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How lucky am I! After writing about Benoit Courault in my last article, I have today the great pleasure to talk to you about a very unique couple I consider at the very top of the game, this time in Amboise and Montlouis-sur-Loire in the eastern part of Touraine: Coralie et Damien Delecheneau of La Grange Tiphaine. As with Ben, I have to admit I have a special relationship with these two. I met them very shortly after meeting Ben, i.e. at the very beginning of my sommelier career. My mentor Patrick Rigourd introduced me to the Delecheneaus. We hit it off right away, and since that day, almost 15 years ago, Damien has been my “go to” as both friend and farmer: if I have any questions about vines, soil, farming, winemaking, he is the one I call, as I know I can trust his knowledge. Every year at the domain, at the wine fair in Angers or in New York, I have been religiously tasting and following Damien’s work, and I can say today that he and Coralie are producing the most complete line-up of the region: dry, off-dry, sweet white, rosé, light red, structured red, bubbles, all the bottlings have a purity of expression, a sense of place, a coherence, and age-worthiness at a surprisingly affordable price!. 2018 and 2019 are for me, despite the warmth of the vintages, the best wines produced by these two yet, and it is a pleasure to present and offer them today. (Wines arrive by 7/16)
La Grange Tiphaine (Tiphaine’s Barn) is a lieu-dit on the upper part of the gorgeous Renaissance city of Amboise, just east of Montlouis-sur-Loire AOC. Damien’s family has been living and farming here since the 19th century. He is today the 5th generation of Delecheneau growing grapes. Like the vast majority of the farmers of that time, the great great-grandfather of Damien ran a polyculture farm and bred livestock. At the time he was cultivating a variety of crops, and grapes which were sold to local cooperatives. In 1941 though, during the critical time of WWII, his grand-father decided to bottle all the production, something very new for the region. When Jackie, Damien’s father, took over he stopped the breeding business to keep only 30 hectares of grains, cereals and grapes until 2002 when he retired. It is only in 2007 that Damien decided to dedicate the property solely to wine. Over the years though, he realized the importance of polyculture and understood that the overspecialization of a farm towards one crop is unproductive, from both a financial and environmental point of view. He began a side business of négoce, and helped growers around him to convert to organic farming by buying their fruits. In addition, he dedicated some fields for horses, pasture, hay production, with the idea to maybe come back one day to farm other crops.
Growing up, Damien did not dream to become a winemaker. Instead, his dream was to be either a pilot or musician. Alas, the atavism prevailed and he committed to go into oenology school. He still plays the clarinet extremely well. While studying for his DNO (oenologist diploma) in Bordeaux, he met Alsace-born Coralie who was pursuing the same diploma. It was a perfect match. Together they interned around France and the world, in Burgundy, Beaujolais, California and South-Africa before deciding to come back to Amboise in 2002 as Damien’s father was retiring. Coralie joined full time in 2009. As a couple they work together hand in hand, Damien focusing more in the vineyard, Coralie on the sales, with both minds uniting in the cellar. Their marriage of roles in the business is quite rare in the wine world. Starting with 8,3 ha in 2002, the domain today counts 30 ha total but only 17 ha of vines split almost evenly between Amboise and Montlouis. They produce 3 different AOC: Touraine, Touraine-Amboise, Montlouis-sur-Loire as well as some Vin de France. Of course you will find some Chenin in Montlouis but also in Amboise, where they grow Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Côt (including a superb 120-year old plot) perhaps the oldest one in France. There is also a field-blend of different types of Gamay teinturiers, Grolleau and other reds he uses for his delicious pet’nat Rosa Rosé Rosam.
Convinced of the utmost importance of farming, they obtained the organic certification in 2007, and the biodynamic Biodyvin label in 2014. Talking about farming with Damien is extremely stimulating: he is a practical scholar, always reading, searching, so his views on the subject are very well thought out and practiced. But as an artist, he deeply believes in intuition and the value of cultivating beauty, to a point that Coralie and Damien asked a sculptor to populate the vineyards around the winery and the Amboise vineyards with impressive and interactive pieces. They also regularly host concerts and performances with wine tastings. More precisely in terms of farming, Damien totally stopped ploughing a couple of years ago. He is just hoeing under the rows, and mulching the endemic cover crop. He has been working a lot using composting, improving his technique over the years to produce quality compost material for fertilizer. For Damien this is a crucial tool to restructure the soil and bring back organic matter and life. It is very apparent today that the vines are less stressed, more resistant to disease pressure, recover faster from frost or hail, etc. thanks to this work.
Damien is a detail-maniac. each plot is treated with its own approach using the appropriate ploughing, treatment, pruning, etc. It is an insane amount of work as there are 54 plots, some more than an hour away by tractor (this requires a lot of organization for treatment or for harvest)! To do it he is assisted by Jean-Rémy and François-Xavier, and always has interns eager to learn from him. He deeply believes in mentoring (he teaches at Amboise’s Lycée Viticole). He also believes in community. Since 2017 he took over the presidency of the ODG of Montlouis after François Chidaine and pursued the work that allows this tiny AOC to shine worldwide and be one of the most dynamic of the region. He has managed to rally the producers around projects like Pétillant Originel (which promotes the decreased use of herbicides) or buying wind turbines or using helicopters against the frost. He is has championed Côt as the grape of Touraine-Amboise. His voice within in the region has been effective in changing the AOC.
Touraine and Touraine-Amboise.
Amboise is famous for its majestic castle and for being the place where Leonardo da Vinci ended his life, but its historic wine reputation is yet to be fully recovered. What we know is that part of the area used to be combined with Vouvray until the beginning of the 20th century, and that the wines were enjoyed by multiple French kings. Located on both sides of the Loire (but mostly on the northern side), just west of Vouvray and Montlouis at equal distance between Tours and Blois, Touraine-Amboise is considered a subzone or geographic designation of Touraine AOC, a kind of antichamber before being fully recognized on its own (you have 4 others like this). The region was a bit of a sleeping beauty until Damien and Coralie’s influence. With the work of La Grange Tiphaine the true potential of this area is slowly gaining recognition. Only 185 ha are claimed today by roughly 30 producers able to make 3 types of still wines-white from dry to sweet (100% Chenin), rosé and red (100% Côt since 2019; before it was a blend of Côt, Cabernet Franc and Gamay). If you are using Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc or Gamay, monovarietal or blended, the wine carries the regional Touraine AOC label.
In terms of terroir, you find the same cretaceous soils as in Montlouis and Vouvray, just with the tuffeau way below an important layer of clay, silt and a lot of silex or flint. There is wide variation of soils in the area. Damien’s vineyards (9 ha in Amboise), all on the southern side, have three different profiles :
On the eastern side: very special dense clay with a lot of silex, giving a fantastic texture to the wine. A beautiful terroir. (Cuvée Bel Air)
Around the domaine: more silt mix with the clay, less flint, exposed to the wind, on top of the hills. (Cuvée Côt Vieilles Vignes, Quatre-Mains, Bécarre, Rosa Rosé Rosam
On the western side : heavier clay, a lot of flint and gravel on top, more clay in the bottom, colder terroir. (Cuvée Clef de Sol Rouge)
I consider Bel Air and Côt Vieilles Vignes (120 + year-old vines…) part of the top cuvées of the Loire today!
Montlouis should be a familiar name for any wine lover. For a few years now, this small AOC (450 ha) has become a benchmark for Chenin Blanc to a point of outperforming its long-time big sister, Vouvray. It is a kind of Goliath and David relationship. Five times bigger than Montlouis, Vouvray has long been considered the great Chenin success story. Vouvray’s recognition was superior to the point that Montlouis’ wines were often sold under the Vouvray name until 1936 (when both got their AOCs). But a focus on the mass production of entry level sparkling wines with the use of industrial farming along with a lack of vineyard investment led Vouvray to lose its valued reputation. The only original producers of Vouvray to retain their standards of excellence are Domaine Huet and Clos Naudin. Very few new generation talents (the Pinon family, Vincent Carême, the Cosme brothers, Julien Vedel, Michel Autran, Sébastien Brunet and just a couple of others) have chosen to follow the path of great farming and high quality wines.
In Montlouis, the opposite movement was taking place. In the 1990s Jacky Blot (La Taille aux Loups) and biodynamic pioneer François Chidaine created a fantastic dynamic in the area, quickly embraced by a new generation of talent who could afford vineyards at a way lower price than in Vouvray (Damien, Lise & Bertrand Jousset, Xavier Weisskopf, Ludovic Chanson, Frantz Saumon, Julien Prevel, etc. and the late Stéphane Cossais). With no money and very little support from the regional union, they managed to stimulate quality from the inside: Montlouis is on fire!
In terms of terroir, how different is Montlouis from Vouvray? Montlouis is sandier, flintier and slightly cooler with less influence from the Loire. The Montlouis AOC is on the southern bank of the Loire, facing Vouvray. The Amboise Forest along with the Loire and Cher Rivers form a triangle with a steep cliff at its northern limit. It is a compact appellation spanning three communes, Montlouis-sur-Loire, Lussault-sur-Loire and Saint-Martin-le-Beau. The vineyards on the north (the most famous ones - Les Bournais, etc.) are planted on a plateau rolling gently towards the south-west with small valleys and slopes. The exposure is not as favorable as Vouvray for botrytis or passerillage, so Montlouis makes little of it, focusing the production on sparkling and still dry or slightly off-dry. For the soils both AOC’s share the same base of Turonian tuffeau - white and yellow - but Montlouis has very little of it exposed. Regarding the topsoil, the AOC has less aubuis (clay-limestone mix) and more perruches (more acidic soil of clay, flint and silica) and younger top soils (sandy gravel from the Miocene) thus lighter soil in general. To understand its terroir better the Union of Montlouis Producers sponsored the creation of a geological map designating single vineyards which could be used in labeling. It is a great initiative Vouvray should follow… This map was published 2 years ago, with the idea to link a style of Chenin - still, petillant original, traditional method, dry, off-dry, sweet - to a terroir.
Most of Damien’s vineyards (a little more than 8 ha in a lot of different plots) are in Saint-Martin and Montlouis, on perruches. As the clay is not very far from the surface, the soils can easily become compacted. Since 2010 he has diligently worked with different composts and preparations to bring back organic matter to the soil and discourage soil compaction. Since 2016 Damien has produced a single vineyard from a special plot called Les Epinays, planted and farmed specifically to be a still dry grand vin de garde, with a slightly sandier terroir, close to the one of Bel Air (his superb Chenin in Amboise).
In the cellar. Over the years, Damien and Coralie invested in finding the right tools for the quality of wine they wanted to produce with the minimum amount of additives (i.e. sulfur dioxide.). All the domain cuvées are made with the same level of perfectionism. Hand-harvested, hand-sorted in the vineyard then again at the cellar, pressed with two top-of-the-line pneumatic presses fed by gravity. The whites are pressed whole-cluster directly, cooled and settled overnight, then fermented either in cement tanks, eggs or barrels. The reds are macerated, destemmed or whole clusters, depending on the vintage, the grapes, the terroir. A little sulfur dioxide may be used at picking if needed. Fermentations are spontaneous, malo happenes more and more for the white - not historically usual for the region. They now make a lot of pét-nat (Rosa Rosé Rosam) and pétillant originel (Nouveau-Nez, Montlouis-sur-Loire AOC 100% Chenin), the second term is now the first official AOC designation in France for the style. They have mastered it, as the wines are delicious to drink, yet complex, clean, and totally age worthy. I love opening these bottlings for any nay-sayer! Wines are aged between 6 to 18-24 months, they are usually slightly filtered with kieselguhr, with a slight adjustment of SO2. When you see the amount of work and attention to detail for each cuvée - having worked the 2017 harvest, I am a witness - you can only be impressed by the quality for value in each of their bottlings!
A quick word on 2018 and 2019.
2018 was an early vintage, with a rainy and warm spring (think Thaïland) leading to a lot of mildiou pressure, requiring a lot of attention in the vineyards. Fruit set was very high, so the fungus made a "natural" selection to offer at the end a crop slightly lower than normal. Summer was hot, with some heat waves. Overall, the wines have power and density, and for those who farmed well, preserved a surprising acidity, especially for the reds. The great vignerons have purple inky wines indicating low pH with ripe alcohol! They are really unique wines, super fresh but dense (a mix of 2008 & 2010), not easy to get young but built for aging! It also means for those who kept their yield high or were not on top of the farming, you will tend to find high alcohol wines already a little oxidized...
2019 was a little bit the reverse, with a dry spring, less rain. Also an early vintage but more balance overall between acidity and sugars. A denser classic Loire vintage: the whites have a great core witout losing their freshness and tension. The reds are easier to understand than the 2018s, with a velvety tannic texture. This is a also a vintage to cellar for the top cuvées!
All in all, La Grange Tiphaine is today a major domain in the area, for very good reasons. The titanesque work of Damien and Coralie allows them to produce a stunning line-up of wines in all colors and ranges. With the years passing by, they are more and more able to express in remarkable detail long forgotten terroir. Great bottles to enjoy today, you can safely cellar them too. In a word, these wines are the real deal!
Clef de Sol means treble clef and is a tribute to music, Damien being an accomplished clarinetist and Coralie a choir singer. Clef de Sol is a blend of different southern exposed plots located in Montlouis on sandy perruches, i.e. clay and flint over tuffeau. The vines are mostly 80 years old, and farmed biodynamically. Hand-harvested mid-september, the grapes are sorted in the vineyard and the cellar, whole-cluster pressed, then fermented in barrels (225 and 400 l) in the underground cellar. Fermentations are spontaneous and malo occurs, without making the wine lose its tension. The wine is aged for a year on the fine lees, and lightly filtered with a sulfur dioxide adjustment. Clef de Sol is without a doubt a benchmark wine for Montlouis, in the line of François Chidaine’s Les Bournais but drier, with more density and less oak than Jacky Blot’s cuvées. 2018 is a superb, powerful expression of the wine, yet the weight is really well balanced by the chalky acidity. Think Savennières meets Brézé, with specific smoky notes coming from the Montlouis flint. Aromatically, this Chenin shows more its floral side, with a lot of lemon-verbena and linden, quinine, peach pit and salt. The oak is very well balanced, with just a hint of white tobacco. The finish is really impressive. I would recommend to cellar this bottle for a year or two before drinking (at least, it will also be great in 15 years). If you open it today, serve it a Burgundy glass not too cold. Pair it with grilled crayfish with tarragon butter, artichokes barigoule or mild blue cheese. 100% Chenin. Pascaline Lepeltier.
“Rosa Rose Rosam” is one of the best pet nats in the world. Period. The name comes from a famous song by Jacques Brel called Rosa, a nostalgic song about being a kid learning latin and falling in love. For Damien and Coralie, this is pure pleasure, swimming-pool wine, yet it is made with the uttermost seriousness. This is the only way to make it so good year in and year out. This wine comes from a 80 year-old complanted plot of Cabernet Franc, Grolleau, Côt and multiple types of Gamay including some teinturiers (red flesh) grown on the clay and silex soil of Amboise. The vineyard is biodynamically certified. Hand-harvested mid-September, the grapes are sorted then directly pressed whole-cluster to preserve their aromatics. A short, cold-temperature alcoholic fermentation starts, then half-way through the wine is bottled, to gain the natural carbonation. The wine is on tirage for 6 to 8 months before being disgorged. 2019 is one of the best examples of the cuvées, with a great combination of ripeness and freshness. A beautiful fuschia color, the nose bursts with notes of pomegranate, roses, pink peppercorn and grapefruit zest. Bubbles are soft and gentle, the acidity energetic and sapid, balancing the very subtle hint of residual sugars. The attack is a grenadine for grown-ups, and the finish reminds you of a paloma. You should drink it this summer, but don’t worry if you keep it for a couple of years! Enjoy it by itself, or with any crudos-barbecue-tapas food you may wish! Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Grolleau, Côt field-blend. Pascaline Lepeltier.
If Rosa Rosé Rosam is one of the best pet nats in the world, Nouveau-Nez could run for the gold medal. For all who don’t believe pet’ nat can be precise, complex, delicious, terroir-driven, age-worthy, just open a bottle of this cuvée! If I have to be precise though, the real name of this wine is Montlouis-sur-Loire Pétillant Originel AOC, as it falls under the first official French AOC for the style. This is the way for the Montlouis producers to showcase the quality of their production : mandatory hand-harvest, spontaneous fermentation, 9 months on tirage, disgorged, nothing added but a little SO2, the final wine must have less than 5 g of residual sugars, and a minimum of 2.4 bars of pressure. To make this cuvée, Damien is using specific plots in Montlouis. The grapes are hand-harvested, picked perfectly ripe (13.8% potential), sorted in the vineyard and the cellar, and pressed whole-cluster. When only 14 g or so of sugar are left, the wine is bottled, and aged a minimum of 18 months before being disgorged. Damien is trying more and more to expand the tirage, as the quality of the wine is getting better every year in order to gain complexity. 2018 is a dense, powerful version of Nouveau-Nez which will please lovers of Marguet or Lahaye Champagne. The nose is explosive on quince paste, marzipan, seringa, lemon-verbena, a mix of Chenin and autolytic notes. The palate is first broad and dense to become sleeker and saltier to finish with smoke and iodine. The bubbles are remarkably creamy and lingering. This wine could be cellared a year or so without problem. If you open it today, serve it in an all-purpose wine glass, not too cold, and enjoy it with roasted poultry, grilled rock fishes and soft-press cheese aged for 6 months or so. 100% Chenin. Pascaline Lepeltier.
Trinqu'âmes is a very cute pun which means "Let's toast to our souls." It is what Sauvignon de Touraine should taste like! This wine made under the négoce label of Coralie & Damien Delecheneau: for a couple of years now they have been buying organic grapes at the right price from neighbors they helped with the farming transition. This is great négoce wine. The vineyards are located in a perfect spot for Sauvignon Blanc: between Amboise and Oisly, the sandy silex rich soil over clay allows a ripe expression of the grape with loosing its vibrancy. The grapes are hand-harvested with Damien's supervision, pressed directly, settled overnight than fermented spontaneously. The malo happens more and more, but does not affect the freshness of the wine. The wine is aged in cement for 6 months before lightly filtered with a sulfur dioxide adjustment. 2019 is a delicious version of this cuvée, combining perfectly ripe aromatics and vibrancy. Don't expect a lean, anemic, expression of Sauvignon blanc. Think more a baby expression of good Pouilly-Fumé (unfortunately they are rare...). You get a bouquet of sage, lemongrass, Tahitian grapefruit with hints of white pepper and passion fruit. The palate has some texture and length allowing a lot of possible pairing, from green tomato & cucumber gazpacho to baked clams to kale caesar salad and young goat cheese. It is a really serious wine (you can even keep 2-3 years) for a ridiculous price! 100% Sauvignon. Pascaline Lepeltier.
Since 2016, Damien has produced a single-vineyard wine from a part of Montlouis he considers well-suited for complex, age-worthy still dry chenin. He replanted the vineyard 15 years ago to be able to express the terroir at its best. The soil is sandier with more flints than other parts of the appellation, but you still find the perruches over tuffeau typical of the area. With its southern exposition, ripeness can be perfectly achieved. For such young vines, the result is already very impressive, which implies farming and terroir matter as much as age. Hand-harvested mid-september, the grapes are sorted in the vineyard and the cellar, whole-cluster pressed, then fermented in a 25 hl foudre. Fermentations are spontaneous and malo occurs, without making the wine lose its tension. The wine is aged for 18 months on its fine lees in foudre and in concrete egg, and lightly filtered with a sulfur dioxide adjustment. 2017 was an intense vintage, especially at harvest as the weather started to be rainy. Grapes were sorted precisely in order to avoid any botrytis. There is a lot in this wine, and for having tasted it multiple times over the last year, I can say the bottle aging is very important for this cuvée. So it is a great thing to be able to offer you the 2017 now! Compared to Clef de Sol Blanc, Les Epinays is less broad, more linear and saltier, more floral and savory. The fruit is present but in the background - crabapple, white peach, tangerine zest. The wine is definitely dry, but with a great creamy texture. If you like the densest expression of Chinon or Saumur Blanc, you will enjoy this cuvée very much. Cellar it for 10 years, or enjoy it today in a Burgundy glass not too cold. You want a dish with iodine or umami for this wine : scallop carpaccio with yuzu, soy sauce and radish, or a porcini ravioli with chicken and mushroom jus. 100% Chenin. Pascaline Lepeltier.
Clef de Sol means treble clef and is a tribute to music, Damien being an accomplished clarinetist and Coralie a choir singer. Clef de Sol is produced in white and red. The red is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Côt (the local name of Malbec). Malbec is an historic grape of the region, probably emigrating from the French Southwest with the pilgrims coming back from Santiago de Compostela. The flinty clay-limestone soils of Eastern Touraine are perfectly suited for it, offering a delicate version far from the black-wine or tannic-fruit-bomb caricature unfortunately attached to this grape. Damien is a big fan, and is lucky to own probably one of the oldest examples of Côt in France, a 120+ year-old vineyard. his father planted clones in the 1980s but the quality of the grapes was way inferior compared to the old vines, so Damien decided to preserve and multiplied them in order to preserve their genetic diversity. He planted some massale selections from them couple of years ago, and today these new plantings are in age of production : Clef de Sol rouge now has a dominant of Côt (60%) planted on red clay and flint soil over limestone in Amboise. Hand-harvested separately (the Côt one week before the Cabernet), the grapes are sorted in the vineyard and the cellar, both are destemmed. Fermentations happen in concrete tanks with gentle pigeages, then the juices are blended and aged in 225 and 400 liter baarrels. It is aged on fine lees for 10 months before being lightly filtered with a sulfur dioxide adjustment. I love the 2018 expression of Clef de Sol rouge. The Côt is really taking the lead bringing its blue and purple fruits, its floral notes, its spice. The Cabernet Franc brings some delicate herbal and forest notes in the background. Tension is fantastic for such a ripe vintage. Tannins are chalky and lingering, perfectly balanced. This is a really seriously great bottle of wine, and with this balance (really low pH, 14%) it is built to age for 15 years or so! You want to decant it if you serve it today, use Bordeaux glasses, and pair it with a char-grilled squab with crushed sweet peas, or a beef tenderloin with slow-cooked tomatoes. 60% Côt, 40% Cabernet Franc. Pascaline Lepeltier
Coralie and Damien Delecheneau’s Côt Vieilles Vignes is for me one of the greatest Loire Valley red wines. As a Côt, I consider it in the league of Cosse-Maisonneuve’s Marguerite. Côt also known as Malbec is a misunderstood grape: far from being overly tannic, inky, rustic, this variety can reach a superb level of refinement, elegance and quality with the right vegetal material (century years old clones), low yield, limestone based soil and great farming. The Delecheneau have it all, as they are lucky to own probably one of the oldest examples of Côt in France, a 120+ year-old vineyard. The vines are located a 5 min walk from the winery, on the upper hill of Amboise. Damien does not really know when it was planted, but looking at the gnarly vines, the small and loose clusters with their red stems, you know they are from another time. Grown on red clay and flint over limestone, with a southeastern exposition, these couple of rows of vines produce a superb, unique wine. Hand-harvested, the grapes are hand-sorted twice and destemmed. They undergo a long, gentle maceration in a cement tank, then the wine is aged 50% in concrete egg and 50% in 225 l barrel, in order to preserve the fruit without bringing too much reduction, especially in dense vintage like 2018. The wine is bottled after 10 months with a light filtration and sulfur dioxide adjustment. 2018 is the best vintage to date of this wine (2019 will be also I think superb). It has an incredible balance with very low pH balancing the ripeness - you would never guess the alcohol content. 2018 is a very discriminatory vintage for red in the Loire, and you will see very easily who has done the job in the vineyard: if well done, you will have crazy acidity and alcohol; poorly done the wine will taste heavy and oxidized. Here, the job was superbly done! With notes of blue berry, citron peel, iris, truffle, the nose and the palate are so crunchy and fresh, while the tannins are velvety and lingering. This wine is still a baby, who needs a good decant to be enjoyed now, in a Bordeaux glass. Pair it with a beautiful wagyu beef tartare with confit shallot and black currant mustard, or a lamb shoulder served with herbs bulgur and a mint-yogurt seasoning. 100% Côt. Pascaline Lepeltier.