Some who don’t like it have found its flavors soapy. Some who do have likened its aromas to bug spray. One could easily go through life as a wine connoisseur and never encounter it. Yet after centuries of declining in favor it seems to be on the comeback trail, at least within a smallish circle of artisanal wine growers in France’s Loire Valley. It’s Pineau d’Aunis, also known as Chenin Noir.
(Photo by Danièle & Remi Loisel - Studio Amarante, courtesy of Domaine de Bellivière.)
It’s a vine the wines from which I’ve come to know only in the last couple of years. And it’s one for which I’ve developed a particular fondness, even if it’s not always easy to come to terms with the wines. As a variety, it’s grown in smatterings throughout the Anjou and Touraine and is sanctioned, primarily as a blending agent, in many of the region’s more flexible AOCs. If Pineau d’Aunis has found a particular niche, though, it’s in the relatively obscure AOC of Coteaux du Loir, situated alongside Jasnières on the banks of Le Loir (a tributary of La Loire) a few klicks north of Tours.
There’s something about Pineau d’Aunis that just screams out, “I’m from the Loire and I’m proud of it!” Lively, fresh and full of flavor though rarely heavy on its feet, it’s food-friendly, idiosyncratic and definitely not for everyone. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it reminds me in many ways of a cross between Cabernet Franc and Gamay, two of the Loire’s more widespread varieties. Some of the peppery and herbal characteristics of Cabernet Franc are almost always in evidence, along with the bright colors and lively, red-fruited personality so typical of Gamay. Yet it’s all its own. When I think of wines made from Pineau d’Aunis, I think immediately of the scents of roasted strawberries and of freshly ground pepper. I think, too, of an aroma that some describe as pine forest yet that always reminds me somehow of fresh string beans – one of those strong, scent-driven memories the actual origin of which I’ve long forgotten. Even its texture seems unique, with a raspy delivery across the tongue that seems to stem not from tannins so much as from some latent energy captured and harnessed by the vine, delivered by the wine.
Following are notes on a pair of Pineau d’Aunis based wines I’ve recently explored (and here are thoughts from a few in the past). Let me know if you have any other favorites (or even less-than-favorites).
Coteaux du Loir "You Are So Beautiful," Nana, Vins et Cie (Nathalie & Christian Chaussard – Domaine Briseau) 2006 $15. 12.5% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
After a somewhat hit-or-miss experience with the Nana, Vins et Cie lineup at the recent Louis/Dressner 20th Anniversary tasting, I wanted to take a more comfortable sit-down with one of their wines. Goofy label aside, this was compelling wine. Medium-garnet color, even a little murky, in appearance. Strawberry and black raspberry preserves on the nose, with a definite streak of pepper and a smoky edge that faded with aeration. It's a touch animal in character, no doubt the influence of Malbec (Côt) in the blend. That raspy trademark of Pineau d’Aunis I mentioned above was out in force, making the wine bristle throughout my mouth. A revisit on day-two yielded a more soft spoken wine, with rounder, gentler fruit and slightly softer texture, but with correspondingly less vigorous aromas. Not my favorite, if only for a slight clumsiness, yet still a wine I’d happily revisit, especially given its $15 price point.
Touraine "L'Arpent Rouge," Clos Roche Blanche (Catherine Roussel and Didier Barrouillet) 2007 $17. 12.5% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
This one… this one I loved. I’ve heard tell of bottle variation, always a risk with minimally sulfured wines such as those from Clos Roche Blanche, but this bottle was definitely singing. Much lighter in color than “Beautiful” but no less flavorful for its paler hue, this was just redolent of wild strawberries and black pepper. Very energetic in feel, this too had the rasp but was more graceful in its attack. Like a barber, proud of his trade, scraping your tongue clean with a freshly honed straight razor. My taste buds couldn’t help but stand up and take notice. Invigorating, refreshing and a joy at the table, it really came alive when paired with the Lindenhof Farm turkey pot pie I’d picked up earlier in the day at my local farmers market.