David 13 October 2016
One thing I’ve come to realise after working in wine so long is that there’s always more… more to know, more to taste and to explore. And every now and then I come across a wine that’s a bit of a revelation.
Like many European wine terms, Savennières is the name of both an appellation and the wine from that appellation. In this case it’s also the name of the tiny village around which the appellation sits.
Savennières is minuscule, a mere 150 ha of vines (compared to Vouvray at around 2,000ha), located on the northern banks of the magnificent Loire River. It lies about 15km southwest of the town of Angers, in the subregion of Anjou. Some refer to this wider area as the middle Loire.
The Loire Valley is hard not to like. With beautiful countryside and stunning Châteaux, it also makes some wonderful wines; Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray, Chinon and Muscadet to name a few. I also like that the Loire is not considered one of France’s premier wine regions. This honour falls to Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, an accolade reflected in their correspondingly stratospheric prices.
I love the Loire for the simple reason that their good wines offer such incredible value.
Like many in France, the vineyards of Savennières were first cultivated by monks, in this case as far back as the 12th century. Since then these wines have gained a reputation for their quality. Savennières was established as an official appellation in 1952 with three AOCs - one general and two special ‘climats’ or officially recognised vineyard plots:
2. Savennières Roche-aux-Moines (33.4ha)
3. Savennières Coulée-de-Serrant (a single 7ha estate run by Nicolas Joly)
Savennières is an entirely white appellation, renowned for some of the most age-worthy dry Chenin Blanc in the world. Interestingly, at the time the appellation was established, Savennières was recognised just as much for its sweet Chenin, but as this style fell out of favour during the 1960s and 70s, so too did the appellation. But the mid-1980s saw a revival of dry Chenin and by the 90s, the appellation laws were reformed to officially recognise the existence of varying sweetness levels. Nowdays dry Chenin accounts for around 90% of production and is the style on which this appellation’s reputation proudly sits.
Chenin is not well known in Australia but in the Loire it’s used to make dry, sweet and even sparkling white wines. Jancis Robinson MW describes it as “probably the world’s most versatile grape” and in her book Vines, Grapes and Wines (in which she classifies grapes of the world as classic, major or other), Chenin achieves classic status.
Author and critic for the New York Times, Eric Asimov describes Savennières as a “thinking person’s wine,” and I can see his point. It’s not simple to describe. US wine journo Mike Steinberger gives it a good shot with “a heady blend of citrus and white fruits, honey, beeswax, flowers, and minerals.” Fresh and minerally, Savennières is usually high in acid which gives it an incredible ability to age. Often described as austere, when made well it is as intense and complex as top Burgundy.
“AOC Savennières (together with its AOC crus Savennières Roche-aux-Moines and the single-property Savennières Coulée-de-Serrant) is the only place in the Loire Valley where dry Chenin can genuinely rival Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne.” Andrew Jefford, The New France.
This is an extraordinary statement from one of the world’s most respected authors and critics. He compares Savennières with wines from the two greatest white Burgundy (Chardonnay) sites on earth, where wines command several hundred dollars a bottle.
It’s interesting to note that the Cistercian monks who so successfully identified Burgundy, also established the vineyard of Coulée-de-Serrant around which the vineyards of Savennières now lie. Coulée-de-Serrant has been regarded as one of the best sites in France for centuries. Indeed, Curnonsky the most celebrated and influential French gastronome of the early 20th century, rated Coulée-de-Serrant among the top 5 white vineyards in France. His other 4 were: Le Montrachet (Burgundy), Château-Chalon (Jura), Château d’Yquem (Sauternes) and Château-Grillet (northern Rhône).
A distinguishing feature of Savennières is its array of rock and soil, including: rhyolite, phtanite, spilite and of particular note, schist. Schist is an ancient metamorphic rock whose value in vineyards comes mainly from its ability to store heat and moisture, which vines can use as needed. Because schist tends to be flaky, it break and splits and vine roots are able to penetrate it. Schist enables vines to ripen in areas they would otherwise not be able to. Many Savennières winemakers also refer to the minerally effect of schist on their wines.
Among the handful of winemakers in Savennières (38 in 2010) the most famous names are: Nicolas Joly, Florent Baumard and Claude Papin. Add to this list Damien Laureau. I had the pleasure of tasting his wines recently and they’re stunning.
Since the 1950s a small group of producers have dominated Savennières, but there’s been a recent changing of the guard. Highly regarded Loire specialist Chris Kissack refers to them as the “young guns of Savennières” and he singles out Damien Laureau; “today he is one of the top names in the appellation. In fact, I would place him at the top.”
“… here we have one of the greatest domaines of the appellation, one that is well worth seeking out. I find Laureau's wines adorable, and will certainly be returning to them to taste and drink in the future… “
“To my palate Damien makes some of the most exciting, pure and defined wines I have experienced.
“The purity, the freshness, the depth, the texture, the energy and the minerality, these are superb examples of the appellation.”
Kissack, also known as Winedoctor, is the best Loire critic and he covers this region in great detail.
La Revue du Vin de France (bigwig wine review publication in France) continues this praise for Laureau, describing him as “undoubtedly the future star of Savennières.”
It’s clear Laureau is one of the region’s best producers. We’re also lucky that he’s one of the few Savennières producers whose wines make it to Australia.
In the mid-1990s Laureau was living in Brittany, cultivating pear trees. He was also making wine with his uncle who had an estate in Anjou. It was this experience that lead to him discover the soils of Savennières and finally acquire his own vineyards there in the late 90s. Damien did not move to Savennières until 2006 and is now one of only 7 winemakers to actually live in the village. He has continued to strategically add to his holdings over time, now 8.5ha of well positioned vineyards. Of particular note was the opportunity in 2004 to rent a small parcel of vines within the cru Roche-aux-Moines, one of the appellation’s top sites.
In the vineyard Damien has followed organic principles for many years, although he only sought certification from the 2012 vintage onwards. He picks by hand and unlike many producers makes several passes through the vineyard to achieve what he considers optimal ripeness in each grape. This is important with Chenin in Savennières, which if picked too early can be unapproachably acidic. His yields are significantly lower than AOC rules require. Damien uses natural yeasts and a lot less oak than many of the traditional Savennières producers. He was also one of the first in Savennières to allow his wines to go through malolactic fermentation (although not always). He does this not only to give them a little more weight, texture and slightly richer flavours, but also to stabilise the wines, allowing him to use very low levels of sulphur dioxide.
Few bottleshops carry these wines, but you will find them at lots of groovy places like: Bentley, The European (Melbourne), Restaurant Hubert, Dinner by Heston (Melbourne), Gerald’s Bar (Melbourne), Supernormal (Melbourne), Banksii, Acme, Coda (Melbourne), Rockpool Bar & Grill and Sepia… to name a few.
Damien’s wines are “far superior to much more expensive wines often touted as the 'best' in the three Savennières appellations,” Chris Kissack (again). I love these pure, vibrant and delicious wines.
The fruit for this wine comes from a recently acquired vineyard that’s small (1.7ha), rich in schistous soils and has stones like huge shards of slate. The vines are young.
The wine was fermented using natural yeasts before being aged in 95% tank and 5% old oak.
It's a light and clear yellow gold. Rich honey, delicate white blossom and toasty roast nut aromas meet you in the glass. On the palate it’s vibrant and clean, with zingy lemon acidity. But this crispness is expertly pared back with a delicate touch of honeysuckle, bees wax and nuttiness, not to mention its lightly viscous texture. The result is a wine that’s beautifully balanced and elegant, rather than aggressively acidic. And while the taste sensation is definitely one of great freshness, it’s anything but simple. Instead you’ll find it long and beautifully weighted. Absolutely delicious.
“Pure fine aromas of bright chenin fruit with real delicacy and precision. Focused yet polished on the palate with intense fruit and gentle layers of texture and bright cleansing acidity giving the wine great definition and length. A fresher finer style giving great enjoyment already.” David Burkitt, Vintage and Vine.
I can offer it for $44 a bottle. SOLD OUT
Unlike most winemakers, Damien not only picks and sorts his fruit based on ripeness, he also does so by terroir. The fruit for this wine comes from vines planted in sandy, silty soils, in the higher part of the appellation. The result is a “brighter, more open-knit expression of Chenin.” Jon-David Headrick, US wine importer.
The wine is fermented using wild yeasts after which it sees 18 months ageing in 90% tank and 10% old oak. The oak is not used to flavour the wine, rather to add texture and let the wine get some subtle oxygen. Chenin tends to be naturally reductive, which means without enough oxygen there is a risk of volatile sulphur compounds eg. struck match and hydrogen sulphide (rotten egg) notes.
Damien sees this wine and the one directly below as his two principal wines, but this is his favourite. It’s an accessible, approachable, early drinking style. I like its freshness, complexity and underlying minerality.
“… a mix of quince, Jonagold apple and green fig notes forming the core, while honeysuckle and ginger details gild the finish. Pleasant acidity is well-embedded throughout.”Wine Spectator, November 2015.
You can find it in uber-cool Supernormal restaurant in Melbourne for $145 a bottle.
I can offer it for $68 a bottle. SOLD OUT Go to new vintage
This is the second of Damien’s principal wines, but in contrast to the ‘Les Genets’ the fruit is sourced from schist and phtanite soils. This tends to make it much firmer, longer-lived and more minerally than ‘Les Genets.’ The vines are also older than those used for Les Genets.
Damien’s fastidiousness goes beyond his obsession with soil type and grape ripeness, to the pressing. The first 20-30% and last 20-25% of the pressing go into ‘Les Genet’ and the middle (or heart) of the pressings, which Damien sees as the purest and finest, go into this wine.
The wine is fermented in tank with natural yeasts, before spending 12 months in neutral French oak and then an additional 6 months in tank.
“A beautiful definition to it, wonderfully polished yellow plum substance, with a broad texture, and piles of grip. Quite pure, defined, but with very expressive fruit, precise, minerally and bright. It culminates in a long and grippy finish. This is very impressive. Fine potential here.”17.5/20, Chris Kissack.
“Deep rich and textured with real finesse and intensity and layers of fruit and mineral complexity giving a thoroughly Burgundian feel to the wine.” David Burkitt, Vintage and Vine.
I can offer it for $90 a bottle. SOLD OUT
Only 5 winemakers have access to this famed vineyard that sits just to the west of Coulée-de-Serrant. Damien’s portion is a mere 0.25ha. Roche-aux-Moines is renowned for the quality of the wines it produces, which are typically highly concentrated and long-lived.
Damien’s vines were planted in the 1970s on soils similar to Coulée-de-Serrant (ryolite base with an overlay of schist and sand). Yields are tiny with Damien only making a few barrels of this extraordinary wine.
“The Roche-aux-Moines cuvée in particular is one of the most striking wines in the entire Loire Valley.”
“This wine is stunning, scented with crushed rocks and white peach fruit, richly textured and yet also bright, incisive, minerally and fresh. It is because of wines like this that I don't drink white Burgundy. Not only does it have a fabulous purity and energy, it is also great value in comparison; for the price of one bottle of top-flight Montrachet, which you will probably find is 'prem-oxed' when you pull the cork anyway, you could buy half a case of Damien's wine.
Fresh, very pure, with crushed white rocks, energetic and defined, with wonderful confidence. The palate is just so convincing, with such profound purity, lifting the white-peach fruit. It has an incisive acid frame, beautiful tension and yet there is a blanket of relaxed fruit draped between them. Splendid substance, elegant and unforced, but with beautiful precision of energy and minerality. The finish is composed, harmonious and correct. Nice length too. A breathtaking wine which shows why I consider Damien Laureau to be top tier in the appellation.”18.5/20, Chris Kissack.
I probably needn't say much more…
I can offer it for $135 a bottle. SOLD OUT