Loire reds have a reputation for being easy-drinking, light wines. Not in the côtes of Chinon and Bourgueil, says JIM BUDD.
Tasted straight from vat, the 2002 Vieilles Vignes is dense and deep purple. ‘Loire reds are light and should be drunk young,’ says its winemaker Joël Taluau. He has a mischievous glint in his eye. Then he laughs, and the joke is clear. Conventional wisdom tells only part of the story. Bourgueil, Chinon and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, grouped together at the western end of Touraine, are the Loire’s longest established quality red wine appellations. Nowhere else in the Loire is red wine so dominant. Apart from a tiny amount of Cabernet Franc vinified as white purely for producers’ personal consumption (and not entitled to an appellation), no white wine is made in either St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil or Bourgueil. In Chinon, just 40ha (hectares) out of 2,200 is planted with Chenin Blanc and used to make white Chinon. The rest is planted entirely with Cabernet – the majority for red wine, although a small amount of delicate rosé is produced. Essentially, though, there is little pure limestone here, so the soils are better suited to black grape varieties.
The area benefits from the moderating influence of the Atlantic, just 160km downstream. Most of the vineyards of Bourgueil and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil face south and are protected from the cold north winds by the forest at the top of the côtes that runs some 15km east to west from St-Patrice to St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. There are two different soils here. The gravels closer to the Loire reap wines that do not last as long as those from the clay and limestone of the côtes. But it is these wines, especially those from young vines, that have given Loire reds their light, easy-drinking reputation. They will often be bottled in the spring following the vintage and make ideal summer wines. The more structured, longer-lived wines come from the côtes, which avoid excess moisture even during the winter. The flatter vineyards are also more prone to spring frosts, always a danger in the Loire. ‘We only made 5% of our normal amount in 1991 and 10–15% in 1994,’ says Denis Gambier of the Gambier estate. Only in the last three or four years have growers started to invest in frost protection. Frost pots are now a common sight in the vineyards during April and early May.
It is the relatively early-ripening Cabernet Franc that plays the major role here. Its offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon, is little planted because it ripens late and it is often difficult for grapes to mature properly this far north. Curiously, the highest incidence of Cabernet Sauvignon appears to be in Ingrandes, one of the most easterly communes of Bourgueil.
The area’s best wines age well and gracefully. Carefully cellared, good vintages will last at least 25–30 years. (I tasted various vintages of Taluau’s Vieilles Vignes through the 1990s and 1980s and finished with the still rich and youthful 1976. It is even still possible to find a 1964 Clos de l’Olive or Clos de l’Echo from Couly-Dutheil on the lists of a few of the region’s best restaurants.) Consequently, there are several spacious cellars cut into the top of the côtes just below the forest. Most were formed to quarry out tuffeau, the honey-coloured limestone which is the local building material. Tuffeau was used both for the Loire’s famous châteaux and also for more modest dwellings.
‘They made a mistake when the appellations were agreed in 1937,’ says one of the area’s best-known growers. ‘They were defined by commune. There isn’t a difference between St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil and Bourgueil. They should have been defined geologically. The Loire flows east to west, so the distinction should have been made between vines on the gravel and those on the côtes.’ Travelling through the vines, there is no obvious indication that you have passed from Bourgueil to St-Nicolas. Yet the difference between the flat gravel vineyards and those on the côtes is immediately apparent.
Despite their similarities, St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil is far more popular in France than Bourgueil. ‘As a test we gave customers the same wine – one labelled St-Nicolas and the other Bourgueil. Invariably they preferred the St-Nicolas,’ says Jean-Claude Audebert of Maison Audebert et Fils. ‘When they did the tasting blind the split was 50/50. Then, when people were told one was St-Nicolas and the other Bourgueil, some changed their minds and said: “On reflection I preferred the St-Nicolas.”
For all the subleties of terroir, then, it would seem that to some, preference comes down to St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil having a more attractive name than Bourgueil.
AT A GLANCE
Bourgueil and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil:
On the northern bank of the Loire, these two contiguous appellations have a similar terroir. The vineyards closest to the Loire are planted on gravel and tend to produce light wines that are ready to drink early. The gravel gives way to the limestone côtes with some clay, but often markedly sandy, soils. Wines from the côtes are more structured, need to age and will often keep well. The commune of Benais, in the Bourgueil AC, is noted for its long-lived, structured wines. There are 790ha of St-Nicolas and 1,150 in Bourgueil. No more than 5% of Cabernet Sauvignon can be planted, although the proportion in an individual wine may be higher.
1,800ha, mainly in the valley of the Vienne, essentially from L’Ile-Bouchard in the east to Savigny-en-Véron near the confluence of the Vienne and the Loire. Most of the vineyards are on the north bank. Chinon has three types of soil. Around Savigny-en-Véron the very sandy soil produces light, easy-drinking reds. The vineyards on the valley floor of the Vienne are on gravel and give more structured wines. The most powerful and long-lived wines come from the côtes, with their clay, flint and limestone soils. Up to 10% of Cabernet Sauvignon may be used but rarely is.
2002: A miraculous September followed a cool and wet July and uninspiring August. Possibly the best vintage since 1997, but can a fine vintage really be made in just three weeks?
2001 Average to good vintage. Drink lighter wines now, leave the more structured for 2–3 years.
2000 Similar in quality to 2001.
1999: Potentially a very good year but spoiled by heavy rains in September.
1998: Difficult year – wet and cool before vintage. Many unripe wines.
1997: Hot summer and autumn produced soft, flattering wines unlikely to age as well as 1996.
1996: Very good, classic vintage which will keep well.
FINE OLDER VINTAGES
Look out for wines from the following years:
1995 1990 1989 1985 1982 1976 1964