The French wine appellation of Saumur-Champigny has been missing off my radar for at least 30 years, and I know this because it was 1987 when my last wine log record shows I drank a bottle! At that time I was mostly buying and drinking “well aged clarets” (red Bordeaux wines) so the lighter style of the Cabernet Franc based wines of this area probably didn’t appeal.
Times and tastes change, especially with age, and our recent visit to the Loire Valley was a good chance to try again, especially since I now rarely buy clarets and favour the lighter style wines from Pinot Noir and Gamay. Our base was Fontevraud Abbey situated between Chinon and Saumur, so visiting the small Saumur-Champigny area was a simple affair, only a 10min drive to our chosen vigneron, Domaine Filliatreau located in the village of Turquant. This is an area of tuffeau, the limestone rock famous for housing troglodyte dwellers in their caves created in the rock itself and the Filliatreau tasting venue is inside a tuffeau cave. However it’s the tuffeau rock and soil that gives the wines here their unique character:
“The terroir around Champigny is vital to the production of wines in this style and is the reason the area was singled out for its own independent appellation. A low plateau of tuffeau – the yellowish metamorphic rock so distinctive of the central Loire region – rises up at the eastern edge of Saumur town and continues almost uninterrupted for seven miles (11km) to the village of Candes Saint-Martin. This sandy, porous rock is the key to much of the Saumur wine character; it regulates water supply to the vines by immediately absorbing excess water and retaining it for use in the driest periods. Vines growing in tuffeau-rich soils rarely suffer from excess water stress but also benefit from dry, free-draining soils.”
The wines of Saumur-Champigny are predominantly made from Cabernet Franc, and are typically lighter in style, with fresh acidity and spicy flavours of red berries and violets and best drunk within five to 10 years of bottling. So onwards to the tasting!
Our host was Charlotte who was welcoming, friendly, knowledgeable and …. generous with her pouring! She lined up 6 different vintages and styles from the domaine and explained each one in terms of the terroir and each years weather. Each was light with balanced acidity and tannin, fruity in most cases with red berries and hints of violets as expected, though the 2005 vintage was less tannic and more earthy, also as expected. At this point Charlotte took out another bottle but hid the label from me as she poured me a glass and asked me to guess the vintage!
“A generous portion was poured into my glass and Charlotte then stood back, gestured at the glass and smiled! The two other visitors to my left stopped tasting and watched …. no pressure then! Dr C looked sideways at me and nodded, that was the only encouragement I needed, except for a little help from Sartre, Heidegger and existentialist thinking! I swirled the wine around the glass and held it over a clean white page of my notebook, a definite brown tinge at the meniscus and certainly less garnet in colour, darker in fact. So, this wine is NOT of a recent vintage say 2015-2017. My initial swirl and sniff revealed a definite earthiness I always get with Cabernet Franc which also seems to increase with age. The first taste was a surprise, softened tannin but still some acidity confused my taste buds to hell, or was it the other way round? The wine revealed more fruit and floral notes than the 2005 I had tasted earlier, so my brain told me that this is younger than 2005, could it be a 2010 which was a high scoring vintage for the region, or a 2009, also a brilliant harvest year with vintages either side of 2009/10 being less good? I told Charlotte I had narrowed it down to 2 years, she smiled again and told me to choose ….. I went for the 2010 based purely on knowledge of other wines from Chinon I had bought in 2015. “Well done” she said turning the bottle around to reveal a 2010 label and astounding the audience to my left who just said “how the hell did you do that?”.” Charlotte explained it to them, I was too exhausted!
Domaine Filliatreau is a lovely vigneron to visit for an informative tasting of wines that are easy to drink. It’s in an unusual setting within a tuffeau cliff face, vines to the front, all of which adds to the overall experience. The wines are well priced and excellent value whether you want immediate drinking or something that will mature over a few years. I bought a case of Grand Vignole 2017 for €11 per bottle, drinking well now to which I gave a score of 87 on the 1-100 scale.