Tuesday, December 4, 2007

François Chidaine: Vigneron à Montlouis et Vouvray, Part One

Monday, February 23, 2004. After an unusual morning spent in the caves and tasting rooms of Philippe Poniatowski in Vouvray, followed by a modest lunch at a bistro on the edge of town, it was off to the other side of the river. Our afternoon appointment was at the Montlouis domaine of François Chidaine, a serious, stoic and talented wine grower – and the ascending star of both Montlouis-sur-Loire and Vouvray.

From the driveway where we initially met Chidaine, on a tiny road leading up and away from the river, his winery looked like little more than a garage excavated into the hillside. Before venturing in, we took to the cars for a drive up the hill to the plateau above.

François Chidaine’s property consists of approximately 20 hectares of vines, spread along a two kilometer periphery around the village of Montlouis, all set on the hillside and plateau which dominate the valley. He farms his land with a close eye to nature. At the time of our visit, all but two hectares of his vines were being farmed biodynamically. Chidaine, however, insists on making no mention of organics or biodynamics on his bottles. In fact, he’s loath to talk much about biodynamie at all. He farms naturally because he feels it results in a purer expression of the vine and of his terroir. Attracting the organically inclined shopper is not a concern. Customers and importers line up, via a waiting list, to buy his wines, about 50% of which are broadly exported with the other 50% going to the French market.

Given that it was snowing intermittently during our visit and that there was a surprising amount of standing water in the vineyards, François opted not to take us through each and every one of his eight distinct plots. Instead, most of our outdoor time was spent in Le Clos Volgets, an essentially flat climat of argilo-silex soil situated atop the plateau. His vines are trained in the double Guyot method and kept low to the ground to capture reflective heat from the soil below. During the winter months, he keeps a soil cover of vegetation between the rows to protect against run-off, a natural tendency of the erosive soils in Montlouis and one of the primary farming differences relative to neighboring Vouvray. Two weeks after our visit, the soils would be turned to allow the earth to breathe in anticipation of the onset of spring. The fruit from the 45 year-old vines in Volgets goes mostly to his demi-sec, multi-vineyard cuvée Les Tuffeaux.

On the way back to our vehicles, François pointed out both Clos Habert and Clos de Breuil, from which he produces vineyard-designated bottlings, respectively demi-sec and sec in style. Taking a circuitous route across the plateau en route to the winery, he also indicated a new vineyard of four hectares that he had recently purchased and replanted. Atypically rich in clay and dense of soil, this hard-to-farm site was Les Bournais, the source of the eponymous wine first produced by Chidaine from the fruit grown in 2004.

Back at the winery, where we were joined by François’ cousin Nicolas, we found the scene behind the aforementioned garage doors perfectly befitting of Chidaine’s personality – plain stone walls, no nonsense, nothing extra, just barrels and the most basic tools of the trade. All wines are vinified in cask, primarily of 600 liters, with 10% of production fermented and aged in 300 liter barrels. Reflective of his approach to his terroir, fruit from every distinct parcel is vinified separately; blends are assembled in preparation for bottling. Fermentations are very slow, running completely under the steam of natural yeasts. Filtration is used minimally yet rigorously, only between barrel and bottle and only when necessary.

As the barrel segment of our tasting would consist solely of wines from 2003, François prepped us with a bit of info on the local effects of the notoriously hot, dry vintage. Due to the difficult growing conditions, production for the year was only about 40% of the estate’s normal average yields of 35 hl/ha. Harvest, which normally begins in mid-October and continues into November, began in late September and was completed on October 14. The combination of low acidity and high ripeness led to wines that are very concentrated but lacking in maturity of structure. At this point, his plan was to finish all of the wines in the 12 to 12.5% alcohol range, so even the usually dry wines would have some pretty measurable residual sugar. The ripeness levels of the vintage allowed for the production of Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) for the first time since 1997 and 1999. His advice for the vintage: drink the 2003s while the 2002s rest in your cellar.

Tasting wines from barrel like this – still fermenting and unassembled – is always an exercise more technical than satisfying. Nonetheless, it can be enlightening as to a producer’s thought processes, vinification techniques and overall approach. It’s also a wonder, down the road, to see how the parts become a more complete whole. The precision of Chidaine’s technique and presentation was matched, more entertainingly, by Nicolas’ spitting abilities. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone produce a thinner, more precise stream, always on target even when he was standing five feet away from the small spittoon we all shared.

Tasting from barrel:

  • 2003 Clos du Breuil
    The Clos du Breuil – the name refers to the underground water supply beneath the vineyard – is one of the plots from which Chidaine makes a vineyard specific cru each year. From fruit with 14.2% potential alcohol, this would not finish fermentation for another month. Typical of a wine at this stage, aromas were of yeast, bananas and tropical fruit. Low acid, particularly for this normally pretty brisk cuvée. 4 grams residual sugar.

  • 2003 Clos Habert
    Another of the single vineyard designates, Clos Habert is a plot of 60 year-old vines which gave fruit with 15.5% potential alcohol in 2003. Yields from the three hectare vineyard were only 24 hectoliters (8 hl/ha). The vineyard saw an early bud set, followed by frost then long, dry heat. Rich, sweet, opulent fruit. 30 grams residual sugar, 3 grams acidity.

  • 2003 Clos Volgets
    From the 45 year-old vines in the vineyard we’d visited a short while earlier. It’s fair to say that this hovered stylistically between the Breuil and Habert, with brighter acidity but less RS than in the Habert.

  • 2003 Les Epirées
    Unlinke in Habert, there was no early season frost damage in Epirées, with yields therefore coming in somewhat closer to normal at 24 hl/ha. The fruit from this site normally goes into the cuvées Les Choisilles and Les Tuffeaux. However, as this year’s wine – currently stopped yet not complete in its fermentation – would finish at around 100 grams residual sugar, it was destined for Chidaine’s Montlouis Moelleux.

  • 2003 Le Lys
    This is Chidaine’s special SGN cuvée, produced only in exceptional (or unusual) years. He usually seeks potential alcohol in the 18-20% range for this wine; the 2003 reached 22% and will finish at around 150 grams of residual sugar, the product of 100% botrytis affected fruit. Rich, tropical fruit with intense concentration and length.

The view from outside Chidaine's barrel storage garage, looking down the road toward the Loire (February 2004).

Tasting from bottle:

  • 2001 Montlouis “Les Choisilles”
    2001 was an average vintage with normal yields, giving a wine of slightly lower acidity than in 2002. Nonetheless, there was no shortage of acidity or of balance. Very dry and mineral, with good clarity of fruit and a long finish.

  • 2002 Vouvray “Les Argiles”
    As I’d mentioned in my earlier post about our morning visit with Prince Poniatowski, Chidaine had been farming the land and making the wines at Poniatowski’s estate in Vouvray since 2002. This was his first vintage, therefore, of “Les Argiles,” a cuvée produced primarily from vineyards across the road from Poniatowski’s winery that formerly had gone to Poniatowski’s Vouvray “Clos de l’Avenir.” This showed riper fruit yet was more closed than the 2001 “Les Choisilles,” prompting François to mention that he feels Vouvray gives more masculine wines relative to the more feminine traits of Montlouis.

  • 2002 Montlouis “Les Choisilles”
    Floral, very mineral and extremely tight, with mouth-watering acidity.

  • 2002 Vouvray “Clos Baudoin”
    This needed some oxygen to open up and show its stuff. Chidaine, in fact, recommended decanting the wine and felt that it would develop very nicely in bottle. In spite of finding Poniatowski’s vineyards in a near state of disaster when he arrived in 2002, the breed of the wine showed, with sweet earth and firm, tight structure.

  • 2002 Montlouis “Clos Habert”
    To give a comparative sense of the differences between 2002 and 2003, François told us that the 2002 Habert, usually Chidaine’s richest normal cuvée, was 4 grams drier than the 2003 “Les Tuffeaux,” which is normally the less rich wine. Solid structure and fine acid balance.

  • 2003 Montlouis “Les Tuffeaux”
    Though this actually had higher acidity than the Clos Habert, it felt fatter on the palate due to less integrated sugars. Though less complex than the Habert, it was very ripe and pleasing with pronounced flavors of Asian pear.

  • 1998 Montlouis “Les Tuffeaux”
    François’ first vintage at the head of his estate was 1989. He pronounced the wine of ten years later, the 1998 Tuffeaux, to be classic in his style and to be just opening up. Regrettably, both bottles he opened were corked, the first profoundly.

  • 1997 Montlouis “Les Tuffeaux”
    Rich color. Heady aromas of marmalade and honeycomb, along with some botrytis notes. Spicy on the palate, with fairly low acidity.

  • 2000 Montlouis “Clos Habert”
    Unusual shellfish-like aromas. 2000 was a hard vintage, with lots of rain just before harvest. A faint hint of rot on the palate.

  • 2002 Vouvray “Le Bouchet”
    From a plot with NW exposure, located across the hilltop from the Clos Baudoin. Forward, floral and ever so slightly honeyed, with a hint of wood making itself known.

  • 2002 Vouvray “Moelleux”
    This is the only cuvée produced in 100% new barrel. 50 grams residual sugar. Both the wood and the sugar were showing through; closed and slightly disjointed. Much richer than I remembered from previous bottles tasted in the US.

  • 2002 Montlouis “Moelleux”
    This showed much more exotic fruit than did the Vouvray, with Asian pear, mango, bananas and citrus confit all leaping from the glass. 60 grams residual sugar.

  • 1996 Montlouis “Moelleux”
    Like in 2002, this had great richness along with fine acid balance. This is wine to hold. Tea leaves, savory herbs and lanolin. This is a great expression of Montlouis terroir, with intense silex minerality, even a hint of petrol. Chidaine feels 1996 may have been an even better vintage than 1989.

  • 1990 Montlouis “Sélection de Grains Nobles”
    A low acid year, with good yields and high physiological maturity. Again, seashells on the nose. Still very young, somewhat closed and surprisingly delicate given its richness (100 grams residual sugar).

Tasting complete, it was time to move on. The cousins Chidaine had further plans for us though. Part two of this posting will take us into Montlouis proper for a visit at the Chidaine’s wine shop then back across the river to Vouvray to taste the ‘03s from barrel at the Clos Baudoin. Stay tuned.

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Dr. Debs said...

David, thanks so much for this. I have a bottle of 2005 Clos de Breuil that I am looking forwarding to opening. Even more so with this information!

David McDuff said...

Thanks for stopping by, Deb. Enjoy the Breuil. Chidaine's 2005's are intensely concentrated; you have something special to look forward to.

Brooklynguy said...

david - i love chidaine's montlouis wines. the bournais and habert are my two favs among the 05s. what are your impressions of the vouvrays from 05 - do you prefer one side or the other of the river?

David McDuff said...

Howdy BG,

I'm favorably inclined toward the 2005s from both sides of the river and, frankly, I don't have a preference to the detriment of either. I do find, as is typical, that the Montlouis tend to open and show their stuff a bit sooner than the Vouvrays, particularly true in the case of the Vouvray "Clos Baudoin" which always takes some extra time to integrate. It's a vintage of intense concentration as well, so the wines are a bit "in your face" at the moment; I think they'll all reward cellaring, though, here again, I think the Vouvrays will outlast the Montlouis.

How do you like the Montlouis "Les Choisilles," which has always been a favorite of mine?

Wicker Parker said...

David, thanks for the nice report. Since my first taste of Les Tuffeaux one year ago, I've sought Chidaine's each and every release to the extent possible here in Chicago -- although I'd never even heard of the Les Choiselles. I also found your notes on Chidaine's farming methods particularly interesting. Good stuff, thanks.

Brooklynguy said...

Never had Les Choisilles, to my detriment. Astor has the 04, which someone said is really nice, so I will try that.

David McDuff said...

Welcome, WP. Both you and BG should check out Les Choisilles if you can put hands on a bottle. It's all nervy, minerally and vinous goodness.

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