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  • Wednesday 1 October 2003

One of the Loire's best-kept secrets, Savennières can be dry or sweet and can be aged for 10 years or more, writes STEPHEN BROOK

One of the Loire's best-kept secrets, Savennières can be dry or sweet and can be aged for 10 years or more, writes STEPHEN BROOK

In days of yore, such was the reputation of Savennières that rich bourgeois families from Paris or Angers eagerly bought vineyards and built country residences on the spot. The prized white wine, made from Chenin Blanc, fetched high prices, with Josephine Bonaparte among those who esteemed it highly. But like many once celebrated wines, Savennières fell from fashion, and by 1980 the area under vine had declined to 60ha (hectares).

Today, overlooking the Loire just west of Angers, Savennières remains a small wine-producing area, with a mere 130ha of vineyards. Yet the district boasts no fewer than 17 sprawling châteaux, five of them still active estates. These châteaux were mostly built in the mid-19th century, although some originated much earlier.

The vines are planted on the gentle southeast-facing slopes of the plateau behind the cliffs that plunge down to the Loire below. Other vines cover the sides of the valleys that lie at right angles to the river. The valleys are called coulées and the most famous is Coulée de Serrant.

The vineyards encircle three villages: from east to west they are Epiré, Savennières, and La Possonnière. Growers in each sector praise their local terroir, but it's generally accepted that the best soils are around Epiré and Savennières. The soils are predominantly schist, but the topsoils contain elements of quartz, sandstone and loess. In some places large stones dot the surface and reflect the summer heat back up onto the vines.

To complicate matters further there are two sub-appellations. The first is the 16ha Savennières Roche aux Moines, a site that attains exceptional ripeness and is shared between three estates: Domaine aux Moines, Château de Chambureau, and the Clos de la Coulée de Serrant. Coulée de Serrant itself is a monopoly of 7ha generally recognised as the region's supreme site.

Given the splendour of the terroir, and the skill and ambition of its best producers, one wonders why the wines are not better known. Production is limited, at around 500,000 bottles a year, yet many estates are still selling older vintages at very reasonable prices. Part of the explanation is that the stylistic definition of Savennières has become confused. Dining with six producers, I take a back seat as they argue, cordially but fervently, among themselves.

I arrive with my own preconception of Savennières: a wine that is dignified, well structured, austere in its youth, and firm and dry throughout its life, scented with apples and quince yet distinctly mineral; it also has a capacity to age for 10 years or more, gradually developing more complex aromas.

This model of Savennières is matched by the wines from such estates as Château d'Epiré, Domaine du Closel and Domaine aux Moines. The wines are vinified in tanks. If they encounter wood during their ageing process, it is usually in the form of older barriques, often of 400-litre rather than 225-litre capacity. Complete dryness is the goal, although in some vintages (1997, 2001) the grapes can be so rich in sugar that a few grams of residual sugar remain. Oakiness is not desirable, nor is butteriness, so efforts are made to avoid malolactic fermentation, although some lots spontaneously go through the process. The wines are bottled in the late spring or summer. They are tight and unyielding in their youth, but the philosophy behind this style of winemaking is that essentially reductive winemaking will allow the terroir to express itself vigorously after a few years in bottle.

Certainly some of the older wines, such as the superb 1995 from Domaine aux Moines, the 1995 Cuvée Spéciale from Château d'Epiré, and the 1989 Cuvée Spéciale from Closel, are true to this image. These are wines with exactly the complex blend of lushness, minerality and length of flavour that makes them so welcome at the dinner table.

But since 1995 some producers, such as Pierre Soulez, have been taking a different approach. 'I'm trying to make wines that are rounder than traditional Savennières and accessible when young,' says Soulez. 'I don't force my wines through malolactic fermentation but I'm not unhappy if it occurs. I will also age my wine through a second winter if possible. Many estates have to bottle before the summer heat because their cellars aren't air-conditioned. I've equipped my cellars to withstand the summers, so I can age the wines for much longer on the fine lees.'

Soulez and those who think like him also believe in harvesting as late as possible. The AC regulations require at least two pickings, so harvests are always selective to some degree. In fine years, some of the crop may be affected by botrytis or, more commonly, by passerillage, a shrivelling of the ripe grapes caused by a mixture of autumnal heat and strong winds. In 2001 most of Soulez's wines had 14.5% alcohol.

There's no doubt that wines of the Soulez school are more accessible than those of the traditionalists. They have a richness and succulence that balances their firm acidic backbone. But there are those who feel they can lack typicity. 'I worry about this trend to make wines that are easy to drink, says Mme Laroche of Domaine aux Moines. 'These modern-style wines are modelled on white Burgundy. But our vineyards don't lie in Burgundy, and our grape isn't Chardonnay.'

It's no coincidence that the modernists are mostly from the southern bank of the Loire, with their roots in Coteaux du Layon or Bonnezeaux, regions renowned for their sweet Chenins. Soulez's brother Yves has a property in St-Aubin in the Coteaux, and Claude Papin of the Clos de la Coulaine is based at the superb Château Pierre Bise in Beaulieu. Château de Varennes is the Savenniéres outpost of Bernard Germain, better known as a producer of rich Bonnezeaux at Château de Fesles.

Claude Papin goes so far as to insist that Savennières is capable of making sweet wines even greater than those from the southern shore. 'And that's because the terroir is so remarkable,' he says. Not surprisingly, both he and Soulez, with their emphasis on very late harvesting, produce a good deal of Savennières in either a demi-sec or moelleux style. (moelleux has 17–42g of residual sugar; doux considerably more.)

The sweet touch As noted though, there are certain vintages when it's hard to avoid producing sweet wines. At Château d'Epiré, Luc Brizard pours a 1990 demi-sec. It is delicious, fresh, appley and elegant. 'It's lovely,' I say, 'but to be honest I prefer the drier styles.' 'So do I,' nods Brizard.

In 2000 Mme Laroche made a great deal of moelleux and even doux. 'It's delicious wine, but in terms of sales it will last me for the next 10 years,' she says. Even though Savennières is capable of making wonderful sweet wines, to me its true typicity lies in dry wines, which are potentially greater than any other dry Chenins from the Loire. Which brings me to the Clos de la Coulée de Serrant. The property is owned by Nicolas Joly, the main proponent of biodynamic viticulture. It is easy to mock Joly and his disciples for their reliance on potions and apparent mumbo-jumbo, but his vineyards tell another story, with gnarled vines rising from thoroughly ploughed soils, and Highland cattle grazing on the lowlands, generating the compost he requires. In the cellar he does next to nothing: no settling of the must, no added yeasts, no malolactic. The wines are aged in older oak and are completely dry (with rare exceptions such as 1997).

It is true, as his critics assert, that some great vintages have proved disappointing. I have tasted the 1990 on three occasions and found vegetal tones every time. But since 1995 the wine has been magnificent. The aromas can be explosive: a sublime cocktail of apricot and quince, with an occasional touch of honey or caramel. The palate is sumptuous and full bodied, lush but not heavy, velvety in texture with an occasional hint of white pepper and grainy tannin, and a firm vein of acidity running through it, culminating in a long, rich finish. His Roche aux Moines, called Clos de la Bergerie, is almost as spectacular, and his regular Savennières is similar in style but on a somewhat diminished scale.

Coulée de Serrant is the supreme terroir of Savennières, and vindicates those who make extravagant claims for the greatness of its soils. If Savennières remains stylistically inconsistent, that may not matter, although it makes life difficult for the wine lover. There are styles to suit everybody, from austere to opulent, from reductive to rich and oaky. Best of all, the appellation has been rescued from gradual decline not only by such stalwarts as Luc Brizard, Nicolas Joly and Pierre Soulez, but by a growing number of keen younger growers such as the Laureau brothers of Domaine Laureau, Sylvie Termeau of Moulin de Chavigné, Florent Baumard of Domaine des Baumard, and Eric Morgat of Domaine de la Monnaie.

Savennières can be demanding – its producers unashamedly call it an intellectual wine that can require hours of aeration – but anyone who enjoys wines with personality and individuality should make its acquaintance.

Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.

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