Everybody needs good neighbours (Pouilly, France – Day One)

In the world of wine there are a few appellations that neighbour each other and are almost identical in terms of the climate, variety and style. Yet for some reason they aren’t as large or well known as these neighbours. One that comes to mind is Barbaresco and Barolo, the former being a third of the size and yet both are made from nebbiolo and are planted on the same soil type. Another more recent one I visited was in Touraine where the king of whites is Vouvray, but just across the river is Montlouis-sur-Loire where they also produce crisp fresh white wine from chenin blanc. Adding to this is the Pouilly-Fume appellation, which sits on the eastern/left bank of the Loire River, is about 40% the size of Sancerre and is also made with sauvignon blanc. There are some similarities in terms of soil with variations of clay, flint and chalk (much like in Chablis in fact). An interesting difference is that there is an additional AOC within Pouilly called Pouilly-sur-Loire, surrounding the town of the same name, which is exclusively planted to the more traditional chasselas variety and totals only 50 hectares. There is enough similarity in the style to be able to buy Pouilly-Fume instead of Sancerre and not be disappointed, particularly as the prices are a little friendlier. Head into your local independent boutique wine store and get them to recommend some alternatives to the better known wines you may drink, and you may discover something even better for the price.
Chateau de Nozet, the unofficial heart of Pouilly-Fume

Whilst I ended Sancerre with the largest vineyard holder and producer, I started my time in Pouilly with the largest and certainly the grandest. Domaine de Ladoucette sits just off the highway to Paris, and you can see the gorgeous chateau as you drive past. It has belonged to the Comte Lafond and Ladoucette families since 1787 when the illegitimate daughter of Louis XV sold it to them. Baron Patrick de Ladoucette is the current owner, and he has done an immense job in bringing the deserved recognition to Pouilly-Fume. There are about 100 hectares of vineyards planted at Domaine de Ladoucette, which represents almost 10% of the entire appellation. There are roughly 60 permanent staff employed at the estate (plus another 50 during the harvest), spread across the chateau, gardens, winery and vineyards. There are also cassis plants in the bottom part of the bowl-shaped property where the soils are too rich for viticulture, and a cassis liqueur is produced from the fruit. In addition to the de Ladoucette property the family also owns numerous estates across France; in Sancerre, Vouvray, Chinon, Chablis, Champagne, Beaune and even in California. The family-owned approach is still very important however, regardless of how large the vineyards or wineries get.

Glass-lined cement tanks used for settling and racking of the juices

It was at de Ladoucette that I met another ex-pat who moved to France, this time from Sussex about 12 years ago. My guess is that like others I have met Rachel Ball moved here for love, but I don’t really think you need a reason as it is such a beautiful part of Europe to live. Rachel very generously welcomed me first thing in the morning, managing to fit me in before she then went on holidays. She showed me through the immaculately maintained and continually renovated cellars where the wines are produced. After sorting and pressing the juices are left to settle in glass lined cement vats, racked and then transported to tanks for fermentation. Apparently de Ladoucette was controversially one of the first wineries in France to use temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks to ferment the wines, something that is now used in almost every modern winery in the world. In fact the winery still uses some of the prototypes of this type of tank, which after only 40 years is practically a relic. Back in the ’80s a new facility was built in the style of the 200 year old cellars, but this time including an additional level to make the winery more gravity-friendly. Blending wines from 100 hectares of vineyards is no mean feat, as there are dozens if not hundreds of different wines kept separate until the assemblage. The wines perfectly display the minerality and briskness of the variety and the terroir, and as shown in the 2005 I tasted are very age-worthy. Click here if you would like to read my notes from the tasting.

One of the prototype temperature-controlled tanks

Finishing about 3.5 hours before my next appointment I returned to the motel to continue working and also Skype my parents to talk about the plans for their impending arrival in Italy. I returned to Les Berthiers which is only a few hundred metres north of Chateau de Nozet to visit the second (and third) winery of the day, Domaine Chatelain. Not unlike many of the other estates I have visited in France, Domaine Chatelain is and has been family-owned for generations dating back to the 17th century. Vincent Chatelain is the most recent owner, and he is the 11th generation to run the business. They own over 30 hectares of vineyards in the Pouilly-Fume AOC, and 0.07 hectares in Pouilly-sur-Loire. The majority of the growth in vineyard plantings was made by his father, who took the estate from less than 10 hectares to over 30 from the ‘70s until the late ‘90s.

Fermentation tanks at Domaine Chatelain

Chatelain owns six vineyards across the seven different soil types that can be found in the area. This means they have plenty of flexibility and expressions each vintage when it comes to blending. It also means keeping a lot of wine separate through the processing and fermentation. Temperature control plays a very important role, from the initial filtration of the juice, to the fermentation, and then the tartaric acid stabilisation. Vincent took me through the winery and discussed the 2012 vintage. The quality is very good but it is still early, some wines only just finishing fermentation and the remainder in tank with or without the fine lees. After the bottling Vincent likes to keep the wine for at least six months before release so that they aren’t looking too closed and crisp, preferring them to have opened up a little once in the market. Some barrels are used for some of the cuvees and even one or two finished wines, but this is very small in comparison to the rest of the production. Export markets have of course become more important as the French are drinking less, and currently the winery is looking for a new importer in Australia. Anyone interested? The wines are all very good; exceptional minerality and finesse with good balance and fruit. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Bottles of Domaine Chatelain in storage

The final winery I visited is actually Vincent’s neighbour, so it was the shortest commute between wineries I think I’ve had on this trip. The winery is Domaine Serge Dagueneau et Filles. The Filles in the name is important to remember, as unlike many other estates which involve working with sons (fils), Serge brought his daughters into the business. Until recently it was run by Florence and Valerie Dagueneau, but tragically Valerie’s older sister passed away two years ago and she now runs it with her parents. Valerie is a true brass-tacks kind of person, straight shooting but unbelievably open and enthusiastic. When I arrived (a little late as I was chatting with my previous host) she was showing a largish group of French people her wines. It turns out that they were a group of Master of Wine students from Beaune in Burgundy, which was surprising as they certainly didn’t expectorate like seasoned wine tasters. In speaking with one of the group I should have known they were fairly experienced, considering he knew a couple of really good Australian producers, which is rare even for French producers unless they have worked in Australia. I waited patiently for Valerie to finish with the group, preferring not to taste until I had learnt and seen more to better understand the wines when I tasted them.

Some of the Serge Dagueneau & Filles vineyards

Once I had Valerie to myself she showed me through the winery and introduced me to the philosophies. They own about half the hectares that Chatelain do, both in Pouilly-Fume and Pouilly-sur-Loire, but on less of the soil types. Whilst they aren’t fully organic or bio-dynamic they are most certainly sustainable, and are really careful about what they do in the vineyards and when they do it. They own some pretty old vines, particularly chasselas, and when they vinify and bottle the wines coming from these vineyards the difference is noticeable. In terms of vinification there isn’t anything anything particularly different they do for the white wines, but they do make some chardonnay and pinot noir from a different appellation which spends a little time in barriques. For me the most important difference in the quality of the wines is the level of ripeness and concentration; there is a depth and complexity to the wines from the ripeness of the fruit I didn’t see in the other estates. This isn’t to suggest they are particularly fruity, in fact they have great acid and minerality to balance, along with some green notes too. They are great expressions now but will also age quite well and show more complexity over time. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Tanks at Domaine Serge Dagueneau & Filles

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

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