At last: top 2005s you can afford. A fantastic vintage, says James Lawther MW

For yet more proof of one of France’s best ever vintages, look no further than the Loire for its outstanding reds, writes James Lawther MW

Bordeaux wasn’t the only place to be blessed by an exceptional year in 2005. Vignerons in the Loire Valley are equally bullish. ‘It was the vintage you dream about with the sort of conditions we may never see again. The grapes were superb and the reds have everything – colour, depth, fruit and structure,’ says Frédéric Brochet of the ambitious new Ampelidae estate in the Haut Poitou.

While the world has focused its attention on the incredible weather and wines in Bordeaux in 2005, the same conditions were mirrored further north in the Loire Valley. Spring was fine and dry, resulting in a quick and even flowering. Summer continued sunny and dry with relatively cool nights. The drought caused a little vine stress in some sand and gravel-based soils late in the ripening cycle, but on the whole the grapes matured evenly without problem. The icing on the cake was a balmy September and October in which producers could harvest at will.

This, coupled with improvements in viticultural management – grass cover, shoot and bud thinning, higher trellising, lower yields – set the scene for a potentially outstanding year. ‘In 2005 we could wait and pick according to the physical maturity of each parcel of vines,’ explains Patrick Nivelleau, winemaker at Domaine de la Paleine in Saumur.

So do the wines deliver on the promise? The answer has to be a resounding yes. There’s good colour, a purity of fruit, and incredible natural sugar content. ‘Throughout his life as a vigneron my father battled to harvest the grapes at 11–12?. Over the last 10 years I’ve been harvesting at 12.5–13.5? but this year I had some Cabernet Franc coming in at 14° and 15°,’ exclaims Chinon producer Charles Pain. Vineyards on clay-limestone soils, in particular, obtained higher degrees as the vines coped better with the drought conditions.

High degrees are one thing but there needs to be balance, and the 2005s achieve this with good acidity and a solid but ripe tannic frame. Alcohol is rarely in evidence, the wines maintaining the traditional Loire freshness on the finish. ‘Acidity levels are between those of 2004 and 2003,’ confirms Jean-Pierre Chevallier of Château de Villeneuve in Saumur-Champigny.

In style, the red 2005s have depth, power and concentration as well as a defined structure for ageing. The lighter, fruity wines from sand-based soils will be drinking now but top cuvées from Chinon or Bourgueil’s limestone and clay slopes or the calcareous tufa of Saumur-Champigny will need a little bottle age, with some set distinctly for the long haul.

Opulence with elegance

What impresses in 2005 is the quality of the tannins and opulence of the fruit, far riper than the more classical 2004s or 2002s. If anything, maturity levels are up with those of the successful 2003s but the low acidity in 2003 provided a warm, mellow, come-hither charm that places the wines in a different mould from the 2005s. Here there’s more intensity and reserve. In fact, comparisons with recent vintages are difficult. 1996 in Touraine has been offered as one possibility or perhaps, more generally, 1989, with older producers throwing in 1964 and 1947.

As to individual successes of the vintage, Saumur-Champigny continues to shine. The image of a light, fruity tipple for Parisian bistros is outdated. This is a resolute, cohesive appellation with some leading players (Château du Hureau, Clos Rougeard, Domaine des Roches Neuves, Château de Villeneuve) which has set the pace in the Loire in terms of changes in the vineyard, including the adoption of a programme of biodiversity.

And it shows in the homogenous quality of the wines. In 2005 these are full-bodied (13.5-14.5%) with serious fruit and structure but freshness on the finish. ‘Everyone had very ripe fruit in 2005. The only risk was over-extraction and perhaps bottling the wines too quickly,’ expounds Chevallier of Château de Villeneuve. The regular cuvées offer excellent value with some – but certainly not all – of the special cuvées (old vines, a particular plot, new oak occasionally) worth the higher price.

In Touraine it’s difficult to differentiate between Bourgueil and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil when it comes to the lighter, fruitier wines produced from the poorer sandy-gravel soils. Bourgueil, however, has a greater percentage of hillslopes with limestone soils, and from here there are some superb wines with greater depth, structure and minerality. In particular, look out for the various cuvées from Thierry Amirault, Domaine de la Butte and Domaine de la Lande.

There’s more grip in the regular cuvées of Chinon, with attractive, aromatic fruit. These should present excellent drinking over the next five years. Again, moving on to the superior cuvées from older vines and limestone-clay soils, the volume of fruit is as impressive as the ripeness of tannin. In the correct conditions, these wines should age 10 years and more. I particularly enjoyed cuvées from Domaine Charles Joguet, now back on song after a lean period, Domaine Bernard Baudry and Château de Coulaine.

Red Sancerre, from Pinot Noir, is a fashionable wine whose reputation often outweighs content. 2005 still offers a quantity of rather pale, insipid wines but a core of producers have hit the jackpot with wines of a darker, violet hue, morello cherry flavour and aroma, firmer structure and well-integrated, spicy oak. These will improve with bottle age. Domaines Alphonse Mellot, Henri Bourgeois, François Crochet, Vincent Pinard, Pascal et Nicolas Reverdy and Vacheron are the references here.

Elsewhere the general quality of wines is superior to other years but with some variation between producers. There’s decent ripeness in the Anjou Villages but most Cabernet Franc grown on schist still seems to have a hard edge unless it’s produced by Jo Pithon. Saumur has a varied terroir but some good-value wines in a leaner form than Saumur-Champigny. Gamay from Touraine is juicy and aromatic and as good as it gets in the hands of Henry Marionnet.

Lawther’s top Loires

Château du Hureau, Lisagathe, Saumur-Champigny 2005 HHHHH

Monumental wine with a huge depth of fruit. Dark crimson hue. Powerful, ripe and restrained. Tannins dense but rounded. Tank aged. 2008–16. £15.80 (2003); HHC, J&B, Tan

Domaine Charles Joguet, Clos de la Dioterie, Chinon 2005 HHHHH

Serious wine with lovely purity of fruit. Deep colour. Plenty of spicy, cherry notes. Well-integrated oak. Rich and full on the palate. Ripe, firm structure. 2008–16. £13.95 (2004); J&B

Château de Coulaine, Clos de Turpenay, Chinon 2005 HHHH

Elegance and poise with a serious depth of fruit. Aromatic, cherry-scented nose. Layered texture on the palate. Fine, ripe tannins. 2007–15. £11.95 (2002); Jer, Lay, RSJ

Château de Villeneuve, Saumur-Champigny 2005 HHHH

Reticent, closed on the nose. But ripe, smooth, firm and balanced. Give this a little bottle age. 2008–14. £8.49 (2004); RSJ, You

Domaine Bernard Baudry, Le Clos Guillot, Chinon 2005 HHHH

Rich, firm, with plenty of extract. Dark fruits, cherry and a hint of liquorice on the nose. Palate dense, minerally with just a hint of oak. Good length. 2008–15. £11.20 (2003); BoC, HHC, L&S

Domaine de la Butte, Le Haut de la Butte, Bourgueil 2005 HHHH

Appetising fruit and freshness. Lifted, red fruit aromas. Lovely intensity of fruit on the palate with grip and length. 2007–14. £9.94 (2004); FMV, J&B

Domaine de la Lande, Prestige, Bourgueil 2005 HHHH

Fine, pure red fruit aroma and flavour enhanced by the fresh minerality of the terroir. Firm, ripe tannins on the finish.

2007–14. £10.15 (2000); HHC

Domaine Vacheron, Belle Dame, Sancerre 2005 HHHH

Definitely a more serious Sancerre with ageing potential. Good, deep colour. Ripe cherry spectrum with integrated oak adding spicy notes. Firm but fine tannic structure. 2008–14. Maj, WSo

Domaine Vincent Pinard, Sancerre 2005 HHHH

Sumptuous fruit expression. Cherry-raspberry notes with a touch of well integrated vanilla oak. Palate ripe, round and

full with freshness and length on the finish. 2008–12.

£11.95 (2004); GWW, J&B

Yannick Amirault, La Coudraye, Bourgueil 2005 HHHH

Rich, ripe and opulent. Dense, layered fruit. Freshness on the finish. Tannins smooth and fine. 2007–12. J&B

Ampelidae, Le K, Vin de Pays de la Vienne 2005 HHH

Modern, ripe with New World fruit and spice. A 50/50 blend

of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Full-bodied, rich

but fresh, dry and minerally on the finish. Firm, tannic edge. 2007–10. N/A UK; +33 5 49 88 18 18

Château de Targé, Saumur-Champigny 2005 HHH

Full-bodied, meaty in style. Fresh berry fruit on the nose. Palate round and smooth on attack with a firm, grippy finish. 2007–12. £11 (2004); Ami, Maj

Domaine de la Cotelleraie, St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil 2005 HHH

Fruity, aromatic, easy-drinking wine. Soft and round on the palate. Fresh finish. Drink now. £7.95 (2004); SVS

Domaine Lavigne, les Aieules, Saumur-Champigny 2005 HHH

Good fruit extract. Raspberry-red fruit aroma and flavour. Clean, fresh finish. Tannins firm but fine. 2008–12. £8.19; Odd

Domaine Wilfred Rousse, Les Galuches, Chinon 2005 HHH

Good value. Fruity, aromatic with notes of red fruits. Palate round with soft, grainy tannins on the finish. Up to 2010. £7.75; SVS

For UK stockist codes, see p108.

James Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter

Written by James Lawther