We were on the third leg of our annual trip to France visiting wine regions and specific winemakers. Two nights in Chablis and three in Nuits St George had reduced the size of my wallet and expanded the girth of my waist, the former after purchasing copious bottles with Grand Cru or Premier Cru on their labels, and the latter after copious amounts of escargots, coq au vin and boeuf bourgignon! En route we had stopped off at one of those fantastic French motorway service stations where the chefs and the lunch dishes would grace any four star hotel anywhere on the planet before continuing our journey to Chinon.
We were staying at the Hotel Plantagenet in the marketplace of Chinon, a hotel so welcoming we have returned to it every year since! Breakfast was the complete cold table so often found in most French hotels with cereals, cheeses, hams, smoked salmon, boiled eggs, cornichons, fruit salad, fresh fruit, three types of bread, orange juice, apple juice and of course a continuous flow of tea and coffee. All “self serve” and as many times as you like. This was our breakfast after a good nights sleep hastened by a few glasses of Cabernet Franc which admittedly felt a little austere following on from top quality Burgundy. We emerged into a glorious blue sky day and had a walk around the ancient town centre to orientate ourselves before taking the lift from the central car park up to the chateau area. Chateau Chinon is somewhere we hadn’t visited since the late 1980s with our children, but there was no chance of nostalgia this morning ……. we were on a mission. Cave des Silene is situated above the town adjacent to the Chateau and comprises a wine bar, a wine shop, and a restaurant serving mostly cold platters. It was 11.30am so just time for a special wine tasting before lunch on their sunny patio looking across to Chateau Chinon. The Cave des Silene is owned by the same company and family who also have owned Domaine Charles Joguet since Charles retired, the Genet family, and here you will find not only the wines of Domaine Joguet but also the best wines from the length of the Loire including Savennieres, Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. We were welcomed by a pleasant young man who spoke excellent English …….. with a slight Newcastle accent! He was French but had spent a couple of years working as a wine waiter in …… Newcastle! I told him I was very interested in Joguet wines and would like to be “educated” about them. He asked me a few questions about my understanding of terroir, vinification and my collection and then chose 4 different wines from different “fields” (terroir) but all of the SAME year, 2011.
What followed was undoubtedly a masterclass, this young man knew his stuff in the widest sense, but he had very detailed knowledge about the terroir within which each of these vines had been grown. All were Cabernet Franc, but all were labelled according to their “appellation” within the French classification system, in turn based on a general structure of clay, gravel, limestone, sand and various combinations; more on the tasting in a moment.
Let’s get into the Masterclass then all about “terroir”. First, there is no simple definition nor an alternative word in the English language; you can read about it all you like, but you won’t grasp the concept and it’s importance until you speak to a French winemaker, especially in Burgundy. It is terroir that determines where a wine permitted to be labelled as Pommard differs from a wine labelled as Volnay, and where the 7 Grand Cru fields of Chablis finish and where the Premier Cru fields begin. So, what are the components of terroir that the French, and increasingly the rest of the world especially now in Argentina, California, New Zealand and South Africa are so concerned with? Well, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (Jancis Robinson) they are:
1. Climate as measured by temperature and rainfall.
2. Sunlight Energy received per unit of land surface area.
3. Relief or Topography comprising elevation, slope and aspect.
4. Soil as determined by its geology and pedology as its chemical characteristics
5. Hydrology or soil-water relationship.
Hopefully you’re all still awake and with me, so let’s return to my wine tasting in Chinon. As I did, next time you visit a vineyard ask to have a “horizontal tasting” across different terroir and I can almost guarantee you will get an enthusiastic response and one of the most interesting experiences in your wine tasting life! Basically, a horizontal tasting entails sampling wines of the same grape, same winemaker, and most importantly the SAME VINTAGE (Year), but with wines from different terroir! So, everything across the wines being tasted is CONSTANT except for the terroir in which the vines are planted. What you will experience will be totally due to terroir, and I can best illustrate it with my own experience from that 2015 tasting at Cave des Silene. (This is the region of France for reds made from the Cabernet Franc grape and whites made from either Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc.) Here are the four wines we tasted:
1. Les Petite Roches; made from vines growing on clayey hills up to a plateau with soil which is slightly calcareous. It is a very light wine, light in colour and with a light fruity taste. Good for chilled sipping outdoors in summer. (€12)
2. Cuvée de la Cure; made from vines planted on clayey-gravelly soils. This was a wine of some substance, good firm tannins which would soften with ageing for a couple of years. Taste of blackcurrant and even a little spice with a long finish. (€14)
3. Les Charmes; the vines are planted in argilo-calcareous soils and are north facing. The wine is vinified in an oak tank then aged for 7 months in oak barrels. Naturally one could taste the oak immediately, but is wasn’t overpowering. Still a crisp fruity wine, I would also drink this slightly chilled with a meaty barbecue! (€24)
4. Clos de la Dioterie; made from vines in a monopole historical vineyard with clay-limestone soils, the vines are 90 years old now all of which contribute to a rich complex wine structured for long cellar keeping, probably 12-13 years. This was a cracker, deeper in colour than the others, heavy duty with strong aromas of black fruits and liquorice. (€50)
What you see in the above list is the order in which I tasted them, moving from light to heavy, simple to complex, easy drinking now to long term cellaring, and increasing in price. Remember all the same grape, all the same year, so only the terroir was varying. Difficult to describe in words, a horizontal tasting like this is something you have to experience for yourselves. In this case I can say it is one of the best wine tastings I have ever had, and certainly it got me thinking and appreciating a lot more how terroir influences a wine and how we experience its taste. That was 5 years ago and I have carried the lessons from it around with me on all of my vineyard visits across France. Oh, and I still have 5 bottles of the Clos de la Dioterie remaining! Thank you Mr Joguet! And………. naturally we had a charcuterie platter lunch in the sunshine afterwards looking across the road to Clos de l’Echo, another historic vineyard worth a visit!
Background to Domaine Charles Joguet
The wines of Chinon have long been celebrated. French humanist and native son, François Rabelais, sang their praises as far back as the sixteenth century. However, the distinction with which the appellation is regarded today is due in part to the legacy left by a more contemporary icon: Charles Joguet. This young painter and sculptor abandoned a budding art career to assume direction of the family domaine in 1957. He soon began to question the common practice of selling grapes to negociants, as his own family had done for years.
The Joguets owned prime vineyard land in between the Loire and Vienne Rivers, with some of their finest found on the left bank of the Vienne, just outside Chinon, in Sazilly. These very lieux-dits had been recognized for their character and defined before the Renaissance—some even date back to the Middle Ages. Variations in the soils of these alluvial plains were substantial enough to realize that he was sitting on what would be considered in other regions as premier cru and grand cru vineyards. To sell the grapes off or to vinify these individualized plots together would have been madness. Separate terroirs, he believed, necessitate separate vinifications. Over the course of his tenure, Charles took the risks necessary to master the single-vineyard bottling with an artistry that A.O.C. Chinon had never before seen. In so doing, he realized the true potential of the land.