Provided with impetus by the most recent Wine Blogging Wednesday theme – French Cabernet Franc – we return to the midpoint of a European wine junket. It’s late February 2004, on my group’s second day in the middle-Loire. Leaving our morning appointment with Domaine Ricard, near Thésée la Romaine, just east of Chenonceau, we headed west, straight past Tours and toward the western border of the Touraine district, toward Chinon.
After stopping to check into our rooms and freshen up, we grabbed a quick bite to eat – ham and cheese on baguettes from a local café. Our hotel, directly across the Vienne River from the center of Chinon, provided a spectacular view of the fortress that dominates Chinon’s profile. No time to sightsee though. We were right back to it. Heading across the river and turning immediately right, we avoided the town center entirely, instead following the path of the Vienne back eastwards, against its flow, to the commune of Cravant Les Coteaux. It was there, in the small hamlet of Chezelet, that we were scheduled to visit Vignoble Gasnier.
We discovered Fabrice Gasnier at work in his vineyards, pruning his vines in preparation for the coming of spring. Fabrice began his work at the property during the benchmark vintage of 1989. He and his father Jacky, who has since retired, incorporated the Domaine as it now stands in 1993. Their family has owned land and farmed here in Chezelet for four generations, during which time the estate has grown from its original three hectares to its current 24. All of those 24 hectares – 23 planted to Cabernet Franc and one to Cabernet Sauvignon – are located on the flat portions of the Cravantine landscape, within a two kilometer radius of Chezelet. Finding Fabrice in his fields presented the perfect opportunity to really gain an understanding of his farming techniques and of some of the peculiarities of his terroir.
All of Gasnier’s vines are Simple Guyot trained, with one main baguette producing seven eyes. A second, smaller baguette is pruned to two eyes and trained in the opposite direction, the intention being both to begin the growth cycle for the following year’s season and to prevent bunch clustering. Farming is entirely organic (the estate is now in the process of organic certification through ECOCERT), using only natural products and homeopathic principles, practices which Fabrice describes as preventive rather than curative viticulture. Predator insects and bio-organisms are relied upon for pest control. As we can see, standing in a freshly plowed 2.5 hectare plot of vines planted by his grandfather 50-60 years earlier, the earth is turned regularly to promote deep root systems and a maximum expression of terroir. Following pruning – and completing the cycle – vine cuttings are mulched and returned to the soil to reintroduce their stored energy to the vineyard.
Fabrice typically conducts a green harvest – vendange verte – in July in order to reduce the farm’s yields to the desired number of bunches per vine. At harvest, his aim is always for medium ripeness. As natural as Fabrice’s farming is, we were surprised to learn that he machine harvests, a practice that many view as an impediment to creating truly natural wines. He explained his reasons in simple terms. With 24 hectares (nearly 60 acres) and a mere six full-time staff members, of which only three are dedicated to the fields, machine harvesting is an economic necessity of scale. On the plus side, mechanical picking allows for the entire estate to be harvested in just two days, ensuring uniform ripeness levels across the various parcels of property and decreasing the risk of damage by fall rainstorms.
Soil is of two basic types on Gasnier’s property. Here at the heart of the estate, the primary makeup is of argilo-siliceous clay, to a depth of approximately 1.5 meters, below which lies rock. Closer to the river Vienne, the vineyards are planted on gravelly terraces. Given the proximity of the river and the northerly situation of Chinon in general, spring frosts can be a major danger. A day earlier and only a few kilometers away, we’d learned of severe frost damage to Francois Chidaine’s Montlouis vineyards at the beginning of the 2003 growing season. To combat the problem here in Chinon, Fabrice relies on a system of human nighttime weather watchers to sound the frost alarm and three different frost prevention mechanisms. Wind circulators, which look like small turbine engines mounted on flagpoles, are scattered at intervals throughout the vineyards, their aim being to move warmer air from above down to the cooler ground and vine level. Paraffin pots are burned amongst the vines to ward off the cold. Lastly, water may be sprayed on the vines to form a protective outer coating of ice that will prevent frost from penetrating the plants.
Not only did Fabrice manage to avoid any frost damage in 2003, he was also the only vigneron we met on our entire trip who laid claim to a problem free 2003 growing season. Given the extreme heat and drought of the summer, which continued right up to harvest time, that’s a big statement. He attributed the success to the deep root system and general good health of his vines. Nonetheless, 2003 was not without its natural effects. Following 2002, a great vintage in Fabrice’s estimation, the dry heat in 2003 produced fruit with the highest natural sugar levels – approaching 14% – on record in the area. Acidity levels were normal, while tannin levels were greater than usual, helping to balance the high sugar levels.
Our walk through the vineyards and tour of the Cravant Les Coteaux hillsides complete, we headed to Fabrice’s cellar and winery to learn what happens indoors and to sample what he had wrought from the last couple of vintages….
To avoid creating the longest posting in the history of the blogosphere (at least that’s where I feel like this was heading), the rest of this Vignoble Gasnier trip report will appear in installments. Stay tuned for parts two and three.
Part Two: Tasting Chinon with Fabrice Gasnier
Part Three: Celebrating the Chevaliers de Chezelet