Sunday, April 6, 2008

Tasting Chinon with Fabrice Gasnier

This is installment two of a February 2004 visit at Vignoble Gasnier in Chinon. If you missed part one, please see On the Farm in Chinon with Fabrice Gasnier.

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. Gasnier’s winery is dominated by cement vats, which Fabrice prefers to steel for their slight oxygen permeability. All vats are temperature controlled, with all primary and most malolactic fermentation conducted in cement. The couple of stainless steel tanks in evidence are used only for assemblage and short-term holding. All fruit is de-stemmed and sorted prior to being crushed in a small vertical press. Following natural malolactic fermentation, the wines are left alone, saving for some occasional batonage if deemed necessary.

Fabrice Gasnier pulling a sample from the younger of the two foudres in which he ages his "Cuvée Vieilles Vignes."

Vignoble Gasnier bottles six different wines: four reds – cuvées called Les Graves, Vieilles Vignes, Prestige (since renamed Cuvée à l’Ancienne) and Fabrice – one rosé and a sparkling wine. As no white fruit is planted, Chenin Blanc being the only permitted variety in AOC Chinon whites, no white wine is made. Box wine is produced and available for local sale only.

“Cuvée Les Graves” is Gasnier’s “young vine” red, made from an assemblage of various parcels from throughout the property but dominated by those planted in the gravelly (thus the name) soil nearest the river. It is varietal Cabernet Franc. Less conscientious producers in some parts of the world might be tempted to call this an old vines bottling, as it comes from 20-25 year-old vines. Fruit from any vines younger than 20 is either sold off or used to produce the aforementioned box wines. “Les Graves” represents about 50% of the estate’s total annual production of roughly 10,000 cases. Fermentation is conducted in two separate batches at different temperatures: one at about 22 degrees Celsius to highlight aromatics and one at around 28 degrees to provide extraction and body. Malolactic follows, also in cement, at a cooler temperature of 20 degrees. Maceration lasts 16-17 days. Assemblage of the two batches is performed after completion of primary and secondary fermentation. Typically bottled in May following the vintage, it is the only one of the reds that sees no wood whatsoever. Because the six month aging regime does not allow enough time for all solids to settle in the large-volume cement vats, a light filtration is conducted before bottling.

Gasnier’s “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes,” also 100% Cabernet Franc, comes from vines of 45-50 years, planted in soils of both argilo-siliceous and gravelly character. Primary and malolactic fermentations are conducted in cement, with a maceration period of 22 days. The wine is then moved into two large, 3700 liter oak foudres, one older than the other, for aging. The contents of the two casks are remarried in steel cuves, after which, again because of volume, a light filtration is performed prior to bottling in the September following the vintage. In all cases, Fabrice prefers to bottle on the early side in order to preserve fruit freshness. The Vieilles Vignes represents about 25% of the estate’s annual production.

The “Cuvée Prestige” comes from two specific plots of even older vines – 50-55 years – grown entirely in argilo-siliceous soil. A touch of Cabernet Sauvignon, a small amount of which is planted in one of Fabrice’s oldest plots, makes it into the Prestige. The Cabernet Sauvignon, which is vinified separately, never represents more than 10% of the final blend. Initial vinification practices, in terms of fermentation vessel and maceration period, are identical to the Vieilles Vignes. Aging, though, occurs in barriques used previously for two to six years. Here, the settling rate in smaller casks allows for bottling, also in September following the vintage, with no filtration. Beginning with the 2004 release, “Cuvée Prestige” was rechristened as “Cuvée à l’Ancienne.” This bottling makes up 15% of Gasnier’s annual production. For reasons unbeknownst to me, though perhaps because it tends to have the sternest character of the four reds, this is the cuvée least frequently available on the US market.

Gasnier’s top red is also his most modern. Though I’ve referred to it for years as “Cuvée Fabrice,” it was only in 2005 that Fabrice actually made it official with a subtle change to the wine’s label, replacing the signature “Fabrice Gasnier” with the name “Cuvée Fabrice.” It seems somewhat common for young vignerons, taking over chief winemaking responsibilities from the previous generation, to add a new or signature wine to the lineup. I’m not sure, though, how many decide to name it in self-homage. Somehow it does seem to fit Fabrice’s big, garrulous personality. Anyway, back to the wine….

“Fabrice” comes from a single plot of the oldest vines (60+ years) on the property. As with “Cuvée Prestige,” it includes 5-10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Primary fermentation, as with all of Gasnier’s wines, occurs in cement. At 25 days, maceration is longer than with the other wines. The modern approach begins after maceration and fermentation, as the wine is moved to barriques – 50% new and 50% one-year-old – for malolactic fermentation and aging. As this regime suggests, it is the only wine in Fabrice’s portfolio that shows an obvious oak influence, at least in terms of aroma and primary flavors. It is bottled without filtration after 14 months, in December of the year following its vintage, and represents only 5% of total production.

The remaining five percent of the Gasniers’ crop goes to the production of Rosé. It is produced by taking a bleeding (saignée) of juice from the production of various lots of Cabernet Franc after 24-48 hours of maceration, depending on the vintage characteristics and the desired level of color extraction. Fermentation is then conducted entirely in cement, with bottling in the spring following harvest.

At the time of our visit in 2004, Fabrice also produced tiny quantities of an unlabeled, unnamed sparkling wine, solely for consumption by family and friends. It is varietal Cabernet Franc, solely from the gravelly terroir of the estate. Lacking the facilities and equipment necessary to craft méthode traditionelle wines, he takes his fruit to the local cooperative, where it is produced, aged sur-latte for one year and bottled without dosage. Since then, perhaps based on our vociferous prodding at dinner later that night, he’s started to commercialize small quantities. He calls it “La Cravantine,” a diminutive term for a creation of the Cravant Les Coteaux commune. Originally produced as rosé, he now strives for a clear Blanc de Noir; a barely discernible salmon hue can still be detected by a knowing eye.

Fabrice feels that Chinon rouge, in general, shows its best between three-to-six years of age. Drinking earlier is ok, of course, while wines from the best vintages can be candidates for 10-15 years or more. He opted to begin our tasting session with finished wines, primarily from the bottled but not yet shipped 2002 vintage, which he considers one of the best growing years since 1996.

  • Chinon “Cuvée Les Graves,” 2002
    Beautifully aromatic, with lots of red currant fruit, leaves and spice. Gentle but lively tannic structure. Fabrice always regards this as his “cuvée gourmande,” intended for every day, easy drinking. A pure expression of Cabernet Franc.

  • Chinon “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes,” 2002
    Aromatically closed but already showing richness of body. Less peppery than in some years but still showed fresh, herbaceous suggestions of dill and basil. Darker red tree fruits than in “Les Graves.” Excellent grip.

  • Chinon “Cuvée Prestige,” 2002
    Continuing the climb upwards in terms of grip and structure. Some influence from wood tannins, along with gorgeous fruit concentration. Wild raspberries, cassis and rainier cherries.

  • Chinon “Cuvée Fabrice,” 2002
    The richest texture, with dark plum and black currant fruit. The oak is forward but adds well integrated vanillin and chocolate overtones. A hint of earth on the nose.

  • Chinon “Cuvée Prestige,” 2001
    Here we found the bell pepper that was less in evidence in the 2002 wines. Fresh, damp, loamy earth on the nose. Starting to show some bottle bouquet. Definitely a food wine (but then all Chinon is…).

The landscape surrounding Gasnier's vineyards in Chezelet provides a natural environment for bottle aging caves, excavated directly into the tufa hillsides.

Notes from barrel tastings may not make for the most exciting reading. However, tasting from barrel and vat – particularly after tasting from bottle and spending so much time learning about the viticultural and oenological peculiarities of a producer’s various wines – can be extremely illuminating. It can help to give one a greater sense of how any given wine comes together, from its component parts and through the vinification regimen, to form a whole.

  • A sample of “Les Graves” 2003, from a vat fermented at warmer temperature, had a deep purple color, was firmly tannic and still held a trace of unresolved CO2. The warmer fermentation, combined with a preceding three-day cold soak, is intended to give structure to the final blend. I could almost sense the vines’ plant matter on the palate.

  • From another tank of “Les Graves” 2003, fermented cooler for attainment of aromatic freshness, the scents were more peppery and wine-like. Tannins were softer and suppler. It tasted more finished, with no traces of carbon dioxide.

  • 2003 “Vieilles Vignes,” from the older of two large foudres, had a very peppery nose and showed signs of reduction. In Fabrice’s words, it was “going through a bizarre stage.” Yet it showed promising concentration and structure.

  • From the younger cask of 2003 “VV,” aromas were more shut down but the wine was softer and already pleasing in the mouth, with no signs of reductivity. All wine coming from the same sites and same fermentation tanks, the only difference between the two samples was the age of the foudres, with the younger cask allowing more oxygen interchange between wood and wine than in its older neighbor.

  • 2003 “Prestige” tasted from barrel was lush and velvety in texture. Rich cherry kirsch, with nary a hint of pepperiness in the mouth. Substantial grip. At 13.6% potential alcohol and lower apparent acidity than in the Graves and VV, this was showing signs of what to expect from the freakish 2003 vintage.

  • That trend continued with a sample of “Cuvée Fabrice” 2003, pulled from barrel. Dense and dark but ungenerous on the nose. Very rich palate. Plenty of oak influence on the nose. Already, the lower than usual acidity along with the opulent nature of its fruit pointed toward a wine that would be a hit with the “big red crowd,” not the usual Chinon audience. At 13.8% potential alcohol, this was harvested at about a degree higher than in a typical vintage.

To bring us back from the raw experience of tasting samples of the big 2003s and to finish off our tasting session, Fabrice extracted the cork from a bottle of his 1998 signature cuvée. As it turned out, he’d also chosen to finish on a high note. In 1998, Fabrice did not use any new oak for this wine, instead aging it in all first passage barrels that he’d purchased from Château Margaux. The same barrels, he told us, were now (in 2004 that is) being used for his “Cuvée Prestige.” Beautiful aromatic development had occurred in the bottle, with a nose of dried red fruits, fresh tanned leather, curing tobacco and prunes which followed to a supple, silky and well balanced palate. Red currants and intensely concentrated strawberry preserves blossomed on the follow through. Lovely stuff.

* * *

Our work day was done but there was still more to come. Fabrice and his wife Sandrine invited us to return for dinner. It would turn out to be quite the Rabelaisian evening…. So please stay tuned for part three, coming soon.

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