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Jefford on Monday: Provocateur at the Egalitarian Fair

Democratic, certainly. Perhaps you could call it socialist. Maybe even communist, such is the rigour with which every exhibitor is scythed down to the same level -- but let’s settle on ‘egalitarian’, for the sake of political neutrality.

Savennières AOC. Credit: Jameson Fink and adapted under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic licence

This is Millésime Bio, Montpellier’s annual organic wine show. Wealth cannot buy you the best place in the hall, or permit you erect a multi-storey, sofa-strewn, hostess-embellished schmooze palace to tower over your neighbours. Everyone has an identical, cloth-covered table (or half-table). Your position in the three halls is artfully randomised. Glasses are never wanting; spittoons fail to overflow. It’s wonderful: enough space to walk and to taste in simple human comfort; quiet enough not only to ask questions, but to hear the reply. All wine fairs should be like this.

Organic vine cultivation continues to grow in significance. By the end of 2012, some 3.6 per cent of the world’s vineyards were grown organically. That doesn’t sound a lot, but it’s still a 164 per cent increase on the position five years earlier. It remains a Eurocentric movement: some 73 per cent of global organic wine production is in Spain (29 per cent of world organic production), France (24 per cent) and Italy (20 per cent), though those nations only had 33.8 per cent of the world’s total vineyard acreage in the same year. Austria is the country with the largest percentage of organic vines among its national total (9.7 per cent), followed by France (8.5 per cent).

You need a strategy for visiting a wine fair if dissipation is not to ruin the day. Mindful that any serious Premier Cru white burgundy now costs over 500 euros for a 12-bottle case, I thought I’d take a look at the Loire valley’s most credible alternative to white burgundy: Savennières. This Anjou appellation is a logical choice for Millésime Bio. Evelyne de Pontbriand of Domaine du Closel, the Présidente of the Savennières appellation, told me that 80 per cent of the 156 ha is now cultivated either organically or biodynamically.  

The place has always intrigued me. That high, rolling wave of schist over the wide, bright, lazy Loire is unique; nowhere else on the north bank in Chenin-growing Anjou do you find airy, south-facing slopes of that order. The railway line slithers along beneath the great hill in sudden confinement.

The hill flattens at the top; that’s where wind-blown sands cover the schists. On the slopes, too, there are pockets of soils derived from volcanic rhyolite. The hill is punctuated by gullies, locally known as ‘coulées’ – hence the Joly family’s famous Coulée de Serrant, though there are four coulées in the appellation as a whole. Savennières should be a playground for terroir-derived nuances.

That airiness is the key to its personality. This isn’t a still, silent mistland; botrytis struggles to take hold here, which is why around 90 per cent of Savennières is dry. Don’t, though, expect mouthwatering Muscadet dryness. Savennières is richly dry; the regulations here define ‘dry’ as containing up to 8 g/l of sugar. Savennières resonates with flavoury ambiguities.

It’s not an easy wine to make well, and recent vintages have multiplied the challenges. Even with a propitious summer, deciding on the perfect harvest moment requires singular insight: too soon, and you will shut off the whispering voices of scent and flavour which should people a great Savennières; too late, and bitter notes begin to gain the upper hand.

Elegance is another elusive desideratum: the wines take weight very easily, both from the vineyards and the passing of the years, and before you know it you have a great big chewy gobstopper of a white rather than something which reflects the lifted, soaring grace of the site itself. Another difficult balance to be struck is between fresh fruit and dried fruits. Even less successful examples, though, are commanding and provocative; these are wines to spend time with.

Among the most compelling Savennières at the Fair for me were the two very young 2013s from Domaine du Closel itself: the fragrant and authentically elegant Jalousie, with its scents of honeyed fruit and its perfumed, pungent, pithy, stone-haunted flavours; and the richer Clos du Papillon – quieter on the nose at this early stage, but packed with yellow orchard fruit which will unfreight with time.  

There were two impressive 2012 wines from Domaine FL (one of the few Savennières domains to block the malolactic in pursuit of finesse, elegance and ageability.) The 2012 La Croix Picot was a brightly fruity wine, with a cascade of bitter orange and a stony finish, while the 2012 Chamboureau smelled more of wet earth. The fruits here were green plum and apple; it had huge stony weight; and there was a kind of fire in the finish which made you think that Chenin Blanc might be first cousin to Hugary’s Furmint (though genetically the relationship is a more distant one). There were other good wines from Patrick Baudoin, Domaine Laureau, Ch de Plaisance and Pithon-Paillé. The Joly family wasn’t at the fair, by the way.

Could Savennières ever serve to replace Premier Cru white burgundy at table? Not really: the style, intricacy and intimacy of Savennières’ orchard fruit is just so different; the vinous depth of white burgundy is missing; and white burgundy’s exciting synthesis with oak has no Savennières equivalent (though some producers do use small oak vessels for ageing). It has much more in common, in truth, with the richly dry whites of Alsace. Evelyne de Pontbriand did, though, show me a very exciting dry rosé she had made in 2014, using some Cabernets planted in Savennières (necessarily sold as Rosé de Loire): soft fruits and smoke on the nose, with a huge raft of ‘mineral’ flavours for a pink wine. You can’t keep a good terroir down.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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