Jane Anson meets some of the people who put Loire on the fine wine map.
Nicolas Joly’s first words to me, on arrival at la Coulée de Serrant, were ‘Je suis très philosophe’. You almost certainly don’t need that translated – but maybe rather than, ‘I’m very philosophical’, a better summary might be ‘I think deeply about things’.
Whichever translation you prefer, I’m still not entirely sure why he chose it as an opening gambit, but it so exactly encapsulated everything that I knew about him that it seemed perfectly natural as a greeting, followed by the offer of a pot of green tea from South Korea.
And then, a heartbeat later, a wry, ‘Organic. Because what else could it be?’.
I could already tell that the meeting with Joly was not going to disappoint.
The Loire Valley has been under the spotlight over the past week or so, after the bombshell report that Clos Rougeard, that most iconic and seemingly other-worldly of Loire estates, was on the verge of being sold to Martin Bouygues of Bordeaux’s Chateau Montrose. Following Charly Foucault’s death in December 2015, the expectation was that his son Antoine would take over, but it seems that this is not to be the case, and although nothing has yet been finalised, it is clear that the family is divided over the fate of the vineyard.
I know of course the exceptional quality that Bouygues has achieved at Montrose, and Clos Rougeard has more than once been compared to the great estates of Bordeaux for its powerfully impactful wines, its ageing ability and its prices on the secondary market. But in a week when Bonneau de Martray sold a majority stake to Stan Kroenke of Screaming Eagle (the announcements came on the same day, although only one was confirmed), it seemed an awful affront to the small scale, artisan wineries of France. Charly and his brother Nady were the eighth generation at Rougeard, at Bonneau de Martray Jean Charles de la Morinière’s father Jean took over in 1969, but through marriage was related to the Bonneau-Véry family who purchased the estate after the French Revolution. Both are vineyards that many of us love through the simple act of opening their wines and marveling at the results.
So it was a strange time last week to visit two Loire legends – first Joly and then Thierry Germain, who is on record many times saying that Charly Foucault was his own mentor when he moved to the Loire aged 23 in 1991 from, ironically enough, Bordeaux.
The three men – Joly in Savennières, Germain and Foucault in Saumur-Champigny – have been instrumental in the march of the Loire towards exceptional, world-beating quality on their own uncompromising terms. Joly and the Foucault brothers in particular were the two symbols of red and white Loire, Chenin meets Cabernet Franc, the erudite intellectual of La Coulée de Serrant meets the gruffly cheerful, mustached vigneron of Clos Rougeard.
All three are and were true believers in biodynamics. Joly might have an MBA from Columbia and have spent ‘too many years’ as an investment banker, but today he is the spiritual father of this method of farming in the Loire and way beyond. We never did drink that green tea, as we headed straight out into the vineyards, taking first a 4×4 and then a footpath high over the steeply-sloped vines. Along the way we met shire horses, sheep, donkeys, Nantaise cattle, goats and chickens, most given free (at least that was clearly how they saw it) rein through the vines, fulfilling Joly’s belief that the vines draw energy from having animals near them.
Germain’s Domaine de Roches Neuves is also heading towards being a self-sustaining polycultural farm. Here horses work parts of the vines, with the particularly sensitive sections ploughed by hand or with an exceptionally light quad bike specially developed by Germain that weighs less than half his shire horses. Joly might approve of that – at Coulée de Serrant for the past two years he has stopped even horses to avoid any compaction of the soil at all and instead uses sheep to keep the grass and cover crops in check in the winter – and heads out with sheers twice a year to cut back anything extra by hand.
Both visits were exhilarating and challenging. Joly showed me the tuning forks he taps against the barrels to control volatile acidity. Germain showed me the Georgian amphoras he has buried in the winery floor, and the incredible experiments he is undertaking with Chenin Blanc aged in a solera system. Perfect visits to mark the start of a new year in wine, and to underline that, come what may in terms of ownership, the desire to push boundaries in the Loire is alive and well.
Wines to Try
Nicolas Joly, Clos de La Bergerie, AOC Savannières Roches aux Moines 2014
Known as the Coulée de Serrant’s little sister, this is a beautiful expression of Chenin Blanc. An explosion of flavours in the mouth, a sphere of orange blossom, white truffles, saffron and rich lemons. There is a multitude of flavour here, complex like you can barely believe, and yet each one is expressed with delicacy and finesse. Joly says he loves wines that ‘cast a light as they go’, and the poetry of that phrase makes total sense here. Indigenous yeasts and although under 10ppm of sulphur added, it’s remarkably stable – the wine we drank here had been open for 8 days and yet still tasted fresh and full of life. 96 points/ 100.
Domaine des Roches Neuves Clos l’Échelier 2015
A highly sought after walled vineyard purchased by Germain in 2012. The walls are fairly high and offer protection to the Cabernet Franc vines, ensuring a fairly hot, early-ripening terroir. A beautifully crafted wine, this has a certain angularity at first, but give it a few minutes and it reveals its generosity, depth and texture and oh-so-mouthwatering Griotte cherry fruits. There is real hidden power here, you can feel it drawing through the wine, with a tightening on the finish that gives a beautiful point of focus and confidently suggests a long life ahead. 96
And one that might be a little harder to find…
Domaine des Roches Neuves Solera
Okay, to be honest this is not going to be the easiest wine to get hold of. Only 180 or so bottles produced, and maybe 30 left at the estate. But it’s the perfect way to understand just what a restlessly searching winemaker we are dealing with in Thierry Germain. Made in a solera system, first started in 1998 following a mishap with a barrel that developed flor on top, and that made him wonder… There is one on-going in the cellar started in 1997 with 20 vintages in the solera system that he thinks he may bottle in 2027, so get your orders in now. We tried that from the barrel, then back upstairs he opened one that he bottled from the first four vintages (1997-1998-1999-2000) that was then topped up with the 2003 vintage as needed during the solera ageing that continued for 17 years. It was bottled in 2015. How to describe this wine? A mix of bitter orange rind, waxy lemon, sweet mandarin, a haze of spices, a dozen herbs, and a hundred fruits. Could be 100 years old or five years old. All hail to the glory of Chenin. (Points totally meaningless here!)