Savennières – a rebooted classic?

Looking south from the Château des Vaults – Domaine du Closel

It seemed pretty hot for a cool wine growing region. Standing on top of the slope looking out at the stunning beauty of the countryside I felt enveloped in peace and drenched in the sun’s hot rays. Strangely the scene was made all the more peaceful for the birdsong and the peal of distant church bells as I looked at the vines and listened to the winemakers around me. I heard their passion and their commitment and I hoped that the wines I would soon taste were as good and as interesting as the story I was being told.

You see, I had come on this trip to Angers deliberately because I was pretty sure that I didn’t like these wines. All the books and many experts say that Savennières ranks as one of the greatest wines of France – certainly that country’s finest dry white made from Chenin Blanc. Personally though I have never been able to see what the fuss was about – much as I fail to find the pleasure in Condrieu. Savennières was certainly dry and had that typical Chenin high acid, but I could never see its charm. It was hard and unyielding and seemed reminiscent of sucking a pumice stone – austere might be the kindest word to use. We were always told that they needed to be old to show at their best, but frankly who wants old white wine nowadays?

So, I was here on this hill-top to confront my lack of knowledge and understanding – I wanted to see what I was missing and whether I should update my view.

Regular readers will know that a theme running through many of my articles is the fact that wine is much better made nowadays than it used to be and I think that is especially obvious in white wines. So has Savennières kept pace?

Savennières is at the same time lauded and strangely obscure, perhaps because it has a long history and is a tiny place with just twelve producers until the rules were changed in 1996. In those days they had to vinify their grapes within the boundaries of the appellation, so production was small and the few growers appeared to some degree to be cut off and inward looking. However the change of rules has brought an influx of growers and winemakers from outside – today there are 34 producers of Savennières of whom only nine vinify within the appellation. What is especially intriguing is how many have come in from other regions bringing in new ideas and different perspectives.

Evelyne de Pontbriand amongst her vines on La Jalousie

Our host was the delightful Evelyne de Pontbriand who fulfils the dual roles of winemaker at Domaine du Closel – Château des Vaults and President of the Savennières appellation and although she was not dismissive of the history of the Savennières – it has been famous for a long time and her family are very much part of the story – she seemed very positive about how the place and its wine have evolved.

Love it or hate it, Savennières is a perfect example of what makes classic French wines tick. The clay topsoil is so thin here that no other cash crop is worth planting – it has to be wine; grapes often thrive where nothing else does, look at the Douro Valley. Basically the soils here are slate, decayed slate or schist actually. This soil is very low in organic matter which together with the dry conditions in the summer force the vine to dig deep – 7 to 8 metres – for water and nutrients. This reduces vigour in the plant, so limits its yield which in turn means the grapes and so the wine is concentrated – almost a text-book definition of a ‘fine wine’.

The Savennières schist – photo kind permission of Domaine du Closel

What is more the whole place is a south facing slope on the north bank of the Loire River. This means that not only is it a sun-trap – which I can vouch for – but that any excess water just drains away down the hill, so it doesn’t end up in the grapes to dilute the wine.

Looking south from the Coulée de Serrant – photo kind permission of Domaine du Closel

Of course with soils and conditions being so crucial, even little differences produce wines that are subtly different, so as well as the general Appellation Côntrolée Savennières there are two minuscule sub-regions. These define two tiny valleys or coulées, A. C. Savennières-La Roche-aux-Moines and A. C. Savennières-Coulée de Serrant. The latter is home to just one estate, that of Nicolas Joly who is one of the leading figures in the biodynamic movement and one of the most famous growers in the area

Wine map of the Loire Valley – click for a larger view – inset map courtesy of Interlore.  Non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Evelyne was very clear that Savennières is not Chenin Blanc, it is just made from Chenin Blanc and it tastes of the landscape. She was very firm that Savennières is made in the vineyard, ‘we do nothing in the cellar‘, she said …… ‘except drink‘.

However Evelyne was sure that the typical style of Savennières has developed a lot – stimulated by new winemakers and also to some degree by what the customer wants and expects from a modern wine. Interestingly she was clear that you can deliver more supple and fruity wines than in the past and yet maintain the typicity and traditions of the area. However, she was most emphatic that the old austere style of Savennières is a thing of the past and that it actually came about as a result of unsophisticated winemaking and growing techniques and that good viticulture and later picking has killed it off.

She also said that the old style came about partly because of the high amounts of sulphur that was used in the winemaking – viticulture was not as advanced as nowadays, so it was considered necessary. Apparently one of the reasons the wines had to be kept so long was the amount of sulphur. What makes this especially interesting is that, according to Evelyne, nowadays getting on for 90% of the growers in Savennières are organic or even biodynamic – even if they don’t say so on the label – this means that the modern approach is generally more reliant on nature and usually tries to keep sulphur as low as possible. This alone will have had a huge impact on the wines.

Looking north from the south side of the Loire – photo kind permission of Domaine du Closel

I had fallen in love with the landscape, so was getting more and more hopeful that I would enjoy the wines. Our tasting was in the Château des Vaults, but Evelyne had arranged for some other winemakers to bring their wines too:

Domaine FL
This estate was only created in 2006, but it includes some superb vineyards

Charles Eric Pasquiers of Domaine FL – originally from Bordeaux

Domaine FL Chamboureau
A.C. Savennières
A single site wine from vineyards around the Château de Chamboreau, organically grown and hand-harvested with 3 passes through the vineyards, the first being for the dry wines. Fermentation is with natural yeasts, they do no malolactic and the wine is aged in oak for 16-18 months – 20% new.

The 2008 offered an incredible mix of complex, pithy marmalade and mineral characters with high apricot-like acidity and a long crisp finish – it probably needs a little time. I loved its purity though – 92/100 points.

The 2007 was much, much more approachable, seeming quite rounded and fat with almost a creamy quality but with a wonderful cut of acidity and pure minerality together with a note of dried stone fruit that dominates the finish – complex and fascinating – 90.5/100 points.

Distributed in the US by Michael Skurnik Wines.
Available in the UK from Slurp and The Fine Wine Company.

This first pair showed showed that my mental picture of Savennières probably was out of date – both of these had 14% alcohol and were textured even to the point of opulence and were great wines. Probably my personal favourite was the 2008 – just – as the acidity dominated it, but the 2007 really developed in the glass and they were both more complex and intriguing than I had imagined Savennières to be.

Pithon-Paillé
Jo Pithon is a great character of the Loire wine industry, but as he only owns a tiny parcel of Savennières vines this wine includes fruit purchased from other growers. Wendy Paillé – who is married to Jo Paillé, Jo Pithon’s stepson and business partner – presented the wines to us, interestingly Chenin Blanc is in her blood too as she is originally from South Africa.

Wendy Paillé in the vineyards

2010 Pithon-Paille Schistes
A.C. Savennières 
10 months in large, 315 litre, barrels – 30% new.
I loved the clean nose which gave soft fruit and was richly floral.
The palate was tight, but elegant with high acidity and some rich orchard fruit balancing it out. Not austere at all, just beautifully balanced. Brighter perhaps and easier to drink but really fine and the complexity will surely develop. The oak does not really show, the lovely balance and freshness dominate.
The finish is wonderfully pure with stony minerality, white peach and peach stone and is epically long – 92/100 points.

The alcohol was 13% and to my mind the slightly lower level emphasised the purity much more both on the nose and palate.

Ditributed in the US by various companies – see here.
Available ion the UK from Les Cave des Pyrene and Justerini and Brooks.

Château de Varennes
This estate is owned by Alain Château whose other vineyards include Château Yon Figeac in Bordeaux. The wine is barrel fermented with natural yeasts and then aged on the lees for 10-12 months in 400 litre oak casks.

2008 Chateau de Varennes
A.C. Savennières 
This was intriguing, it had a nose of richer fruit, green plum and peach with a wild honey purity to it.
Very soft palate with peach and apricot – quite pure fruit. High acidity, stony, pure minerality and  clean style dry honey made it richly austere giving a great balance of richness and freshness. Complex and full of tension – 92/100 points.

The alcohol was 13.5%.

Domaine Ogereau
Vincent and Catherine Ogereau are based south of the Loire in Anjou, but recently they have started making a Savennières from the Clos le Grand Beaupréau too.

2009 Domaine Ogereau Clos Le Grand Beaupréau
A.C. Savennières 
Rich intense nose with almost a bitter touch, like peach skin.
Rounded palate with almost sweet honeyed fruit and lovely balance from the pure minerality and high acidity, the mid palate and back palate is dry, as is the finish. Perfectly well knit, poised, mineral and fine. I loved this it was full of tension and complexity – 93/100 points.

Patrick Baudouin
Another interloper from south of the river, Patrick is a famous sweet wine specialist from the Coteaux du Layon, but he buys a careful selection – 3 passes through the vineyard – of organically grown grapes from 35 year old vines in Savennières to make this wine. Everything is natural and the wine spends 10 months on the lees in 400 litre and 228 litre barrels, 50% new.

2009 Patrick Baudouin Vin de Terroir
A.C. Savennières 
Very different nose, herbal, rosemary, mint and honey – like a country walk.
The palate is taut, yet rich with honey flavours, herbs and firm orchard fruit, all bound up with tight minerality and pure acidity.
Great balance, freshness and stony minerality on the long fish – a beautiful wine full of contradictions and tensions – 92/100 points.

Domaine du Closel – Château des Vaults
Evelyne’s estate has a confusing proliferation of names and a complex history. As the Château des Vaults it has been known for wine since 1495 and belonged to various families including that of the Marquis de las Cases – Napoleon 1′s biographer. The Closel part of the name was added to honour Bernard de Closel who had married into the de las Cases family and was mayor of Savennières from 1919 to 1956. He was in charge then when the A.C. was created in 1952 and indeed he was a driving force behind it.

Château des Vaults

Evelyne is one of the most interesting, charming and sensible winemakers I have ever spoken to, she made it all sound so easy, so matter of fact as though the grapes do all the work. I am sure they don’t really, but today everything here is organically grown and as natural as possible.

2010 Château des Vauts La Jalousie
A.C. Savennières
Soft aromatics of delicate honey and apricot.
The palate seems soft at first too with ripe fruit and a creamy texture, even slightly waxy, then a steely taut minerality (giving that ‘pure’) feel and fresh clean acidity. This is dry and mineral, yet rich and very bright and approachable – 88/100 points.
This has 13.5% alcohol.

Available in the UK from Waitrose and The Wine Society.

2010 Château des Vauts Les Caillardières
A.C. Savennières
In the company literature this is described as off-dry, but actually it is only just  ‘off’, the locals would call it a sec-tendre and the 5 grams per litre of residual sugar is completely balanced out by the acidity.
However that tiny touch of sweetness does make it smell like grapes dipped in sugar.
Balanced acidity giving freshness while ripe apple and apricot fruit gives softness makes this beautifully balanced with tension and complexity all the way to the long, clean apricot and apple finish. I thought this was a big step up in quality and complexity – 91/100 points.
This has 13.5% alcohol.

2010 Château des Vaults Clos du Papillon
A.C. Savennières
Just from the look you can tell this was more concentrated, it has a burnished peachy copper colour.
The nose is tight and unyielding with just mineral and peach skin notes.
The palate though opens up to a wonderfully pure and fresh apricot juice sort of texture and character with a viscous mineral acidity – it even seems to taste slaty, the acidity is high and cleansing and the fruit is rich, so it carries the 14% alcohol really well.
Great stuff superbly balanced – 92/100 points.

The 2006 is available in the UK from Waitrose.

Something Sweet to Finish?
Despite the area being famous for making dry Chenin Blanc I was astonished to discover that historically Savennières was more likely to be sweet and that production of dry wines only became normal practice in the 1960s and that even today many producers make sweet versions. So I was excited that I got to try:

2006 Domaine FL Savennières Doux Chenin de Botrytis
A.C. Savennières
Which was rather nice, but at just 70 grams per litre of residual sugar it isn’t exactly a full on dessert wine. The richness of the wine was enhanced by botrytis and it was all cleansed by the high acidity, so the finish did not feel especially sweet – which would work fine as an aperitif – which is strangely what the French do with their dessert wines in this part of the world.

I loved this visit and tasting and despite my misgivings I did not find these wines austere. Far from it there was often succulence, texture and richness – even some opulence – all balanced by the high acidity of the Chenin Blanc and an intense minerality which gave so many of the wines a wonderful feeling of purity. For me it is that tension that made these wines so fascinating. The richness on its own would have been too much, too dominating and one dimensional. Even that cutting acidity would have got boring without the richness to back it up and give it something to cut through and it is the terroir and local conditions which somehow gives that unique minerality.

They need each other to make Savennières the great wine it clearly is and luckily modern grape growing and wine making can ensure we have that without having to cellar the wine for a lifetime first – so you see, some things really do change for the better.

As Evelyne told us ‘(Savennieres) went to sleepnow it is an exciting time again.’

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