Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Graves in Chinon

I love Chinon. There, I said it. While the wine producing communes of Chinon have hardly been mapped, dissected and defined to the extent of the vineyards of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or or the Mosel in Germany, one thing that makes Chinon so continuously compelling to me is the way its best wines express the area’s diversity of terroir. Clay, sand, limestone and gravel; riverbanks, flatlands, hillsides and plateaus; it’s all there, in various shapes, mixtures and forms.

It doesn’t seem coincidental to me that some of my favorite wines for everyday drinking come from the gravel rich soils near the banks of the Vienne River in the commune of Cravant les Coteaux. Wines like “Les Granges” and “Le Domaine” from Bernard and Matthieu Baudry, which I’ve really been enjoying over the past few years. Or like the Chinon “Les Graves,” from Domaine Fabrice Gasnier, a wine that’s been among my house pours for over a decade now. They’re not generally the most serious or structured wines of Chinon. Rather, they’re more wines of ease and clarity – great with food and built for regular enjoyment. But when they’re on, they’re still serious in the way they express their origins. When I drink wines such as those above, it’s as if I taste blueberries, plums, cherries, cassis, and fresh, savory herbs that have all been muddled by and macerated with the very gravel of the vineyards from which they sprang. And it’s as if I can feel the texture of that gravel in the fine-grained tannins and cool texture of the wines.

Needless to say then, I’m always on the lookout for Chinons, from the area and in this style, that are new to me. Here's one I got to know recently; if you have any other gravelly favorites, please do let me know.

Chinon “Tradition Graves,” Domaine les Chesnaies (Béatrice et Pascal Lambert) 2006
$17. 13% alcohol. Diam. Importer: A Thomas Calder Selection, Potomac Selections, Landover, MD.

Pascal and Béatrice Lambert are relative newcomers to Cravant les Coteaux, having established their 14-hectare estate, Domaine les Chesnaies, in 1987. Their wines – five reds, two rosés and three whites – are made solely from Cabernet Franc (or Breton, as it’s often called locally) for the reds and rosés and Chenin Blanc (or Pineau de la Loire) for the whites. All fruit is hand-harvested, with fermentation and aging disciplines varying based on the nature of each cuvée. The label of their “Tradition Graves” tells us – “Vin issu de raisins en conversion vers l'agriculture biologique certifié par Écocert” – that they’re in the process of conversion to organic farming. Actually, they’ve been working toward biodynamic conversion since 2004 but apparently are planning on organic rather than biodynamic certification.

“Tradition Graves” is produced from 25-50 year old vines of Cabernet Franc planted in gravel, clay and flint rich soils. After a maceration and fermentation of 18-30 days depending on the vintage, the wine ages for 12-18 months in steel tanks prior to bottling.

Medium bodied and firmly tannic, it displays classic aromas of tree bark, dried herbs, red cassis, plum skins and moist soil. As the wine unfolds a bit, there are also distinct whiffs of both menthol and Virginia tobacco. In fact, after an hour of air the wine becomes even more aromatic, with all the elements building rather than changing. I get the sense through the wine’s red fruit dominated palate and its grip, more firm than textured, that the clay in Lambert’s soil is expressing itself, grappling with the gravel for which the wine is named. Day two brought a rounder, plusher and somewhat simpler mouthfeel, but with all those stemmy, barky, spicy aromas and minerally red fruit still intact. Though lacking the energy and brooding nature of Baudry’s gravel-based cuvées and not as bright and fresh as Gasnier’s “Les Graves,” this is nonetheless quite compelling Chinon.


Samantha Dugan said...

Man, you make a person want a glass of wine. I have a particular passion for Loire reds, so this post had my mouth watering. I've been drinking a lot of Chinon, (and Bourgueil) Rose as of late, still Chinon...just more delicate, you been able to taste any of those?

David McDuff said...

Always glad to spike your thirst, Sam. My rose consumption has been way off this year. I haven't been doing much shopping lately, so I've been depending mostly on the Provencal and northern Italian roses that form the bulk of our pink wine selection at work. Aside from a lovely Sancerre rose from Fancois Cotat, I've had next to no Loire roses this vintage. I saw your post about Joguet's Chinon rose, Brooklynguy's post about Baudry's rose... and was just bumming that I haven't been getting out enough.

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