appointment was with Domaine Bernard Baudry, the only producer I actually knew before coming here. This was only because in 2011 during the Tour de France we designed a six-pack of different French wines from areas the race went through, and we needed a red as it was mostly a white region year. We uncharacteristically stocked it without tasting it, and so I had no experience with chinon apart from knowing about the climate, variety and that the better wines tended to come from the warmer vintages. Bernard Baudry has a bit of a cult following and has his wines exported around the world, no insignificant feat considering he only established the domaine back in the ‘70s. Starting with only two hectares the vineyard plots now total 30 hectares all in the Cravant part of the Chinon appellation. Since 2000 he has worked closely with his son Matthieu who gained experience working vintages in Australia and California (in the same year!), and who welcomed me to the estate.

It’s quite beautiful this time of year, with the Autumn leaves falling

Thankfully the first thing we did was to drive out to some of the parcels of vineyards on the south-facing slopes where there are higher concentrations of chalk, gravel and limestone in the soil above clay. Mathieu and Bernard keep the terroirs separate but work them all in the same way. They aren’t officially organic but have been using the same sustainable methods for many years. Each terroir has a different soil composition, and this has a significant impact on the final wines. When we tasted through the wines it was great to taste each terroir wine from the same year to see how they expressed the same vintage. In the tasting room they have a great display of the soil compositions of each terroir, something I like to see as it is always something they are talking about but it is difficult for people to understand it without seeing it. The 2012 vintage just completed was much smaller than normal and also later, but the quality is apparently excellent. The wines are fermented in either cement tanks or in large oak vats, and only one of the red wines doesn’t see any oak. No new barrels are used for the maturation of the wines, and this helps the terroir and variety to express themselves more clearly in the wines. The philosophy is very simple, that the hard work must be done in the vineyards and the winery is merely used to translate the correlation of terroir, variety and vintage. I can dig it. Click here to read my tasting notes.

The cellars under the hill are being extended for more space

My second appointment was the first appointment in France where my host didn’t speak English, surprising considering this is the eighth region I have visited. I suspected this may be more the case in the Loire Valley when I received responses to my emails in French, and it gave me an indication that the Loire Valley is a little more provincial and agricultural than other regions like Champagne and Bordeaux. Suffice to say my French is not even elementary, and I can understand maybe 10% of what people are saying. This is however just enough to fake it and pretend I understand. It isn’t enough to get the technical details or more importantly ask question. The information I am providing here is purely what I was able to research and not what I discovered first-hand. Wilfrid himself is a very simple man and a true artisan agriculturalist, as I discovered when he jumped straight into a tractor after we had finished the tasting. The wines are mostly wonderful, and it was great to taste through so many vintages to see the difference between them and also how the wine evolves in the bottle.

No frills signage in the Loire Valley

Wilfrid established his estate back in 1987, and decided to locate himself in the western parts of the Chinon appelation closer to where the Vienne River joins the Loire. He now has just over 13 hectares of vineyards in the Savigny-en-Veron area which he tends in a biological method. There is quite a range of ages of the vines from five to 90 years of age, and are planted on varying soil types and slopes. He performs very careful fruit selection in the vineyards and there is often a green harvest for concentration and ripeness. The wines are all fermented in enox (stainless steel) tanks. Thanks to Chris Kissack from the Wine Doctor website for this information. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Wilfrid ferments all his reds in stainless steel tanks

My final appointment for the day was with the largest owner of vineyards in Chinon, but across four different estates. They are owned by two men which the wine business takes its name from; Baudry-Dutour. Chrisophe Baudry is a sixth-generation vigneron who took over his family’s estate in 1990, and joined forces with Jean-Martin Dutour in 2003 after he had done such amazing things at Domaine du Roncee with Christophes support. There are now four domaines that form the business, and the most recent acquisition was the winery I visited and is possibly the most impressive with its own chateau. Chateau de la Grille was previously owned by the Gosset family of Champagne who gave it their stamp by putting the wine in the same proprietary bottle shape. The four estates are located in different part of the appellation; two are to the north-west of the town and the others are east of the town. The wines are vinified on each separate estate with the exception of the Chateau de Saint Louans which is vinified at one of the other wineries. Having the four estates allows them to not only achieve economies of scale and significant power in the region, but also to express chinon in different ways depending on the terroir.

Chateau de la Grille, under construction

The appointment was set with Christophe Baudry by his assistant (I assume), but when he discovered I didn’t speak much French he left me in the hands of his tasting room staff member who had a much better grasp of English. They are doing some interesting things in the tasting room to educate visitors; a soil profile display, a chinon scent profile, and even comics explaining the viticultural and winemaking procedures. The cellars where the Chateau de la Grille wines are made are under the tasting room, and are pretty standard. Of the whole range only one of the wines sees any new oak, and any wines in barrel only stay there for a year. Without seeing the different domains it is difficult to say what their profile is and how they differ. A promotional video I was shown was lovely but said virtually nothing. If I don’t learn anything from one of these videos how is the average wine drinker going to? I tasted a variety of wines from each estate and it is good to see they are taking the Chateau de la Grille into a new direction, as the previous vintage I tasted resembled a Bordeaux rather than a chinon. The wines are all great quality but relatively straight-forward. Click here to read my tasting notes.

The odours of Chinon

Click here to see more photos from my day in Chinon, France.

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