Wine column for week of 10 November 2014

Winemaker Xavier Amirault of Clos des Quartertons in the Loire’s Saint-Nicolas-de Bourgueil region believes that “September makes the wine”. It is a saying that has applied for the 2014 vintage, with its glorious September. “It is better to have a so-so summer and an excellent September,” he says. “In September we can play catch up.”

Amirault further believes that the spring, summer and winter of one year are responsible for the quality of the wine the next year “because everything is happening underground”. Humans may have been enjoying the Indian summer in the Loire (which lasted into the first week of November) but such un-seasonally warm and sunny weather is not good for the vines. They need “a good winter” where cold and even icy conditions force them to shut down and rest.

So far the 2014 vintage is “looking good!” Amirault laughs. He doesn’t know if it is great, or just good, or even the best, and is not clear as to which other vintages it might be compared.

With malolactic fermentation completed, from now on he and his brother Thierry and some friends will be tasting the wines every week, right through to March “when we will know exactly what the 2014 will be”. Of course he has some idea now. “Rich, acidic, fresh – but things can change.”

The optimism across the region may be, he warns, the result of a sense of relief after the disastrous 2013 vintage with yields 40 per cent down, and hand-harvesting critical for avoiding unhealthy grapes. “Fruit is the most important … what happens in the winery is less important,” he says.

Amirault is a passionate ambassador of St-Nicolas-de Bourgueil, the least known of the four red “kings” of the Loire Valley. Everyone’s heard of Chinon, he says, and perhaps Saumur, but Bourgueil? And even fewer, St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil – even though it may be that this sub-region was the first place in the Loire where cabernet franc was planted. He thinks that once wine drinkers have discovered the great wines of Chinon, they should take any chance to explore what other parts of the region can offer.

Cabernet franc is part of the Bordeaux blend, but almost always plays second fiddle to merlot and cabernet sauvignon (DNA proves the latter parented cabernet franc, together with sauvignon blanc). It is well suited to cooler, inland areas such as the Loire. It tends to be lighter in colour and in tannins compared with cabernet sauvignon, similar in fruit and spice profile, but higher in acidity.

Given this last fact, Amirault is also frustrated at the expectation, even among locals, that cabernet franc cannot age. “It can age – because of this acidity,” he retorts, at least for 10 to 15 years. Recalling his father’s habit to open older wines for clients, rather than the most recent releases, he’s planning every year to cellar a portion of the output and leave it there for 10 years. But it is a delicate balance, at least as far as the banks are concerned, he says. “Time is money these days … but we need to bring back some of the tradition.”

The Loire has no official “pecking order” in terms of grand crus and premier crus as in Burgundy, but the local vineyard owners know their soils as well as anyone in Chablis. Wines made from vines grown on the gravilices (gravels) are more approachable young than those from the tuffeau (limestone). That said, Amirault’s Les Gravilices 2011 is only just starting to drink now, and needs to be taken with food.

If more proof were needed that cabernet franc can age, the 1997 from Pierre Caslot of 400-year-old organic property Domaine de la Chevalerie was being opened across Bourgueil at the end of October. It was from very large format bottles known as balthazars which hold 12 litres or 16 bottles, and wines in larger bottles tend to mature more slowly. The wine was youthful and silky, perfectly integrated and balanced, with still years to go.

But tasting it signified a poignant moment. Caslot, aged 62, had passed away a week earlier, four years after discovering he had cancer. He had set aside these mega-bottles of 1997 to be given to his friends in the wine community when he died. This gesture says an enormous amount about wine culture in Loire, and why its great wines are so often overlooked because they’re not on the auction circuit.

Words: 738. Find a link here.

Categories: Not home, wine

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