As we so often remind people, we have been doing this a long time, and our ‘wines tasted’ tally might look something like the old McDonald’s ‘burgers sold’ signs. Yet, still, there are always new things to find. In all of the time we have spent in introducing people to new wines, we don’t ever recall using the words Touraine Azay-le-Rideau in a sentence. Yet, as lovers of Chenin Blanc at its best, we have recently come to know this obscure appellation in the Loire because one of the hottest new winemakers in the region happens to be working there.
First the appellation. Located east of Samur and northeast of Chinon, Touraine Azay-le-Rideau is a small designation comprised of only 148 acres of land made up of flinty clay, clay limestone and Aeolian sand mixed with clay soils. It isn’t a place even most wine-savvy folks are familiar with. PLus, it‘s hard to get people’s attention in this part of the region if you are competing with the other main claim-to-fame beverage of the area, Grolleau Rose. But if you are good enough, you will rise above (though probably not as quickly as in a more mainstream media haunt like Napa or Bordeaux).
As for history of the region, it has apparently been producing wine since Roman times, and currently has nine producers. Domaine des Hauts Baigneux only dates back to 2013 when old friends (but not old guys) Nicolas Grosbois and Philippe Mesnier purchased 12 hectares of grapes. They immediately began farming all the vines organically, and set about on an ambitious project to reintroduce the wines of Azay-le-Rideau to a thirsty world. As you might expect with a varietal as transparent as Chenin Blanc, the fermentation is done with natural yeasts only and there is minimal intervention in the cellar including limited to no use of sulfites in bottling.
This is our first go-round with Hauts Baigneaux so we aren’t sure how much the 2015 vintage had to do with these fresh, pristine wines. As such, we aren’t ready to declare these guys the second coming of Huet or Chidaine, but the wines impressed the heck out of us.
The Hauts Baigneux Touraine Azay-le-Rideau Blanc Chenin 2015 comes from two vineyards, one in Hauts Baigneaux and one in Sache, with vines 30 to 60 years of age. The grapes were harvested by hand and fermented in demi-muids (600-liter barrels roughly 2.5 times the size of a ‘regular’ barrel, probably ‘neutral’ in this case). The wine then spent 18 months in contact with the lies in a combination of demi-muids, concrete ‘eggs’ and regular barriques.
This shows classic Chenin flavors of peach, apricot and quince, hints of honey and vanilla, with a good bit of subtle but insistent minerality underlying everything. There is a pleasing, slight waxiness to the texture approximating physical fruit, and a precise, restrained clean nip of acidity. The style here we would describe as demi-demi-sec, which hits the perfect note. Some bone dry Chenins can be bitter in the finish, and some demi-secs can be a touch sweet. This one strikes the just the right chord and the acid gives it just the right tension. This will age as well, too, only 300 cases made.
Hauts Baigneux Clos des Brancs Touraine Azay-le-Rideau 2015 comes from a single, one hectare plot in the Sache parcel, again with 30-60 year old vines surround by a wall (hence the clos thing). It is the absolute best parcel according to the domain, near the top of the hill and with a distinctly rockier profile. This wine is also done in neutral oak and concrete eggs, and the more specific terroir shows and even more insistent minerality than the Blanc Chenin with subtle whiffs of toast from the lees.
If you are a fan of great Chenin Blanc and the names we mentioned earlier, these wines are a find and they might well turn out to be the next big things with a couple more vintages under their belt.