There’s no place like home for noblest of varieties
PINOT noir and nebbiolo are notoriously difficult varieties to cajole into great, even good, wines away from their respective birthplaces of Burgundy in France and Piedmont in Italy. Every now and then scattered places are discovered across the world where they perform well, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and overall plantings remain small.
There is another variety that is planted widely in places as diverse as South Africa, California, Australia and many other countries that might lead you to believe it is a happy traveller away from its birthplace in France’s Loire Valley, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Only in the Loire Valley does chenin blanc make great wine of varying style and character across five regions: Vouvray, Montlouis, Anjou, Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume.
The unifying features are the tremendous personality and intensity of the good examples (of which there are many) and the extraordinary longevity of the wines.
These days Domaine Huet is unchallenged as the finest producer in Vouvray, itself the most important region in the Loire. For the past 30 years it has been managed by Noel Pinguet, the sonin-law of co-founder Gaston Huet, his original qualification as a mathematician being of interest because he was responsible for taking the vineyards into full biodynamic status by 1990.
His intellectual rigour ensured that 1ha (of the total 35ha) was converted to biodynamic status for several years of comparison before he was convinced of the benefits and took three of the best estate vineyards down the same track.
Those vineyards are Le Haut-Lieu, 9ha on very deep soil with predominantly brown clay, producing what Pinguet describes as supple wines. Le Mont, 8ha on ideal slopes, with stony soil of green clay and silica, gives elegant and feminine wines.
The third is Le Clos du Bourg, a 6ha block surrounded by stone walls dating back to the 7th century. Here the soil is only 1m deep, sitting on top of inactive limestone rock; the wines it produces are powerful and structured.
At a recent tasting in Melbourne hosted by Pinguet, the differences between the 2006 Le Haut-Lieu sec, definitely rounder and softer, and the 2006 Le Mont sec, with more minerality and structure and aromas of wild flowers and honey, were plain to see.
Pinguet says there is no doubt the differences between the sites have become greater since the adoption of biodynamic practices.
In the same bracket as the 2006 wines was a 1946 Le Haut-Lieu sec, still as fresh as a daisy, the finish with the electric, lemony-minerally acidity that is the hallmark of Loire chenin blanc and the principal reason for its longevity. The next bracket included a ’ 90 Le Haut-Lieu, deep orange-bronze in colour, with wave upon wave of flavour and a distinct lift of volatility, and an ’ 89 Le Mont Moelleux, brilliant yellow-green, a stark contrast, with exceptional structure, not yet very complex but with decades of improvement in front of it. The difference is due to botrytis, extensive in 1990 and largely absent in 1989.
Pinguet is philosophical about the role of botrytis: it produces a different style, but the most classical wines, ranging from sec through demi-sec to moelleux, are made from late-harvest grapes that have partially shrivelled. These wines take longer to express themselves than those affected by botrytis.
The final bracket was a roller-coaster ride from ’ 45, ’ 47, ’ 71 and ’ 05, grouped together in that order because they were (theoretically) in ascending order of sweetness. Pinguet suggested we commence with the ’ 71, because of its very high acidity (about 10g a litre), and there appeared to be a labelling problem with the ’ 45, which was in fact dry, not sweet.
This left the ’ 47 Haut-Lieu Moelleux and the ’ 05 Cuvee Constance in play. The ’ 47 (in a 750ml bottle), from the most celebrated vintage since ’ 21, will retail for more than $2000 a bottle, which is not that much more than the price of Chateau d’Yquem from 2001, and you don’t have to wait 54 more years for it to reach peak maturity.
Moreover, in a cover story in 2004 in Decanter magazine on ‘‘ the 100 wines you must drink before you die’’, it ranked sixth, one place in front of the legendary 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A. As for the ’ 05 Cuvee Constance, it is featured in FromtheRegion .