Chenin blanc

… and I offer, as usual, a variety of Champagnes and sparkling wines to suit, I hope, every taste and pocketbook and every occasion, whether you’re entertaining the entire cast of Survivor: Dude, Is Mars Even Inhabitable? to the most private, secret rendezvous a deux. And be careful tonight and in the wee hours. I don’t want to lose any of My Readers to the vagaries of drunkenness, whether in themselves or others. Happy New Year!

Yes, the Kenwood Yulupa Cuvée Brut, California, is manufactured in the Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, and for the price, it’s completely appropriate for large crowds. It’s a racy blend of chenin blanc, French colombard, chardonnay and pinot noir that’s fresh, effervescent, clean, crisp and very dry; packed with limestone-like minerality verging on the saline quality of oyster shells, it offers hints of roasted lemons and pears and a touch of spice. According to Kenwood’s website, the Yulupa Cuvée Brut is available only in December. Very Good. About $12, but discounted as low as $9 throughout the country.

The story of Gloria Ferrer’s sparkling wines in Sonoma County makes a chronicle of constant improvement and success. In fact, one of the products I reviewed in my first wine column, published in July, 1984, in The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, was a very early rendition of the Gloria Ferrer Brut, and I didn’t think much of it. I’m happy to say that’s not the case all these years later. The Gloria Ferrer Brut, Sonoma County, is a blend of 91.2 percent pinot noir and 8.8 percent chardonnay, and I sort of dote on that accuracy of detail. The color is medium gold with a pale copper flush, energized by a streaming froth of tiny golden bubbles. Notes of dried strawberries and raspberries reveal hints of roasted lemons and lime peel over a layer of limestone and flint; lip-smacking acidity keeps this sparking wine crisp and lively, while its lovely, dense texture, given a dose of elegance by scintillating minerality, lends personality and appeal. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $22.
A sample for review.
The Argyle Brut 2008, Willamette Valley, Oregon, a blend of 63 percent pinot noir and 37 percent chardonnay, presents an exuberant welter of fresh biscuits and steel, cinnamon bread and limestone, quince and crystallized ginger. The color is pale gold; tiny winking bubbles spiral ever upward. I cannot overemphasize the terrifically irresistible nature of this sparkling wine, its elegance and elevating nature, its blitheness rooted in the stones and bones of crisp, nervy acidity and the essential, lacy element of limestone-like minerality. In the background are hints of lemons, baked apple and toasted hazelnuts, these elements subsumed into a finish that delivers a final fillip of flint and caramelized grapefruit. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $27.
All right, so you want real Champagne for New Year’s Eve, like from France, the Champagne region, but you don’t want to hijack your credit card or fall into 2013 already entailed by debt. (Haha, good luck with that!) Choose, then, the Champagne Philippe Fontaine Brut Tradition, a 70/30 pinot noir/pinot meunier blend that will satisfy your festive taste-buds and spirit as well as your wallet. The color is shimmering pale gold, and tiny bubbles indeed shimmer up through the glass. This is an very attractive, clean yet savory and nicely faceted Champagne that features a modulated toasty character, vibrant blade-like acidity, heaps of limestone and flint elements for minerality and a texture engagingly balanced between fleetness and moderate density. What’s not to like? 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. Prices vary widely, but the national average is about $28.

Imported by Bourgeois Family Selections, Asheville, N.C.
David Léclapart cultivates three hectares — about 7.7 acres — of mainly chardonnay vines in the Premier Cru village of Trépail. I have unfortunately never possessed a whole bottle of any of Léclapart’s four cuvees — L’Amateur, L’Artiste, L’Alchimiste, L’Apôtre — having tasted them on three occasions in New York at trade events, but those encounters made me wish devoutly for more intimate and prolonged contact. The estate has been operated since 1998 on biodynamic principles, certified by EcoCert and Demeter; the wines are made sans dosage, that is, without sugar for the second fermentation, so they are bone-dry, sometimes achingly so. And yet they are, at least to my palate, eminently appealing, though equally demanding, even rigorous. Champagne David Léclapart L’Amateur Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut (sometimes called the estate’s “entry-level” wine) is a 100 percent chardonnay Champagne that was fermented in stainless steel. Notes of limestone, flint and steel practically explode from the glass; paradoxically, while it takes elegance to the farthest extreme in the realms of chilliest allure, L’Amateur reveals a savory, earthy background, as well as an unexpected wisp of camellia and fresh apples and pears. Acidity, it’s almost needless to mention, is of the most resonance and chiseled quality, while the limestone element feels deeply and irrevocably etched. If I were summoned to my fate tomorrow morning on the dueling ground, I would sip a glass of this Champagne before turning to face my foe. 12.5 percent alcohol. Exceptional. Again, price range across the map, but the national average appears to be about $83.

Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York.

The holiday Champagne and sparkling wine season will be upon us soon, so I’ll give you a head-start on the proceedings with a very attractive bottle of bubbles from France’s Loire Valley. Crémant de Loire was approved as an appellation in 1975. It’s not merely a type of wine but implies a geographical area, being restricted to the regions of Anjou-Saumur and Touraine, in the central Loire. According to the regulations, grapes for Crémant de Loire must be hand-harvested, and the wine must be aged in the bottle for at least a year. The process must be the Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle or as it is called in the Loire (and other places in France outside of Champagne) methode traditionelle. Many grape varieties are allowed, but the dominate grates are chenin blanc and cabernet franc.

The non-vintage Gaudrelle Crémant de Loire Brut is made from equal parts chenin blanc and chardonnay grapes. The color is pale gold enlivened by a constant upward stream of tiny glinting bubbles. This lovely sparkler is clean and fresh and effervescent, prolific with scents of lightly spiced apples and pears with back-notes of ginger and quince and a hint of chenin blanc’s slightly earthy straw-like character. The wine is quite dry, almost delicate, deeply imbued with limestone and flint qualities married to juicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors and devolving to a stones-‘n’-bones finish that exhibits taut acidity and high-toned mineral-laced austerity. 12.5 percent alcohol. Really charming. Very Good+. About $19 or $20, but prices around the country range from $17 to $25.

Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va. Tasted at a trade event.

Seven white wines and one rosé; seven Californians and one Spanish wine (not the rosé). Several chardonnays and a viognier made exactly in the fashion I like best. And some irresistible bargains. I do it all for you. No technical data, no paeans to place, no exploring the byways of personnel and personality; just brief reviews designed to perk up your interest and whet your thirst. Enjoy. These were samples for review.
Pepi Chenin Blanc Viognier 2011, California. 13% alc. 66% chenin blanc, 34% viognier. Pleasant enough and drinkable but the grape varieties get lost in each other; a little citrusy, a little spicy, pleasing texture; no great shakes, but you can’t beat the price. Good to sip when you don’t want to hurt your brain too much. Good+. About $10.
Sumarroca Temps de Flors 2011, Penedes, Spain. 12% alc. 48% xarel-lo, 40 % muscat, 12% gewurztraminer. Pale straw-gold color; very attractive but with some spareness and slight astringent factor, like little white mountain flowers that don’t take any crap from you, thank you v. much; pear, yellow plum, hint of white peach; acacia with a touch of honey and bees’-wax; lovely, lively, lithe and totally charming. Now into Spring 2013. Very Good+. About $14, offering Great Value.
St. Clement Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.6% alc. Pale straw-gold color; just lovely; slightly smoky and steely pineapple- grapefruit scents and flavors, clove and limestone-flecked and with a beguiling trace of honeysuckle; spiced apples and pears, hint of citrus, sleek, smooth, supple and tingling with brisk acidity, superb balance between tense and teasing nervous energy and lightly honed richness, the finish laved with damp limestone and flint. My style. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $19, a Terrific Value.
Ventana Dry Rosato 2011, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 13.5% alc. 500 cases. 90% grenache, 10% syrah. Pale melon color; strawberry, dried cranberries and mulberries, hint of dusty limestone; supple texture with crisp acidity; a delightfully delicate and well-knit rosé with pleasing heft for drinking through Summer 2013. Very Good+. About $22.
Ventana Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 14.2% alc. Pale straw-gold color; notably clean and fresh; lemon and pear, dried thyme and tarragon, hints of honeysuckle, lemongrass and gooseberry; vibrant, lively, spicy, engaging, but dry, spare, almost elegant. Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $22.
Ventana Chardonnay 2010, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; pineapple and grapefruit, a bit of mango, a few minutes bring up notes of greengage and quince and cloves; crisp and lively, texture moderately lush but tempered by acidity and a burgeoning limestone element; very nicely balanced, holds the richness of fruit in check for the essential structure. Through 2013. Excellent. About $22.
Chamisal Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2010, Edna Valley. 13.9% alc. Very pale gold color; fresh clean aromas of candied quince and ginger, grapefruit and pineapple with a backnote of mango and delicately smoky oak; flavors of green apple and pineapple are boldly framed by baking spice, slightly woody dried spices (and a trace of dried flowers) and a hint of baked lemon; all held in check by bright acidity and a scintillating limestone element. This qualifies as radiant. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $28.
Stags’ Leap Winery Viognier 2011, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Pale gold color; vibrantly clean, fresh, lissom, elegant; a wine of stones and bones with a hint of jasmine and tarragon laid over tart lemon and pear flavors bolstered by taut acidity and a bracing sea-salt and grapefruit finish; paradoxically, the texture is seductive and enveloping. For people weary of the overwhelming floral style of viognier. Now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $30.

Driving up and up a twisting dirt track toward the Chalone winery, nothing in the steep, sere hillsides, lying arid and exposed to the glaring sun that reigns over this realm of dust and chaparral, could convince you that the landscape and climate are anything like Burgundy. Yet from this improbable parched landscape, some 1800 feet up the Gavilan range, high over the city of Soledad and just under the Pinnacles National Monument, emerges some of the best (and at times controversial) chardonnay and pinot noir wines in California, as well as pinot blanc and chenin blanc, the latter from a vineyard planted in 1919, the oldest in Monterey County. (This image looks down on Chalone from the hills above.)

That vineyard was planted by F.W. Silvear, who after the end of Prohibition sold grapes to Almaden and Wente and made a little wine of his own. He died in 1957, and the property went through various changes of name and ownership until Richard Graff, a Navy veteran with a degree in music from Harvard, bought the insolvent company, with investment from his mother, in 1965. After a great deal of trial and error, the first wines were produced in 1969. Graff was fascinated by Burgundian methods, and he introduced to California the concepts of barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation for white wines. It wasn’t easy making wine at Chalone. The winery was a former chicken coop that held 40 barrels. The property had no electricity, water or telephone service until the early 1980s; water for irrigation had to be trucked in from Soledad, and at night oil lamps came into service. A “real” winery was constructed in 1982, but it’s more easily described as a facility than a winery; no fancy digs here, no beautiful building designed by a famous architecture, the Chalone winery consists of serviceable offices, metal sheds and tanks. That former chicken coop/winery (see accompanying image) now holds the library of Chalone’s past vintages, a collection that can make visitors downright giddy.

In 1972, Phil Woodward resigned from the accounting firm Touche Ross and joined Chalone Vineyard as vice president of finance, a position that allowed him to take over all marketing and financial matters and to bring in a group of investors and much-needed cash. Graff and Woodward shared a vision that included maintaining Chalone as a fairly small producer but expanding the company through partnerships or through the creation of new wineries in other regions of the state. Thus came about the establishment of Edna Valley Vineyard winery in San Luis Obispo County, the Carmenet winery — since 2009 a brand for cheap wines from Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. — and Canoe Ridge in Washington and the acquisition of Acacia and Jade Mountain and Staton Hills (in Washington), renamed Sagelands Vineyard. Chalone made an initial stock offering in 1984, the first California winery to go public. The Chalone Wine Group was purchased in 2005 by beverage giant Diageo, though as Robert Cook, Chalone winemaker since 2007, said, “They take care of the books. We take care of the wine.”

Dick Graff was killed in 1998, when his single-engine Cessna went down near the town of Salinas.

The Chalone American Vitacultural Area was approved in 1982, the first AVA in Monterey County, as Chalone was its first bonded winery. Though the region now contains seven vineyards, it has only one winery, Chalone itself. As long ago as the 1890s, when Frenchman Maurice Tamm planted vines in the declivities of these long, dry slopes, the area’s unique properties — its deep calcareous soils and its paucity of rainfall, about 14 inches a year — were recognized for the demands they would make on vines to work hard for nourishment and for the element of minerality the soil contributes to the wine.
Here are the wines we tasted, under a blue sky and bright sun, on Wednesday, September 12:

As the guru of modern biodynamism, Nicolas Joly has a lot to account for. The proprietor of the ancient estate of Coulée de Serrant, in Anjou’s tiny Savennières appellation, a fleck of prized Loire Valley real estate southwest of the city of Angers, in 1980 he by chance (on a skiing trip) came upon the obscure Rudolph Steiner’s semi-mystical homeopathic/astrological principles of agriculture, delivered in a series of lectures in 1924, and embraced them with the zeal of an aimless fanatic ripe for the fall. Wonder what would have happened if, instead of Steiner, Joly had discovered Wilhelm Reich, thereby filling vineyards around the world with enigmatic orgone machines instead of cow horns filled with silicalized dung. Or L. Ron Hubbard. Some people require a higher power to which to submit, and Joly found his in Steiner, who was not, allow me to point out, a farmer, yet somehow has been beatified as the Madame Blavatsky of viticulture.

Readers may think that I approach this subject with undue levity. Well, sorry, shoot me, but while some of the practices of the biodynamic movement make complete sense for anyone thoughtfully engaged in farming and are already widely employed in aspects of sustainable and organic agriculture — avoiding chemical pesticides and herbicides, using cover crops between rows, trying to establish a sense of natural harmony within the vineyard — other methodologies seem to come straight out of a New Age commune where flower-decked nymphs and satyrs promulgate fertility according to the alignment of the stars. Why do otherwise intelligent people not understand that the stars are really very very far away and that the so-called astrological “signs” are primeval figments of mythic imaginations?

(The best introduction to the principles of biodynamic agriculture and to the history of Coulée de Serrant and the wines of Nicolas Joly comes from Chris Kissack, aka The Wine Doctor. I highly recommend this post.)

A few producers and winemakers around the world have embraced the biodynamic principles, to greater or lesser degrees, perhaps encouraged by Joly’s writings and his boundless sincerity — the crushing sincerity of the zealot — and often these producers and winemakers turn out wonderful wines; I encounter such wines at the “Return to Terroir” biodynamic events regularly, and I have written extensively about them over the past three months, which you must not take as an endorsement but as curiosity and concern. As far as Joly’s wines are concerned, I have never encountered the problems with oxidation that some writers mention, and even when they may have been difficult to assess, as they tend to be initially, the wines have exhibited nothing less than tremendous energy and vitality. On the other hand, I taste many wines not produced under the strictures of biodynamic principles that are also models of energy, vitality and verve. Readers may point to the successes bred by biodynamic methods and say, “See, they work,” to which I reply, “Except when they don’t.”

My first encounter with a wine from Nicolas Joly was at the restaurant Rubicon in San Francisco around Thanksgiving 1996. The wine was the Clos de la Bergerie Savennières 1992, Joly’s “second-tier” chenin blanc and it cost $48 on the wine list. (Big sighs, groans, rolling of eyes and the chorus, “Those were the days!”)

In January 2003, I had dinner at La Caravelle in New York and tasted one Coulée de Serrant wine from 2000 and two from 1999. (The “entry-level” Les Vieux Clos used to be labeled Becherelle for the American market). I’ll include the notes from my old newspaper column:

Though at first it seems serious and reticent, Joly’s Becherelle 2000, which carries a straight Savennières designation, blossoms with honeysuckle and jasmine and seethes with a sort of liquid minerality (mineral liquidity?) that amalgamates lemon-lime and limestone with peaches and baking spice and rollicking acid. This should drink beautifully through 2010. Excellent. About $33.

Joly’s decadent but not decorative Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, sports a bright gold color and a bouquet that teems with smoke and old wood, orange zest, creme brulee and roasted apricots. Though touched with the earthy, damp leaf complexity of botrytis – the “noble rot” that affects very ripe grapes in proper autumn conditions and helps produce the world’s great dessert wines – this wine is bone-dry and perfectly balanced with a flinty-limestone element; the effect shows up in its plangent intensity, overwhelming ripeness and vibrancy. Keenly wrought, racy and elegant, Clos de la Bergerie 1999 is a great match with rich fish and seafood dishes. Well-stored, it could be a 15- to 20-year wine. Exceptional. About $43.

Third in this roster is the exotic, exuberant Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 1999, a bright golden-yellow wine (made from 40 to 80-year-old vines) whose qualities of cloves and cinnamon, pineapple and pineapple upside-down cake, bitter orange and tangerine seem not of this world. You have to keep reminding yourself: This is a dry wine! The tension and constant resolution here among a luxurious silky texture, ripe buttery fruit, zinging acid and deeply rooted mineral elements are thrilling. Long life ahead, 20 to 25 years. Exceptional. About $80.

In New York again, for the first and third “Return to Terroir” tastings in 2004 and 2006, I found the Joly wines from vintages 2002 and 2003, respectively, difficult to fathom, reticent, closed, oddly brooding in spirit for white wines, all qualities that match the reputation the wines have for not showing well in the first three or four years.

Then, in March 2007 I discovered a cache of Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2000 at a local retail store, $40 a bottle; I bought three. Here’s what I wrote (some extraneous comments edited) at the time on this blog:

Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2000, Savennières, Loire Valley. At a bit more than six years old, this example bursts with quince, peach and pear, spice-cake, mango and orange rind that get smokier and more roasted as the minutes pass, all nestled in a plush texture cut by vibrant acid. The wine tastes like honey, but it’s completely dry, so dry, in fact, that the finish is austere, offering the slight bitterness of grapefruit rind tempered by lanolin and a touch of jasmine. Exceptional, and under-priced at $36 to $40. Long life ahead; drink now through 2010 to ’14 (well-stored). 2010 to ’14! More like 2018 to ’20 I would say.

I include these notes on previous Joly wines I tasted (or drank) because they reveal a sense of consistency that seems to run true, at least in my experience, from year to year. They do not make an immediate bid for your regard, yet even in youthful reticence they offer tremendous vitality and the innate potential for richness. Some writers, particularly French critics with long experience and memory, decry the era of Nicolas Joly and prefer the wines produced by his mother before the son took over the estate. I cannot speak to those issues. I can only assert that generally I find the wines of Nicolas Joly and Coulée de Serrant to be among the world’s greatest expressions of the chenin blanc grape. Do biodynamic practices make them so? Do these esoteric methods “work”? Yes. No. I don’t know. The philosophy is what it is; the wines are what they are.

The wines of Nicolas Joly are imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York. Prices are approximate and represent a range found on the Internet. Image of Nicolas Joly from; map from

Nicolas Joly Les Vieux Clos 2009, Savennières. The color is pale gold with faint greenish-gold highlights; the aromas come first as classic chenin blanc — hay, candle wax, camellias, a delicate touch of honey — then deeper aspects of cloves, quince and ginger, dried orange rind, a winsome whiff of lilac, and, amid these sensual delights, a touch of something slightly astringent, slightly bracing and withholding, perhaps a hint of salt-marsh. The richness expands across the palate, not quite buttery but certainly ripe and fat yet — always a “yet” — again that feeling of resisting its own power, of insisting on a sense of spareness or refusing to surrender to its own florid potential; remember, this is a completely dry wine. Flavors of spiced and roasted lemons and pears are permeated by bright animating acidity and the presence of clean scintillating limestone minerality that burgeons through the finish. 15.2 percent alcohol. Approximately 580 cases produced. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. Prices vary widely; say $35 to $50.
Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines. The 33-hectare vineyard of Roches aux Moines, among the most important in Savennières, is its own appellation; Joly owns 3.5 hectares. The vines average 30 to 40 years old, though some are as old as 80 years. There’s an immediate impression that Clos de La Bergerie 2009 is both more intense and concentrated and more generous than its cousin, Les Vieux Clos ’09. It’s a golden wine, rich, shimmering, honeyed, again almost buttery yet imbued with a formidable acid and mineral structure that provides a reservoir of inner resources; this is authoritatively dry, fine-boned, crystalline, a-quiver with crispness, liveliness and vitality and beautifully balanced among the suppleness of its texture, the ripe, spicy forwardness of its stone-fruit flavors and — here we are once more — the sense that the wine (as I scribbled in my first note): “resists too much richness.” That quality of inherent leanness, of a vibrant linearity, saves the wine from excess and flamboyance and keeps it consistently inviting as well as multi-layered; the evidence points to terrific grapes from an excellent year (following the inconsistent vintages of 2006, ’07 and ’08 in the central Loire) and skillful winemaking. So: macerated peaches and greengage plums with a vivid hint of pineapple; hay and straw, quince jam and lemongrass, a slightly earthy note; a spice-packed, resonant, elegant finish. The alcohol level is controversial: the label, as you can see, states 13.5 percent; in his survey of the Joly 2009s, Chris Kissack at, says that the alcohol content of this wine is 15 percent; and the importer’s website has it at 15.8 percent! Whatever, there’s no trace of alcoholic sweetness or heat; the wine is exquisitely balanced, but with a gratifying risky, nervy edge. About 580 cases. Now through 2020 to ’25 or ’26. Exceptional. About $45 to $60.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Nicolas Joly Clos de Coulée de Serrant 2009, Savennières-Coulee de Serrant. The 7-hectare Coulee de Serrant vineyard — about 17.3 acres — is wholly owned by Nicolas Joly; like Roches aux Moines, it is a sub-appellation of Savennières. At a little more than two and a half years old, the wine is a beguiling and intriguing merging of dryness that hints of a core of sweet ripeness with a lush yet spare, lithe texture and intense resonance and vibrancy married to profound limestone-like minerality. Does this wine out-perform — not that it’s a contest — Clos de La Bergerie 2009? Again, I would say that the case is one of matters of degrees; the wines are similar in character, but Clos de Coulee de Serrant 09 possesses not only the limpid, luminous, spicy stone-fruit qualities — and, yes, the quince and cloves and ginger, the earthiness of damp hay, a touch of leafy fig and greengage, an extra hint of lightly buttered cinnamon toast — of its stablemates but it feels actually savory and mouth-watering; this wine practically glistens and gleams with personality (the topmost layer) while it delivers a pretty damned consummate iteration of the depth and dimension of which the chenin blanc grape is capable. 15.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2014 through 2024 to ’28. Excellent. About $65 to $90.

Pine Ridge Winery, founded in the Napa Valley in 1978 by a partnership headed by Gary Andrus, made its reputation on cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, but the smartest business move the producer ever made was in creating a chenin blanc-viognier blend and selling it cheap. This justly popular wine — if I owned a restaurant I would sell it by bottle and glass — hits all the points the American palate desires in an inexpensive white wine: it’s tasty, nicely complex for the price and a trifle sweet.

The Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc + Viognier 2011 is a blend of 79 percent chenin blanc and 21 percent viognier. The wine is clean and fresh, with beguiling aromas of ripe pears (and pears and more pears), roasted lemons and a hint of peaches, twined with touches of mango, lemongrass, jasmine and green tea, for a flirtatious note of the exotic. Pear, peach and citrus flavors are spicy enough (and slightly herbal) that the wine is almost savory, not to mention crisp and lively with bright acidity that cuts through a lovely, moderately lush texture. That trifle of sweetness emerges mainly in the finish, but makes the Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc + Viognier 2011 a good match with slightly spicy cuisine. It’s versatile too; we drank it one night with whole-wheat linguine with walnuts, orange zest and red chilies and the next with cod and chorizo stew. 12 percent alcohol. Michael Beaulac is Pine Ridge’s general manager and winemaker. Bottled with a screw-cap for easy opening. Very Good+. About $14, representing Fantastic Value.

A sample for review.

I’ll show you on the map to the right. Though nominally included in any survey of the Loire Valley, tiny Fiefs Vendéens actually lies fairly far south of the city of Nantes and the surrounding region of Muscadet, the farthest western area in the long reach of the Loire River where it debouches into the Atlantic. When I encountered the wines of Domaine Saint Nicolas at the “Return to Terroir: Les Renaissance des Appellations” tasting in New York last week, my question was exactly the title of this post: “Where the hell is Fiefs Vendéens?” You have to love the opportunity to try wines from tiny, out-of-the-way areas!

The Vendée lies in the ancient province of Poitou, the birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine and part of her vast realm. The area was devastated during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and during the internal Wars of Religion (1562-1598). The Vendéens are fiercely independent and royalist, launching a major — and doomed — pro-Catholic war against the Revolution (1793-1795), refusing to recognize the authority of Napoleon when he escaped from Elba in 1815, and attempting a revolt against Louis-Philippe in 1832. Things are calmer now.

Vineyards are a small segment of the flat agricultural landscape of the Vendée. The grape-growing and wine-making activity of Fiefs Vendéens centers on four communes — Mareuil, Brem, Vix and Pissotte — with many of the vineyards lying a stone’s-throw from the sea. The vines, not trained on trellises, bend low to the ground because of the constant wine. Grapes for red wine are gamay, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir; for white wine, the grapes are chenin blanc, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc; other, more obscure grapes, such as groslot gris (also called grolleau), are also permitted. The small region labored in obscurity for many years, finally achieving VDQS status — between Vin de Pays and AOC — in 1984. VDQS stands for Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure; the designation accounts for about 1 percent of French wine. In March 2011, Fiefs Vendéens was granted full AOC recognition.

A great deal of that advancement is due to Thierry Michon of Domaine Saint Nicolas, of the shore-hugging commune of Brem. The fully biodynamic estate, since 1995, is located on the Ile d’Olonne; Michon cultivates 37 hectares, about 95 acres, of vines, an enormous amount for the region. The wines are beguiling, flavorful yet spare, and highly individual, thoroughly unfolding their connection to the schist and limestone soil that dominates in Brem. It was a pleasure and somewhat of a gratifying puzzlement to try them, since all authentic wines have something of the paradoxical about them.

The wines of Domaine Saint Nicolas are imported by Jon-David Headrick Selections, Asheville, N.C. The prices I list are more approximate than usual, if available. Image of Thierry Michon from
Domaine Saint Nicolas Gammes en May 2010, Fiefs Vendéens. Made from 100 percent gamay grapes, this punningly-named crowd- pleaser is utterly fresh and clean, blithe and bracing, with notes of red and black cherries and dried raspberries and undertones of roses and violets and an intriguing slightly mossy earthiness. The color is bright cherry with a tinge of dark ruby at the center. There’s a brief episode of sweetness on the entry, but this is, at least from mid-palate back, a dry wine, vibrant with acidity and couched in terms of — here’s that word again — an intriguing complex of red and black fruit flavors. both ripe and dried, flinty earthiness and exotic spice. 13 percent alcohol. Not complicated but truly charming. Very Good+. $NA.
The Domaine Saint Nicolas Reflets 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, will appeal to those for whom enjoying a rose is a matter of pleasure shaded by Puritan tartness and asperity, for this is indeed a very dry rose permeated by the crispness of resonant acidity and the austerity of limestone-and-flint-like minerality. It’s a blend of pinot noir grapes, gamay, groslot gris and negrette that results, on the other hand, in lovely scents and flavors of red currants and mulberries with a pale touch of plum and peach skin. I was tasting this wine mid the madding crowd of a major trade event, but it instantly put me in mind of crusty bread, rabbit terrine and a blanket outdoors. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. $NA.
The Domaine Saint Nicolas Les Clous 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, is, depending on the source you read, a blend of 80 chenin blanc, 15 percent chardonnay and 5 percent groslot gris; the wine aged eight months, 80 percent in tank, 20 percent in oak barrels. I don’t want to overuse an adjective — you know, “intriguing” — so allow me to say that the wine is mysteriously curious and captivating. I couldn’t say precisely what the 5 percent groslot gris brings to the wine, but from the chenin blanc come dominating elements of straw, greengage plum, lemon balm, pear and precision-tooled acidity; the chardonnay, I would say, contributes a bit of body, moderate lushness and back-notes of cloves and grapefruit. No great depth or concentration but delightful and delicious. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $17.
The make-up of the Domaine Saint Nicolas Le Haut des Clous 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, is 100 percent chenin blanc. The wine is spanking fresh and clean, bracing as a brine-laden sea-breeze after a morning rain, deeply minerally in the limestone and flint range; it’s quite racy and nervy, animated by the tang of lemon pith, lime peel and slightly bitter peach skin, yet softened with appealing touches of camellia, lemon balm, spiced pear and damp straw. Super attractive and drinks like a charm. Excellent. About $20-$25.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Can there be another wine in the world that blends pinot noir with cabernet franc? That’s the case with the unusual and ambitious Saint Nicolas Cuvée Jacques 2007, Fiefs Vendéens with pinot noir in the dominant 90 percent position. I have no information about the oak regimen — zut alors! the winery’s website needs a total overhaul — but I will say the the wine is dry, spare, elegant, packed with notes of dried spices and flowers and great reserves of dry, earthy tannins. Perhaps the cabernet franc, blended at 15 percent in some vintages, accounts for a paradoxical tinge of ripe fatness, a hint of the grape’s black olive and bay leaf character and rugged structure, though this is, again paradoxically, if not quixotically, quite subtle; somehow, the wine achieves smooth balance and integration. I’ve never tasted anything like it, and I mean that as a compliment. Excellent. About $25-$27.

The Domaine Saint Nicolas Pinot Noir 2009, Fiefs Vendéens, is distributed only in the United States of America. It’s a rather spare, delicate pinot noir, offering fresh and clean scents of red and black cherries and a bit of red and black currant permeated by dried spice, touches of rose petal and pomegranate and a hint of cola, all presented in a manner much more French than the ripe, opulent pinots of California and Oregon. Lovely purity, with moderate intensity. Very Good+. $24.

The French wine industry is heavily regulated by government rules about what grapes can be grown where, what kinds of wines can be made from what kinds of grapes, how those grapes are to be treated in the vineyard and the winery and so on. Indeed, most European countries operate in the same highly regulated manner, a situation becoming more complicated as the EU itself imposes its will on the continent’s grape-growing, winemaking and labeling. One can make wine in France outside the permitted practices for a particular appellation, but one cannot label or market such a wine as originating in that appellation. Working outside the system of permitted grape varieties and methods entitles a wine to the simple categories Vin de Table or, recently authorized, Vin de France. Labels for Vin de Table cannot carry a vintage date or the names of grapes; wines coming under the designation Vin de France, which will eventually replace Vin de Table, can convey that information, a change greeted with approbation by many French winemakers for the flexibility it affords.

Today I offer five “outlaw wines” from France. One is Vin de Table, three are Vin de France (one of these is sparkling), while another sparkling wine is entitled only to the term mousseaux. Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré was made in large clay amphorae; it’s an example of the new “orange wine” phenomenon.

These wines were encountered at the sixth “Return to Terroir, La Renaissance des Appellations,” a tasting of biodynamic wines mounted in New York on February 27.
Beauthorey Ultima, non-vintage (but 2008), Vin de Table. Alicante bouschet, carignan, cinsault, aramon, gros noir (says the website; Christophe Beau told me that there are 12 grape varieties in this wine). Actually sort of ultimate; deep, rich, ripe, spicy; curiously earthy and fleshy, unique slightly funky mossy and foresty qualities, yet tremendously clean and fresh, blazing acidity, rapt dimensions of roasted and slightly stewed red and black fruit scents and flavors; hints of smoke, licorice, lavender. Amazing what a great winemaker can do with supposedly no-count grapes. Biodynamic. Excellent. About $25 (an estimate; Beauthorey lost its US importer.)
Domaine de la Garelière Milliard d’Etoiles, non-vintage, Vin de France. (“Billions of stars”) Cabernet franc and chenin blanc. Pale gold color, gently but definitely sparkling; rose petals, peach and peach skin, hints of apples and strawberries, super attractive; crisp and lively, brings in a touch of lime and limestone; ripe, a little fleshy and macerated even, but a seaside tang to it, clean, brisk, bracing. Wish I had a glass right now. Biodynamic. Very Good+. About $NA.
Bossard-Thuaud Vin Mousseaux de Qualité, non-vintage. Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet), folle blanche, chardonnay and a touch of cabernet franc. No dosage, so bone-dry, but despite the spare, lean elegance, quite charming and elevating; exuberant effervescence, pale straw color; very clean, crisp and confident; jasmine and camellia, cloves, limestone and lime peel, faint backnote of almond skin; very refined and stylish, packed with limestone and flint-like minerality that almost glitters, lively, vibrant. Made by Guy Bossard and his wife Annie Thuaud at Domaine de l’Écu. Biodynamic, vegan. Excellent. About $23.
Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré, non-vintage, Vin de France. 30% muscat petit grains, 25% roussanne, 20% each bourboulenc and clairette rose, 5% grenache blanc. Light amber color; orange rind, lime zest, cloves, flint, tinge of lemon and melon; bright acidity, dry, crisp, steely, yet smooth and supple; delicate hints of baked apple, roasted lemon, spice box, all in a spare, almost lean package. Biodynamic. Very Good+. $NA.
Domaine Viret Solstice VIII, non-vintage (but 2010), Vin de France. A blend of mourvèdre, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, caladoc — totally a new one on me; it’s a crossing of grenache and malbec — and marselan. Very pleasant, light and delicate, quite dry, builds power as it develops; notes of dried red fruit and exotic spices, slightly cherry-berry and sour melon; acidity cuts a swath of the palate; gains austerity from mid-palate through the spicy, mineral-flecked finish. Biodynamic. Interesting at first, then growing enjoyable. Very Good+. About $15-$20.

Here is a sparkling wine that for quality and price you should grasp to your bosom and purchase by the case. The Cuvée Stéphi Ebullience, non-vintage, is a blend of 60 percent chardonnay grapes, 30 percent chenin blanc and 5 percent each mauzac and pinot noir made in the Crémant de Limoux appellation in southwest France, not far from medieval walled town of Carcassonne. The wine is a collaboration between the Bourgeois family, the well-known importers headquartered in Asheville, N.C., and Domaine J. Laurens.

Limoux has an interesting history, because the first sparkling wines were apparently developed there as early as 1531, at the Abbey St.-Hilaire, and pre-dating sparkling Champagne by 150 years. These wines, traditionally made from the mauzac grape, underwent a natural process of second fermentation in the bottle in the Spring after the harvest, as the temperature warmed. The fairly rustic Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wines were supplemented in 1990 by the creation of Crémant de Limoux, designed to be more modern and to exploit the increasing acreage in the region devoted to chardonnay and chenin blanc grapes.

The Cuvée Stéphi Ebullience offers a mild straw-gold color and a plethora of teeming bubbles. The bouquet is a subtle weaving of biscuits, lemon zest and baking spices highlighted by a pointed limestone element; the impression is of pinpoint focus and vibrancy with nothing fancy or flashy. In the mouth, this is clean, bright, effervescent and very dry, a pleasing combination of a soft generous texture (and hints of macerated citrus fruit) with taut acidity and an upright, straight-arrow minerality in the limestone-flint range, much as if it were a cadet version of the hallowed Champagne itself. In fact, not wanting to make too hard a sell here, but the Cuvée Stéphi Ebullience makes a fair bid for elegance, presence and class beyond its station. Don’t neglect this in your sparkling wine plans. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $20.

So today is January 4th, meaning that tomorrow is Twelfth Night and the 12th Day of Christmas, bringing the 2011-2012 edition of this series to an end. Stop by for a couple of valedictory selections.

On Christmas Day 2011, let’s begin this series of Champagnes and sparkling wines with a product that’s not only charming but pretty darned complex and a bargain to boot. The emphasis this time around is on the diversity of French sparkling wines, and we’ll touch on several areas outside of iconic Champagne. The wine today is the Champalou Vouvray Brut, a nonvintage sparkler made from chenin blanc grapes, or as they’re called in the region, pineau de la Loire. Chenin blanc reigns supreme in the central Loire Valley, specifically the part called Touraine, after the city of Tours. The estate was founded in 1983 by Catherine and Didier Champalou, who make only about 12,000 cases of white wine annually, all from chenin blanc grapes.

The Champalou Vouvray Brut is made in what’s called méthode traditionelle, that is the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle; that’s the step that produces the essential bubbles. (The term méthode champenoise, by the way, was outlawed for label use by the EU in 1994.) The Champalou Vouvray Brut is fermented in stainless steel tanks and allowed to rest on the lees of spent yeast cells; then it is transferred to bottles, given a dosage of yeast and sugar (to kick-start the second fermentation) and capped; it spends 20 months in bottles before being corked and released.

The color is shimmering pale gold; effervescence is mild but persistent. Heady aromas of almond and acacia, lemongrass and quince, with a touch of something earthy and straw-like, are tempered by a cut of steel and limestone. This is surprisingly creamy and substantial, almost luscious, but balanced by bright, crisp acidity and more of that clean, slightly austere limestone minerality to bolster flavors of roasted lemons and spiced pears; hints of candle-wax and camellia come out in the long, lively satisfying finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent, and Great Value at about $19 to $26, reflecting prices around the country.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal. A sample for review.

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