Loire Chenin: Dividing Lines


Black and white stripes are generally reserved for zebras, but not in the city of Angers. Not only does its soccer team, SCO Angers, play in a black-and-white-striped kit, but its imposing limestone fortress, complete with fairy-tale turrets, is laced with black bands of local schist, creating an idiosyncratic two-tone façade, which exemplifies the two different rock formations of this area.

The Chenin lands of the Loire are concentrated around Angers and Saumur, and it is between these two cities that the metamorphic rocks of the Massif Armoricain meet the white sedimentary hues of the Parisian Basin. On these black schist and gneiss foundations, referred to as ‘Anjou Noir’, Chenin Blanc typically displays – using a broad brushstroke – a sense of power and a certain bitterness. In contrast, Chenin Blanc grown on the various limestones of, say, Saumur and Vouvray, display greater tenderness and chalky finesse. But when is wine ever that simple?

Just when you think you are beginning to gain some confidence in the ground beneath your feet, it turns out to be in even greater turmoil. I’m in the appellation of Savennières, a 20-minute drive from Angers, and wherever I go, the term “geological chaos” is bandied around. It’s a phrase so often cited that I have created my own game of bingo when it is mentioned. It provides some comfort when vignerons reel off a list of the many other soil types you’ve never heard of before – phtanite, rhyolite or spilite, for example. Then there’s topsoil to consider, which can be deep and sandy, making for lighter styles and a plethora of other combinations. And all this in a tiny appellation of just 140 hectares (not counting the enclaves within Savennières that have their own appellation. Roche aux Moines and Coulée de Serrant). It’s enough to make your head spin.

Saint-Aubin de Luigné lies in the heart of Anjou Noir country, which is home to Thomas and Charlotte Carsin and the Terre de L’Élu vineyards.

Chenin Blanc is a variety that can, like the region’s bedrock, metamorphose, depending on the pressures exerted on it, whether that’s the viticulture, the winemaking or the weather – of which more later. Stylistic chaos is as prevalent as geological chaos in Loire Chenin Blanc. This shy variety is interpreted in many ways, and I’m not just talking about the level of residual sugar that remains in a finished wine. Many choose to allow their musts to ferment spontaneously, a practice that’s increasingly favored among artisanal producers, along with the use of different fermentation vessels, from oak barrels to foudres and clay amphoras. There’s also a decision to make over lees – Chenin can easily become reductive if left on lees, but it is also prone to oxidation, so a careful balance has to be struck. 

Back in the vineyard, not only are growers trying to make picking decisions based on ripeness and flavor, acidity and phenolics, but they also have to decide whether to wait for the fruit to botrytize – even if they plan on making a dry wine. It’s a common component in the Joly family’s wines, but some wine producers don’t like the honeyed, exotic note that botrytis can give their wines. Moreover, botrytized fruit comes with additional risks, including premature browning and oxidation, which is caused by the laccase enzyme and more likely to cause damage when winemaking involves low or no sulfur and time on lees. Sulfur seems to have become an enemy for an unreasonably large bunch of Loire Chenin makers – and their ardent supporters.

I have no issue with low-sulfur regimes when they’re done well. Still, a noisy group of campers in the natural wine field has decided that the smell of the cows from the neighboring farm should be part of their vineyard’s expression, as displayed in glasses of cloudy wines. It is anathema to wine’s entire purpose: beyond intoxication, we drink wine for pleasure, and it is difficult to find pleasure when it smells like rough cider. For millennia, wine has been ameliorated because we did not have the know-how to make wine that would not spoil quickly. Glass bottles, corks, sulfur and many more scientific advances have allowed drinkers thousands of miles away from Vouvray or Saumur to enjoy these wines in perfect condition, months, years or even decades after they were first bottled.

The Anjou, in particular, has been a hotbed of innovation and experimentation because the cost of land is negligible compared with the Côte d’Or, and young producers can afford to trial their ideas on another non-aromatic grape variety in a region that sits on the same latitude as Dijon (47.3˚N). Plenty of exciting newcomers are growing their grapes organically and making low-intervention Chenins that are clean, pure and expressive. At some point, however, clean became a dirty word. It is a positive attribute that centuries of winemakers would have given their right arm to achieve. There is no excuse for making wines that lack pleasure and are technically faulty – we are not living in pre-Pasteur France. 

What’s certain is that fine wines should have a personality, but that it should not be derived from faults.

Clos Rougeard may be best known for its reds, but its barrel fermented Brézé Blanc is one of the standout whites in the Saumur appellation.

A Year Is a Long Time in Wine

In last year’s report on Chenin, Wait a Sec, I discussed the 2021 season and its cool climate personality: light-bodied and taut with mouthwatering, occasionally eyewatering, acidity. Following a trio of warm vintages in 2018, 2019 and 2020, leading to some exotic and alcoholic styles, 2021 provided Loire lovers of yesteryear with a glimmer of hope that climate change had not yet entirely had its way with our traditional wine styles.

Yet it was a season most winemakers would like to forget, including Louis Germain, who returned to join his father running the family’s winery Domaine des Roches Neuves the previous year. The weather caused trouble from start to finish: a liberal amount of frost, leading to miserly yields followed up with plentiful rain and little warmth. Charlotte Carsin of Terre de L’ Élu in the Anjou region remembers “going to the beach in gloves in August.” Faced with such unseasonal conditions, it was no wonder that there was fungal disease pressure, but it was the last thing growers needed after spring frosts and hail in parts of the region that had already slashed their yields. A mainly dry September allowed most to attain ripeness with what crop was left after the season’s onslaught.

While there are wines that attest to the difficulties of the season, not to mention the lack of availability, the best 2021s bristle with energy and concentration. Cool climate purists who embrace clarity and acidity over ripeness of fruit and generosity will be in their element. And many of the local winemakers have been surprised that despite the travails of 2021, they rather like the classical result. Wines from 2021 are still current releases for many of the finest domaines although be aware that some have yet to move on from their 2020s. Release policies are producer dependent with Domaine Belargus launching its 2020 vintage before 2019 due to the latter’s rather muscular, forceful personality.

In Saumur, Clos de l’Écotard works organically, biodynamically and plows by horse.

In a similar vein to the producers of Chablis in 2021 and 2022, as recently discussed by my colleague Neal Martin, the Chenin growers in the Loire experienced two vastly differing seasons. In 2022, there was little or no frost damage, leading to an abundance of fruit on the vine, making growers hopeful of a year that would replenish the cellars after a pitiful volume the previous year. In contrast to 2021, which experienced the wettest May, June and July in 60 years, the summer of 2022 was marked by drought. A record 45 days without rain (between July 1 and August 15) compounded an already low rainfall year, leaving the Loire at its lowest levels since 1976. In addition, average temperatures around the Tour area were close to 30˚ C, compared with an average of 26˚ C, regularly surpassing 35˚ C, according to the French national weather service, Météo France. This lack of water meant the berries of this potentially abundant crop remained small and hard, with maturation blocked until rain fell in the second half of August and early September.

These conditions meant growers had to be careful about fruit selection if they were aiming high. Sarah Hwang of Domaine Huet says, “Going into the August holidays, there were a lot of bunches on the vine, so we needed a little bit of water. The vines hadn't progressed much when we got back in August, and we had to rediscover the idea of patience because we've become so used to reacting [in recent warm vintages]. We had so much time because there was only one day when it rained during harvest. Towards the end, there was a bit of rot, but certain bunches were still rock hard, and there was a high level of sorting: we rejected 25% [of the crop] at the sorting table.”

The lack of juice also made pressing tricky. While this was more problematic for the red varieties, Chenin is a phenolic white variety, and it can be naturally bitter, which is attractive in small doses but is best served by hand harvesting and gently whole bunch pressing to avoid unpleasant tannin. Unfortunately, there is an awkwardness in a few of the early released examples that may be more apparent as more wines from the vintage are coming into the market, particularly those wines made with grapes picked on sugar ripeness rather than phenolic ripeness, but this is the great dilemma for growers. Leave it too late, and you face high alcohol levels too, which further exaggerates the elbows and knees of a wine.

Sitting in the heart of Saumur, the hard-to-find Domaine Guiberteau is a reference point when it comes to Chenin and Cabernet Franc.

While many of the finest 2022s remain in barrel and will do so for some time, the first releases show tenderness and gentle acidity rather than the piercing arrow that we experienced in 2021. Winemakers were looking to build mid-palate weight, and that’s generally achieved with lees aging and the addition of oak, but that was also fraught with problems as the wet season led to powdery mildew pressure, resulting in a high number of sulfur sprays in the vineyard. But this can cause stuck fermentations and produce the less than pleasant aromatic marker of hydrogen sulfide: rotten eggs. As I mentioned in last year’s article, Tessa Laroche of Domaine aux Moines in Savennières transferred the lees from her barrels of 2020 whites to the 2021s to bring the texture she desired. In 2022, richness and weight are easy to find, but the gentle nature of the vintage’s acidity is fundamental to finding balance.

The two vintages may seem poles apart, but, on occasions, there are wines that could be mistaken for the other. Julien Pinon’s 2022 Buvez du Bon Pinon, for example, is crisp and fresh and in a line of 2022s, could be mistaken for a 2021, which the position of his Vouvray domaine can explain. It sits in the north of the appellation and is renowned for being a cool spot, while Yannick Amirault’s 2021 Bâtard Princesse is round and full, with notes of dried fruit. The wine’s tension is a clear pointer to 2021, but its shape and aromatic expression are more opulent than you’d imagine from the weather report.  

Unpredictable weather has continued to give Chenin makers plenty of headaches in 2023, but a lack of predictability seems to be the new normal for grape growers. It adds another layer of complexity to the geological chaos (bingo!) and the ideological lines drawn in the Loire’s Chenin heartland. It is diverse and layered, and it is these many shades of Chenin that keep us intoxicated. Wine, unlike the Angers soccer team’s kit, is never black and white.

I tasted the wines in this report mostly in the Loire in June 2023 at domaine visits and appellation tastings, with some tastings at my home in England. A number of producers were not able to receive me when I was in the region, including Ferme de la Sansonnière and Richard Leroy, while others, such as Eric Morgat, did not submit samples to my appellation tastings. We will be adding reviews from additional producers in the weeks to follow.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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