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Chenin Blanc

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The Mighty South West

Photo credit: IVSO / P. Poupart
Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

From a Canadian’s perspective, France is a small country. 15 times smaller to be specific. A mere blip on the world map. Yet in terms of wine output, France is enormous. Not only in terms of sheer quantity, but also the diversity of wine styles, the number of producing regions and so on. Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne have become household names, even for you reasonable folks out there that don’t spend all of your waking moments thinking about wine. The oceans of wine coming out of the Languedoc have also assured this area pretty good visibility on the world stage. And the Loire and Rhône Valleys, with appellations like Sancerre and Châteauneuf-du-pape respectively, can hold their own quite nicely. But there is another vast wine producing area that often gets forgotten…

The South West of France is the 5th largest vineyard area in France with 47 000 hectares of vines. It cups Bordeaux to the south and east (of the right bank), extends to the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and continues south to the Spanish border and the Pyrénées mountains. The region is often a little too neatly summed up as being a cheaply priced Bordeaux alternative. While many good value Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends are to be had from places like Bergerac and the Côtes du Marmandais, there is a wealth of other grape varieties and wine styles out there.

There are 29 designated AOP (protected appellations) and 14 IGP (vin de pays) growing areas.  As well as the two mentionned above, the best known appellations, and easiest to find on most international markets, include: Madiran and Cahors (best known for their big, bold reds), AOP Fronton (lighter, violet scented reds), AOP Gaillac (where everything from still to sparkling to sweet white, rosé and red are crafted) and AOP Jurançon (where prized late harvest, sweet white wine is made). The largest territory however, is that of IGP Côtes du Gascogne, where crisp, lively, easy drinking white wines are the mainstay. Due to the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean, these wines often take on an intriguing saline note that adds to their refreshing appeal.

Given the size of the region and the diverse climate conditions and soil types, it is only natural that the grapes that grow well in one area are not suited to another.  Over 300 different varieties are grown here, with just over half native to the area. The majority of AOC wines, and many IGP wines are blends. I will give you a quick over view of some of the major players, and where to find them.

GAILLAC  COTES DU TARN                   Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

White Wine

Colombard – a major player in the production of IGP wines like Côtes de Gascogne and also in in the digéstif Armagnac. When over cropped it produces a fairly neutral white. The best examples have intense exotic fruit aromas, light body and moderate acidity.

Chenin Blanc – widespread in the eastern appellations and IGPs of the South West. Highly appreciated for its fruity, floral palate of aromas, medium body and bright acidity

Gros Manseng – a major blending component in many IGP Côtes de Gascogne, as well as dry Jurançon and Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl whites. Gros Manseng gives vibrancy and spicy notes.

Mauzac – adaptable to a wide variety of wine styles, it is used for sparkling, and still, dry and sweet wines, principally around the Gaillac area. It gives fresh orchard fruit in youth, and honeyed notes with age.

Petit Manseng – related to Gros Manseng, this grape has smaller berries with thicker skins, generally producing wines with greater aromatic complexity. The grape has the ability to produce high sugar levels while retaining fresh acidity; perfect for the sweet Jurançon dessert wines.

Sauvignon Blanc – used either as a single grape, notably in IGP designations, and as a blending element in several AOPs (Béarn, Tursan, Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl). The grape gives its characteristic citrus, gooseberry, cat pee notes as well as vibrant acidity.

Red Wine

Cabernet Franc (Bouchy, Acheria) – Though widely grown in Bordeaux and the Loire, this grape actually originated in Basque country. Slightly less tannic and more red fruit scented than its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, it nevertheless provides good structure to red blends from many AOP & IGP regions (notably Madiran, Fronton, Irouléguy)

Cabernet Sauvigon – A second stringer in the South West. It provides fragrant cassis notes, firm tannins and deep colour. It is found in the same appellations as Cabernet Franc.

Duras – One of the most oldest grapes grown in the Tarn Valley. It is a major player in Gaillac, giving finesse, deep colour, moderately firm tannins and a fruity, peppery perfume.

Fer Servadou (Fer, Pinenc, Braucol, Mansois) – Similar aromatics and structure to Cabernet Sauvignon. Blending component in many appellations, notably Marcillac, Béarn & Gaillac.

Gamay – Off spring of Pinot Noir, the Burgundian grape Gamay is bright, fresh and very red fruit driven. It is a blending component in Gaillac and many surrounding appellations.

Malbec (Cot) – Originally from the South West, Cot (as it is called there) is the principal grape in the Cahors appellation. It produces densely coloured, full bodied, structured wines with black fruit aromatics, moderately fresh acidity and firm, chewy tannins. Well crafted versions have great aging potential.

Merlot – Also offspring of Cabernet Franc (like Cabernet Sauvignon), Merlot makes an excellent blending component due to its fleshy mid-palate, rounded tannins and fragrant plum aromas. It is notably grown in Cahors as a minor blending component.

Négrette – The major grape of the Fronton appellation. It is a parent to Malbec. Négrette brings attractive violet notes, and sometimes animal and leather undertones. Fruity and medium bodied with moderate tannins, it is an ideal grape for rosé and easy drinking reds.

Syrah – A blending component in appellations like Fronton, Syrah brings elegance, fine tannins, black fruit and spiced notes.

Tannat – The principle red grape of Madiran. Named for its very firm tannic structure, the grape gives full-bodied, deeply coloured, raspberry scented reds that generally require a little time to unwind

1.ESTAING   CAHORS Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

Great Wines to Try

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out):

Chateau Montauriol Prestige AOP Fronton 2013 – 89pts. VW

This blend of 55% Negrette, 25% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Franc is just delicious. Attractive aromas of plum, kirsch and pepper on the nose. The palate is lively, medium bodied, showing moderate depth and complexity, with lingering dried fruit, floral and pepper flavours. Firm, yet ripe tannins frame the finish. The cedar oak imprint is quite subtle.

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.10$)

Château Montus AOP Madiran 2010 – 92pts. PW

Consistent high quality is a feature of this estate. A blend of 80% Tannat and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, this big, brooding red features complex aromatics of cherry, spice, prune and dark chocolate. Full bodied, densely structured yet velvetty on the palate, with chewy tannins and harmonious cedar oak. Long, layered finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (30.25$), LCBO (35.45$)

Château Montus AOP Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2011 – 91pts. PW

Made from 80% Petit Courbu, a little known grape from the obscure appellation of Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, this cuvée is absolutely worth discovering. Smoky citrus notes feature on the nose. Fresh, long and layered on the palate with lots of creamy lees character and well integrated toasty oak. Very stylish!

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.85$), LCBO (35.45$)

Odé d’Aydie AOP Madiran 2012 – 87pts. VW

Attractive aromas of fresh red cherries, with floral and spice undertones. Medium bodied, with lively, balanced acidity, firm tannins and subtle oak. No great aging potential, but pleasant every day drinking quality.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.35$)

Château de Gaudou “Renaissance” AOP Cahors 2012 – 87pts. PW

Pleasant earthy, animal notes on the nose, underscoring the fresh red and black fruit aromatics. Fresh acidity, full body, with attractive spiced, oak notes on the finish. This cuvée falls down a little on the finish due to the green, bitter edge on the tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.85$), LCBO (25.95$)

Domaine du Tariquet “Classic” IGP Côtes de Gascogne 2015 – 88pts VW

At only 10.5% alcohol, this is a great option for an every day house white. It is light, refreshing, crisp and lively, with lots of citrus and floral notes. Fairly simple, but nice for the price.

Where to buy: SAQ (12.95$)

South West Vineyard photos, courtesy of IVSO/ P. Poupart

Reviews Wines

Chenin Blanc: The Quality Revolution

Loire & South African Chenin Blanc

Another week, another flight!  Next grape up to bat is Chenin Blanc. This incredibly versatile white can be made in a range of styles from sparkling, to still (dry and off-dry), to sweet wines.  This week, we are looking at entry level and premium still wines from Chenin’s two strongholds: the Loire Valley and South Africa.

For many years Chenin Blanc has gotten a bad rap outside of its historic home in the Loire Valley.  It is a vigorous grape that grows well in many soil types and climates.  When over cropped, the wines are insipid and forgettable.  In overly hot climates the grapes ripen too quickly leaving insufficient time for much aromatic complexity to develop. This was the case for a long time in South Africa, where the majority of Chenin Blanc was used to add acidity to high volume, bulk blends.  Ditto in California, where plantings were highest in the hot Central Valley for jug wine production.

Happily, the days of cheap and cheerful Chenin plonk are fading.  More and more growers (those that didn’t pull up their vines to plant more popular varieties) are starting to show Chenin the love…and as our friends in the Loire knew already, when the vine is in balance and optimal maturity is reached at the right pace, the wines are stunning. At its best, Chenin has bright, pure fruit flavours ranging from quince, apple, honey and spice in cool climates to more ripe, tropical and peach notes in warmer areas.  The palate is vibrant with bracing acidity, lots of juicy fruit flavours, light to medium body, moderately high alcohol (12°c – 13.5°c) and often a hint of sweet, tangy fruit on the finish.

For dry to off-dry styles of Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, Vouvray is king (sparkling through to sweet styles are produced here, but we will look at those at a later date).  The vineyard sits atop a plateau on the right bank of the Loire Valley.  Dotted through the town are the most incredible, cavernous cellars, carved out of the local white Tuffeau stone (a marine sedimentary rock).  The cool, continental climate and diverse soil composition gives wines with racy acidity, intense depth of flavour and lingering minerality. On a visit to see Benjamin Joliveau, viticulturalist with Domaine Huet, I had the pleasure of tasting through a vertical of off-dry and sweet Vouvray dating back to 1985.  With age, the acidity mellowed, and notes of dried apricot, honey and baking spice intensified.

Bone dry, brimming with juicy acidity and richly textured, the Savennières vineyard near the town of Angers, gives another expression of high quality Loire Chenin Blanc.  Once considered austere and hard-edged in their youth, Savennières wine growers are starting to make more readily approachable styles. The vineyard was made famous by biodynamic wine pioneer Nicolas Joly whose wines from the vineyard plot “Coulée de Serrant” are world renowned.

It is thought that the founder of Cape Town, Jan Van Riebeeck, brought Chenin Blanc cuttings over to South Africa in 1655.  The grape, sometimes referred to locally as Steen, is still the most widely planted variety in the country. Dry styles range from light and fruity, to full bodied and oaked.  The Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, and the Swartland are just three appellations (called WO, Wine of Origin, in South Africa) that are making noise internationally with their interpretations of Chenin Blanc.  The secret to great South African Chenin Blanc, according to my dear friend and South African wine guru Pascal Schildt, is the high volume of old vines that produce rich, concentrated flavour.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose classic examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW & LW mean?  Click on my scoring system for the answer):

Ken Forrester “Petit” Chenin Blanc 2015 (Western Cape) – 87pts. VW

Ken Forrester is a highly respected Chenin Blanc producer from Stellenbosch. This everyday white is pale golden in colour with green hues.  Ripe melon, guava and candied peach notes dominate the nose.  Dry, light bodied and fresh with a subtle effervescence, and a fruity finish.  Simple, but well-made and easy drinking, representing decent value.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (14.85$)

 Marc Brédif Vouvray 2013 – 89pts. PW

Restrained notes of red apple, quince, baking spices and subtle floral aromas. Bracing acidity leads into a juicy, medium weight core and a lifted, ripe apple finish. A well-balanced, linear wine that is drinking well now but shows little potential for further development.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (20.45$)

 Domaine Ogereau “Clos le Grand Beaupréau” Savennières 2012 – 93pts. PW

The Ogereau family refer to themselves as “vine gardeners” referring to the loving care lavished on each individual vine in their 20 hectare holdings. This heady, enticing white shows ginger, honey, quince jelly and baked apple on the nose. The bright, zesty acidity is balanced by the ample frame, but the alcohol runs a touch hot and a subtle bitterness on the finish stops this wine just shy of perfect.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (30.50$)

 Domaine Huet “Clos du Bourg” Vouvray sec 2012 – 90Pts. LW

Biodynamic estate, Domaine Huet is one of the leading lights of Vouvray.  The Clos du Bourg, one of the domaine’s best vineyards, is reputed for its shallow, stony soils giving intense minerality and generous texture. This dry Chenin has a soft, pretty nose featuring cinnamon, baked apples, honey, quince and mineral notes. Racy acidity, broad, juicy texture and lingering minerality.  This was a wet, cool vintage; not the best example of this vineyard’s potential but nonetheless well-made and enjoyable.

Where to Buy: SAQ (43.50$)

 Bellingham “The Bernard Series” Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2014 (Coastal Region) – 87pts. PW

The Bellingham estate is one of the oldest in South Africa, dating back to the 1690s. This intensely aromatic white has an oak-rich crème brulée character, with tropical fruit and apricot undertones. Lively and full-bodied, with a broad, creamy texture, and a toasty finish. The heavy handed use of oak and warming alcohol throws off the balance.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (25.00$)