DELICIOUS ‘OLD SCHOOL’ VOUVRAY FROM GUY SAGET

As much as we love Vouvray, we are willing to admit that it is a not the easiest genre to understand.  It is important to define one’s terms because the label doesn’t always dial it in for you.  Dessert Vouvray is usually labeled molleux, but beyond that it gets a little fuzzy.  You will see the word ‘trie’ on a label.   But with Huet that is a later harvest, with multiple passes through the vineyard, and typically something on the dessert end of the spectrum.  Yet Baumard also makes a wine with ‘trie’ on the label.  Same multiple passes through the vineyard, and it’s killer, too, but it is bone dry.

It’s the same when there aren’t words.  Some of the bottlings will say ‘demi sec’ or ‘tendre’ which indicates there’s a hint of residual sugar which we find an essential with Chenin Blanc.  Many labels simply say Vouvray, which doesn’t necessarily tell you what the style of the wine is.  It could be anywhere from bone dry to that demi-sec profile, which is kind of the tradition in this area.  Some of them can be downright sweet.  Life on the edge.

All of that being said, Saget is an old friend around here.  We have sold several vintages, and a whole lot of some of them.  The style of the house is definitely what could be described as ‘enlightened’ demi-sec that sits on the less sweet end of this very specific category.  We are huge fans of Chenin Blanc, the grape, but firmly believe that a touch of sweetness goes a long way in helping the varietal settle into a nice groove.  Chenin at its best has driving acidity and, like Riesling, a little sweetness helps temper the angry edges this varietal can have.  For most of its history as we know it, Saget lives in that ‘crowd pleaser’ area stylistically and they do one heck of a job at it.

The Saget La Perriere Vouvray Marie de Beauregard 2015 is once again an engaging mouthful, with bright fruit components of peach and citrus, with honeyed notes to the finish and a snappy cut of acidity that keeps everything quivering.  For its style, it is way too easy to quaff and it has pulled 91 or more from Wine Spectator in five of the last seven vintages as well as three ‘Smart Buy’ comments (under Saget La Perriere and previously under the label Guy Saget).   Not bad for something that sells for under $15 but it is hard not to like this.

Not surprising, the Saget La Perriere Vouvray Marie de Beauregard 2015 was again awarded 92 points by Wine Spectator and a ‘Smart Buy’ tout with comments, “ Juicy and ripe, with inviting pear, quince and fig flavors laced with light ginger and honeysuckle notes. Shows a flash of hazelnut through the finish. On the hedonistic side, but has the freshness for balance.“  It’s one of those sneaky little finds that ‘keeps on giving.’

 

B. MILLET SANCERRE LE CHEMIN BLANC 2017-THE REAL DEAL

It is interesting in talking to our suppliers about the current high demand for Sancerre.  Many told us they can’t keep the stuff in stock because of overwhelming on-premise demand and that a number of purveyors simply don’t bring the wines out to show as a result.  This demand might also explain why we have had a tough time finding good, well-priced Sancerre.  Demand has pushed up the prices, and a lot of , ahem, less compelling examples are coming to market.  That is why finding on like this is noteworthy.

B. Millet, a 22 hectare estate based in Bué, is a third generation Sancerre producer run by husband and wife Betty and Franck Millet. In Sancerre, there is a mix of limestone and chalk terroirs. Bué is a top village in the region and the majority of the domaine’s white wine vineyards are located on the limestone that accentuates the minerality that Sancerre is famous for.

This is a classic, archetypal Sancerre that combines a core of bracing acidity and focused flinty minerality with aromatic citrus, grapefruit and herbal notes. The cellar regimen here is stainless steel for the Sancerre Blanc and the vineyard work is done by hand, with a rigorous green harvest during the summer. The resulting wine her has enough tenderness to the fruit to avoid being severe, but sufficient acidity to hum on the nicely on the palate.

The B. Millet Sancerre Le Chemin Blanc 2017  is the real deal, definitely strutting the clear signature of the region and yet at the same time ‘user friendly’.  Given what we have seen from this heated market over the last few years, not to mention some unfortunate supply problems thanks to Mother Nature, we found the price performance here to be compelling as well.

 

Serious Saumur

We often make the joke that if a purveyor brings an average wine buyer three wines, he will buy one.  If they bring him 10, he will buy one.  We are geared a little differently.  We don’t believe in token buys.  If we taste 20 wines and aren’t thoroughly jazzed with any of them, we buy zero.  By the same token, if someone brings in three exceptional wines, we’ll buy all three.  That happened on the day we tasted the Haut Baigneux wines.  The purveyor also had in tow the Yvonne Saumur Blanc 2015, which thrilled even given the stiff competition.

There has been vineyards around this chateau in Parnay since the Middle-ages and the building itself dates back to the 1500s.  It was abandoned when Yvonne and Jean-François Lamunière took over here in 1997 with the intent of revitalizing the estate.  Matheiu Vallee took over in 2007 and kept their name on the property as an hommage to the work the Lamunières had done.  The property has been organic since 1997 and went biodynamic in 2012.

There are 3 hectares of Chenin Blanc in clay-over-tuffeau (the fine grained local limestone).  Perhaps a little more intentional gravitas here, the wine is fermented slowly over four months and malolactic occurs in oak, 30% new, and it is bottled unfiltered.  Oak doesn’t always play well with Chenin but it is clearly enlightened and perfectly integrated in this case.  There are a few more ‘bass’ notes to the quince and yellow pit fruit flavors, with a little more Chardonnay like feel in the mouth and a salty character that is somewhat Chablis like.  Serious stuff here.

Loire Young Guns

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.

SANCERRE: MORE THAN JUST WHITE WINE

A lot of you already know about things like Sancerre Rosé and Sancerre Rouge.  They have been interesting ‘alternatives’, but not necessarily something to seek out.  It seems that is changing a little bit and, while we have to allow for the fact that the vintages had an influence, we can recall too many cases where such wines could be stars in broader categories.

What are we getting at.  Well, first off, two of the best rosés we have had this year have been from… Sancerre!  That is hard to fathom in the sea of pink wine that has gushed forth this year, and we’ll admit to being just as surprised we were compelled to say it as you might be hearing it.  It all started the day we were filming a piece with Sancerre maestro Alphonse Mellot.  His 2016 traditional Sancerres were spectacular, by the way, but we expected that.  What got us scratching our heads even with all of the serious juice that was on the table was the Alphonse Mellot Sancerre Rose La Moussiere 2016.

This single-vineyard pink made from 100% Pinot Noir from a horse-plowed, limestone-rich, south-facing rolling hillside hits you up from with the classic strawberry fruit that Pinot-based rosés tend to show, but the subtle layers of insistent minerality are a bonus.  Can’t remember anything from Burgundy at this level and it’s half the price of some of those upscale Provence pinks and can play with some pretty serious dishes.

Not long after that we were presented with Andre Dezat Sancerre Rosé 2016 , an estate that, according to the small importer who now brings it in, has not had much presence in the U.S. until recently, having big clients in the U.K..  Glad this made it across the pond.  From soils that are limestone, sandy clay, and flint, this one really packs a mineral bent to the fruit.

Vinous’ Josh Raynolds’ notes ring true, “Brilliant orange-pink. Fresh strawberry, tangerine and honeysuckle on the mineral-accented nose. Bright and nervy on the palate, offering brisk red berry and orange pith flavors and a touch of white pepper. Closes stony and taut, showing good focus and a refreshing suggestion of bitter quinine.” A vivid, character-filled pink that will get your attention.

Maybe the biggest surprise of this trio is the Domaine Naudet Sancerre Rouge 2015.  Over the years we have slugged through countless undernourished Sancerre Rouges, Alsace Pinot Noirs and German Spatburgunders, many of which cost a lot more than this one.  But we dare say, here, you should not only consider this a pretty tasty, surprisingly user friendly Sancerre Rouge, but a consideration for a house Pinot!

This can hang with Pinots from anywhere and, though it is clearly more delicate than something from Santa Lucia Highlands (weight-wise think Central Otago), there is plenty of ripe cherry fruit to ‘bite into’ here.  Red berries and cherries, some earth and mineral, cool-climate tactile feel, all with the ripeness provided by the 2015 vintage.  Time will tell if this was a ‘one-off’, or some sort of break-out for the domaine.  From a 16-hectare estate founded in 1985 (with 3.5 hectare planted to Pinot…vines 20-45 years-old), this sees no wood and has modest alcohols (12.5%).   A bright, fresh, engaging Pinot.

SANCERRE’S ‘NEXT BIG THING’

Actually, the title may not be entirely ‘on point’.  In all fairness, Claude Riffault is already a big deal to fans of Sancerre.  The estate has been a consistent player producing captivating, true to type examples of the genre and getting big reviews.  What he hasn’t quite done yet is get to the upper tier price levels that it currently takes to buy labels like Vatan, Alphonse Mellot, and Paul Cotat.  However, there is little doubt that he can get there.  It wasn’t that long ago that Mellot’s wines sold for these kinds of prices (mid-$20 as opposed to around twice that now).   For now, these are still some of the best deals on elite quality Sancerre.

Riffault’s style focuses on purity, intense flavors, balance, and vineyard expression.  His last 2013s and 2015s pulled down tremendous reviews from Wine Advocate (among others) and, having tasted those two vintages ourselves, we can say without hesitation that the 2016s are right at that upper performance level.  Young Stephane Riffault has kicked up the quality here since taking the helm and has focused on more organic farming, an important point with regard to a genre like Sancerre where the wines rely on transparency.

The family owns 33 different (and quite small) plots on steep hillsides in four
different villages. Some are limestone while others are classic flint.  Everything is hand harvested and vinified by plot.  The results speak for themselves.  The Claude Riffault Sancerre Les Boucauds 2016 comes from steep slopes of Terres Blanches soils – marls and clays over Kimmeridgian limestone. Half Steel-aged, half neutral barrels, this one is broad in the mouth with a rounded profile of ripe grapefruit, yellow stone fruits, bright flavors and a tantalizing zing of acidity to the long finish.  The Boucauds has size and power on the attack but everything is perfectly proportioned. The last one (2015) was an Advocate 92, and this one is every bit of that.

The Claude Riffault Sancerre Les Chasseignes 2016 is a subtly-but-distinctively different take on the subject.  From shallow limestone soil and subsoil containing overlapping stones, also done in half steel and half neutral oak, this one is very Sancerre but more layered and nuanced with the flavors leaning more mineral.  A little less ‘pop’, a little more complexity, sort of the white wine version of the ‘iron fist in the velvet glove’.  Last year’s effort was a glowing 93 from Advocate and this little gem is a bit better in our minds.

To us this estate is importer John David Headrick’s ‘greatest hit and this young man is putting out some serious juice.  It’s only a matter of time before these command more serious d’argent (money).  If you love Sancerre (we do!), these are a must.

Bailly-Reverdy Sancerre Chavignol 2015

We have loved the flashy Sancerres and Pouilly Fumes from the 2015 vintage, and the Bailly-Reverdy Sancerre Chavignol 2015 is a fine example of why.  The best examples have a certain density and weight on the palate with both grapefruit and kiwi fruit notes vying for attention underscored by a persistent streak of minerality and a clean, well tucked-in slice of mouth watering acidity.  The Bailly-Reverdy Sancerre Chavignol 2015 is all of that and more.  Bailly-Reverdy has been a fairly recent discovery for us but their pure, clear expression of some of Sancerre’s best dirt (in Chavignol) definitely gets us going.  A combination of different chalk-clay soils (2/3 Marly soils and 1/3 Pebbly limestone). The vines are planted on steep slopes and that makes the work to be done in the vineyards very difficult.  But the results are special.

NEAR PERFECT (98 Points) DESSERT FROM HUET

“…2015 is an exceptional and historic vintage again at Huet (perhaps the best since 1997). I can only recommend to buy cases of all styles.” – Stephen Reinhardt, Wine Advocate #227, October 2016

It doesn’t take a lot to get us to talk about one of our favorite estates in the Loire, Domaine Huet.  What with the historic aspects, including Gaston’s story as a prisoner of war in Germany, the long success of the estate upon his return, the takeover by the Hwang family, and the eventual retirement fixture Noel Pinguet (he had been there since 1971) and the eventual taking of the reins by his former assistant Jean-Bernard Berthomé, there was never a lack of material to write about.

Of course, without the wine, there is no story.  Of course, we’ll be the first to admit that the timing of the winemaking transition over the course of a couple of difficult vintages did give us cause for concern.  Was Huet, one of our favorite estates, going to become ‘just another Loire producer?’  The thought was depressing.  But Berthomé hit back-to-back home runs in 2014 and 2015 and restored our faith.

As we said in an earlier piece on the 2015s, the 2015 Huet lineup serves as an exclamation point on what will be viewed as an important harvest for the Loire.   The recent Wine Spectator article on the Loire Valley in 2015 was glowing and the ‘Top Picks’ section looked like an advertisement for Huet with the top eight wines listed, and nine of the first 11, bearing the Huet label.  At the top of the list were Huet’s dessert (moelleux) offerings, destined to become modern day legends.  We wouldn’t be at all surprised to see one pop up in the Top 100, though quantities would barely justify that (not that such things concern the press).

A great Loire sweet is in a league by itself.  The complexity of late harvest Chenin Blanc and the pristine, precise acidity will enable these wines to age decades.  Great examples like this are rare because the conditions that must exist for this ripening process to occur in the place only happen once or twice a decade.  We fondly remember the historic 1996 and 1997 vintages and recently managed to scrape up a few bottles of Huet direct from their cellars from the great 1989 vintage (we still may have a few bottles).

What we’re getting at is that, for wines like this, and Huet in particular, this is a special moment.  These are best of breed, and, while they aren’t cheap, they are bargains compared to the elite Sauternes and Beerenauslese from Germany with whom they easily can stand.  The ‘Trie’ wines in particular are super labor-intensive, the result of multiple passes (or tries) through the vineyard.

This wine, however, is a little different, as the workers go through the vineyards and pick the heavily botrytized and/or raisined grapes first, berry by berry. This is why the 1ere Trie is called 1ere Trie – it is the “first pick.”

Let us reiterate…THIS WINE IS SPECIAL.

The wines from Huet’s Le Mont vineyard, from rockier soils, have a more pronounced streak of minerality and a firmer backbone that provides the structure for aging. The Wine Advocate’s Stephan Reinhardt had the Huet Vouvray Le Mont Moelleux Première Trie 2015 pegged as his favorite, noting, “This is super clear, ripe and aromatic on the nose, highly elegant and with lovely flinty flavors. Intense and concentrated, with great finesse and vitality, this is a highly elegant and perfectly balanced wine with a persistent grip and salinity. Great balance and harmony. 98 points.”

It is the Wine Advocate’s highest-scoring Loire Valley white wine for the outstanding 2015 vintage. It literally gets no better. And at $64.98 for a full bottle, it’s certainly one of the great values in world-class dessert wine that, incidentally, could potentially find itself cozying up to some spicier Asian preparations after a decade in the cellar.

Get this world-class gem while you can, historically wines like this come long once a decade.

Sancerre Lives: CLAUDE RIFFAULT

Claude Riffault Sancerre Les Boucauds 2015

There was a period not that long ago where we were bemoaning ‘paradise lost’ with respect to Sancerre. You often don’t fully appreciate something until you don’t have it anymore. We all have had an experience or two that illustrates the saying. Well, it also happens with wine. As buyers we are supposed to take care of a variety of different genres. In our case, we don’t have a quota that dictates how many Cabernets or Chardonnays should be in stock at any given time. We taste and buy what we think are the best representations of the genre. If that means 100, fine. If we can only find 10, so be it. There are even times in the past where we’ve ended up with nothing.

Our principle objection to what was coming out of Sancerre was the lack of ‘cut’. Sancerre is prized for its verve and precision, which over a few vintages there was lacking in far too many bottlings. Was this an attempt to tune Sancerre to the broad market palate? Was the genre simply at odds with ‘global warming’? Yes, the wines have to have fruit. The trick is to have both fruit and snap. One of the producers that brought us out of our Sancerre ‘funk’ a couple years back was Claude Riffault. His 2013 Les Boucauds dazzled with both the mineral infused grapefruit and pear flavors, and that pop to the finish that left the tongue begging for more. We got excited about Sancerre again, and have been having a pretty fine run of late. But we pay special attention when the Riffault wines come along.

This domaine is now under the direction of Claude’s 30-something son, Stéphane, who is younger than most of the vines (30-40 years old) that he’s working with in this vineyard. Stéphane organically farms the hillside chalky soils, harvests by hand, carries the crates out of the vineyard by hand, and sorts them rigorously before a single grape is crushed. All is done in stainless steel to preserve the wine’s freshness and the fruit’s verve. In other words the young man does ‘all the right things’, and it shows in the wine’s purity and precision.

There’s an insistent minerality and a clean cut of acidity in this textbook effort of the Claude Riffault Sancerre Les Boucauds 2015, overlaid by an energetic, yet tender-edged blast of those familiar elements of grapefruit, kiwi, and quince. This is what great Sancerre used to taste like, in an even more deeply textured, saline sort of way. Loads of fruit, all stainless steel and the nerve to counterbalance the weightier texture Riffault achieves with this wine, perhaps that volume amplified a little more by the 2015 vintage. While he is still early in his career, it is clear that Stéphane has ‘touch’.

The notes from Wine Advocate’s Stephan Reinhardt, who is clearly ‘on board’ again, sound familiar to our descriptions of both the 2013 and this 2015. Stéphane clearly has his groove on. In Reinhardt’s words, “…the 2015 Sancerre les Boucauds is a very clear, fresh and aromatic flavored wine that was partly fermented in stainless steel and partly in French oak barrels. Full-bodied and elegant, the wine has a round, almost creamy sur-lie texture, but also a refreshing, very well-integrated acidity. The 2015 has power but also a serious phenolic and mineral grip; it comes along as a persistently aromatic, well balanced Sancerre with well dosed power and lingering fruit flavors. Very nice purity and texture…92 points”.

It may be a little premature to make predictions, but we see a lot of similarities between Stephane Riffault’s wines and some of the earlier efforts of Cotat before things went a little over-the-top there. Certainly comparisons with Alphonse Mellot are reasonable as well. In other words the ‘kid’ is already playing at a high level, and the biggest difference between his wines and the other notables we mentioned is…the price. Killer juice and still something of a value!

BRETON BOURGUEIL FRANC DE PIED 2015

BRETON BOURGUEIL FRANC DE PIED 2015

Cabernet Franc can be trying, but when the fruit gets to a certain ripeness, they are magic. Of course it takes just the right situation for them to hit that highest note, and nature has to cooperate. The Breton Bourgeil Franc de Pied 2015 is one of the most haunting examples from this particular appellation we have had ever. But it’s only Bourgueil, you say? How good could something from such a modest, utilitarian section of the Loire be that outstanding?

As we have said so often in Burgundy (it applies here, too), the three most important things about a wine are the producer, the weather, and the dirt. The Bretons have been a favorite of ours since we started selling a lot of their stuff back in the 2005 vintage. Catherine and Pierre Breton are as ‘blue chip’ as it gets in this part of the world. They always do fine work in both Bourgueil and Chinon (as well as a little Vouvray ). When Nature is kind, their game improves exponentially. So these grapes fell into the right hands.

The next part in this case is the ‘dirt’, or more specifically the vines. The term Franc de Pied refers to vines that are ungrafted. They exist on their own root-stock which makes them more vulnerable to phylloxera and other issues. They need special care. Given the difficulty of the vineyard maintenance and the special conditions the vines need to thrive, plots like this are relatively rare. But because the material is homogenous, it is capable of a depth of flavor and an almost exotic expression of the varietal. This simply has another gear or two by comparison to mere mortal bottlings.

Finally, in case you haven’t heard, 2015 is a uniquely special vintage. It was beyond exceptional here. We can count the vintages like this we have experienced on one hand. But not only was 2015 outstanding, it excelled in the most conspicuous of ways. Most 2015s have almost uniformly endearing, jump-out-of-the-glass type fruit components that should appeal to experienced palates and novices alike. Loire reds are no different in 2015. The Breton Bourgeil Franc de Pied 2015 simply jumps higher! The effusive nose shows notes of violets, wild herbs, fresh leaf tobacco and a little note of pepper as accents to the central theme of mulberry and red currant fruit. In the mouth, the plump, supple, gentle, but expansive fruit comes to the fore and takes charge, with gentle tannins and subdued acidity. No ’green’ flavors anywhere.

We have occasionally spoken of how a wine can succeed in a way that transcends its varietal and appellation to almost become something else. This is one of those cases, the wine existing on a plane somewhere between optimally ripe Bourgueil and a reserve Pinot from Oregon. It’s almost an ‘umami’ thing. It is definitely a delicious thing that can be enjoyed for pure hedonism, or pondered for its uniqueness and complexity. A must, we took all of it…$29.98