Gamay


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 jimsloire.blogspot.com
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Tasty, enjoyable, delightful wines are always a pleasure, of course, but it’s even more of a boost when there’s something unusual about them. The Patrick Bottex “La Cueille” Bugey-Cerdon, non-vintage sparkling wine, hails from Bugey, a tiny appellation in eastern France, lying between the cities of Lyon, Grenoble and Geneva, that only achieved AOC status in 2009. This sparkling wine is made in a méthode ancestrale that may precede the more famous méthode champenoise by several centuries. Cerdon is one of three crus in Bugey, and La Cueille is a mountainside village where Patrick and Catherine Bottex cultivate five hectares (13.85 acres) of vines focused primarily on the gamay grape, with some of the indigenous poulsard, from vineyards planted between 1960 and 2010. It’s a labor of love and dedication. The blend of this sparkling wine is 90 percent gamay, 10 percent poulsard.

The Patrick Bottex “La Cueille” Bugey-Cerdon sports a lovely blushing salmon-copper color and a gentle yet persistent cascade of tiny bubbles. This is pure strawberries and raspberries with rose petals and an earthy touch of briers and brambles; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of dried cranberries, apple peel and orange zest. “La Cueille” is fresh and lively, with a texture that comes close to being dense, almost viscous, except that it’s balanced by keen acidity and brisk effervescence. It’s a bit sweet on entry, but totally dry from mid-palate back, and the finish is smoothly furnished with lime peel and limestone. Alcohol content is 8 percent, so you can drink twice as much! Not really! Completely charming. Very Good+. About $20.

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

Vintage 2009 in Beaujolais received a tremendous amount of praise as the “best year ever” or “the vintage of the century” — it’s a pretty short century so far — and other superlatives, and indeed 2009 produced terrific wines across the board, but in its way, 2010 may have resulted in even deeper more structured wines. Perhaps I’m rushing to judgment, basing this conclusion on an excessively limited number of examples, but I was very impressed by the wines mentioned in this post and their character and their eloquent expression of the gamay grape, or, to give its full name, gamay noir à jus blanc, called thus because while the skin is dark, the flesh is pale.

As well known as it is, especially for the frothy, forgettable Beaujolais nouveau released on the third Thursday of November, Beaujolais is somewhat of an outsider. It’s often considered to be part of Burgundy, that region’s southernmost area, below Chalonnais and Maconnais, yet Beaujolais could alternatively be counted as the northernmost wine region of the Rhône départment; mainstream Burgundy, including Chalonnais and Maconnais, lies in the next down départment of Saône et Loire. In addition to that geographical anomaly, Beaujolais devotes itself with almost fanatical monoculturalism to the gamay grape, while the rest of Burgundy, with equally focused devotion, cultivates chardonnay and pinot noir. (Yes, a tiny amount of chardonnay goes into Beaujolais Blanc.)

Three of the wines I discuss in today’s post are Beaujolais Cru wines, that is, they derive from one of the 10 villages or communes that produce the top echelon of the region’s gamay wines; the fourth example is a “regular” Beaujolais. Making the third category and falling between Beaujolais and the Cru wines is Beaujolais-Villages. The Cru communes occupy the best hillside sites in the northern area of the Beaujolais region; they are, going from north to south, Saint-Amour, Juliènas, Chenas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly.

These wines would be perfect with the food we associate with Autumn’s chill, braised and roasted meats, hearty casseroles and game birds.

The wines mentioned here were imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca.; they were tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event. I apologize for the lack of the diacritical marking on Maconnais; WordPress just would not allow an “a” with a circumflex.
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Forget all your conceptions of “straight” Beaujolais as light-hearted, grapey, quaffable stuff. The Dupeuble Beaujolais 2010, made from vines ranging from 50 to 100 years old, is very evocative, dark and smoky, seething with blackberry, currant and blueberry scents and flavors laden with cloves and sandalwood and a distinct earthy-minerally-briery quality. Quite dense and chewy for a Beaujolais, this displays great character and presence and a long finish packed with rhubarb, blueberry tart and graphite; vibrant acidity provides a taut structure. This received not a scrap of oak, fermenting and aging in cement vats and stainless steel tanks. Alcohol content is 12.5 percent. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+. About $16.
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Wow, the Chateau Thivin Côte de Brouilly 2010 exudes the power of the grape, the vine, the earth that harbored and nourished the roots. Oh, right, call me a romantic, but this is one of those wines that feels as if the soil and bedrock not only influenced its personality and character but seeped up the vines into the grapes themselves and thence into your glass. Made from vines that average 50 years old and aged six months in foudres — large barrels of various dimensions — the Thivin Côte de Brouilly 2010 is dense, dark, smoky, spicy and chewy, almost brooding in nature, though that aspect is beautifully balanced by the brightness and immediacy of ripe, vivid black currant and black raspberry flavors permeated by notes of dusty briers and brambles and by lip-smacking acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $24.
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The Jean-Paul Thévenet Vieilles Vignes — “Old Vines” — Morgon 2010 is unusually large-framed, resonant and dry, even for Morgon, usually cited as the biggest and most structured of the Beaujolais Cru wines. O.K., so, multi-dimensioned, richly detailed, vibrant, with a ravishing fleshy, meaty, spicy bouquet, all slightly exotic black and blue fruit, violets and rose petals, and then a seductive firmness and viscosity to the texture. The grapes came from two parcels of vines, one 45 years old, the other 110 (!) years old, and you feel that age and maturity, that sense of knowledge and experience, to be anthropomorphic about it, in the wine’s depth, in its grip and generosity. The wines at this estate, founded in 1870, receive long skin contact and age six to eight months in old Burgundian barrels, deriving from those processes rich color, heady aromas and a supple structure. If you are one of those who do not deign to drink Beaujolais, this one may change your mind, though that assertion holds true for all of these wines. Best from 2012/13 to 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $35.
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Another “wow” for the Domaine Diochon Cuvée Vieilles Vignes Moulin-à-Vent 2010, a Beaujolais Cru wine that radiates purity and intensity. Again, this is broad and deep, dark and dense, intense and concentrated and revealing loads of character. What makes it different from the other Beaujolais Cru wines in this post? I would say that it’s distinguished structurally by not only the typical briery-brambly and earthy qualities but by an unusually sharply-etched dusty floral-graphite-granite element that gives the wine real point and grip and beguilement. Still, the wine would benefit from a little age, even a year, so try from 2012 or ’13 through 2018 to ’20. Alcohol content is 13 percent. Excellent. About $25.
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A year ago I tasted through a range of Georges Duboeuf’s Cru Beaujolais wines from 2009, both in the well-known “flower” label series — on which the floral aspect has gradually diminished over the years — and from single-vineyard estates. Last week, I had the opportunity to try many of those wines again, at a wholesaler’s trade event, and among them was the flower label or “regular” Juliénas 2009 that I had not tasted last August. I thought the conjunction provided a way of investigating what a year in the bottle had done to two of the estate-grown Juliénas wines and compare them to the regular model I just tasted.
The wines of Georges Duboeuf are imported by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, N.Y.
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The Georges Duboeuf Juliénas 2009 offers a characteristic deep ruby color with a violet-magenta glow. Violets seem to be a theme, because there’s a hint of violets in the bouquet, along with notes of strawberry and mulberry, touches of red and black cherries and a slight briery quality. Those cherries, ripe and succulent, come out in the wine’s flavor aspect, adding layers of smoke, plums, more briers and brambles. The wine is juicy but dry, with keen acidity and a bit of slightly gamy earthiness providing anchor. Drink now through 2013 or ’14 with omelets, pates and terrines – or rabbit fricassée, which is what I ate when I had the Georges Duboeuf Julienas 1983 — my first Beaujolais Cru — at my birthday dinner in 1984. Here’s a link to a post about that wine and occasion. Very Good+. About $15.
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A year ago, I wrote of Duboeuf’s Juliénas La TrinQuée 2009 that it was a wine of particular purity and intensity, resonance and vibrancy. It offers, paradoxically, the warmth of ripe, fleshy, meaty black and red fruit flavors with the coolness of granite and peat. Immensely appealing, powerful without being forceful, elegant without being fragile. Now through 2015 or ’16. Twelve months have lent the wine more heft and “darkness” in the form of additional graphite-tinged rooty, mossy, foresty, spicy elements though its beguiling notes of roses and violets, blackberries and mulberries and strawberry bubblegum have lost none of their allure. The wine is beautifully knit, vibrant and still tremendously appealing. 2015 or ’16 also still seems right. Excellent. About $16.
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I was not so fond of the Georges Duboeuf Juliénas Chateau des Capitans 2009 last August, writing Oh, it certainly displays tremendous purity and intensity — it practically vibrates in the glass — but in its wheatmeal-earthy-minerally nature, its rollicking spice and dusty, chewy tannins, I find it atypical of its grape and commune. It’s not enough merely to take the virtues of those essential entities and pump them up like sluggers on steroids. Or perhaps it just needs some time to find company manners, say from 2012 or ’13 through 2015 to ’17. Well, it seems as if a year in the bottle has smoothed the wine out a great deal, though no denying that it remains somewhat of an uncharacteristic powerhouse for the commune; nonetheless, the wine delivers a gorgeous, penetrating floral and mineral-tinged bouquet that layers ripe red and black cherries and currants with deeply spicy, briery qualities that extend dynamically and elegantly into the flavor profile. A lovely estate Juliénas with a serious edge. Now through, yes, 2015 to ’17. Last year I rated this wine Very Good+, but it surely merits Excellent now. About $20.
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