History in the making, the new chiseled expressions of dry chenin in Anjou Noir: S. Bernaudeau, S. Érissé, B. Ciofi, T. Boudignon, O. Lejeune + Bonus from La Grange aux Belles & Tessa Laroche

5/5/20 -

(NOTE: Chambers Street Wines is extremely proud to present the third in a series of articles by our good friend and neighbor at Racines NY, Pascaline Lepeltier. In 2014, Pascaline passed the Master Sommelier Diploma, and in 2018, she won 2 more major titles in her homeland: she is now a laureate of “Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France - Sommellerie” and Best French Sommelier 2018. In January 2019, the famous French magazine La Revue du Vin de France awarded her “Personality of the Year 2019”, the first woman to be given this prestigious recognition.)


At last, the dry Chenins of the Loire have started to take their rightful place among amateurs and professionals: world class white wines, capable of embodying the complex nuances of incredibly varied terroirs, with potential for aging. The arrival of Chenin among the great grapes of the world is undeniable. It is easier to admit when speaking of Chenin grown on limestone soil, but the same can be said (but, unfortunately is overlooked) of the Chenin grown on schist. My interest for Chenin on schist is not new, but it is stronger today than ever, because the quality of the production has never been so spectacular and diverse! Richard Leroy, Mark Angeli, Nicolas Joly, René Mosse are already famous for sure, but they are not the only game in town anymore, as these trailblazers have inspired an entire new wave of winemakers - néo-vignerons or heirs of historic properties. Anjou Noir is a treasure trove of talent, and we are fortunate to present to you some of them in this email whom we consider essential.

A little bit of history

Why is dry Chenin on schist gaining recognition so late? Because making dry Chenins of terroir and with aging potential is only a recent ambition that began to take root in the early 90s. We can obviously think of the iconic cuvées of La Coulée de Serrant but other examples are very rare, if not non-existent. The reason: the Chenin’s historical reputation grew thanks to its ability to make sweet wine. A native Loire variety, Chenin has medium to thick skin, high acidity and is prone to botrytis (traits inherited from its kinship with the Savagnin). During the Middle Ages, Chenin proved to be the variety of choice for passerillage but especially for the noble rot. Few places in the world are as favorable to the development of botrytis cinerea as the schistous hillsides of western Anjou where the morning fogs of autumn rising from the Loire, Layon, Aubance and Louet rivers are dispersed by the Atlantic winds in the afternoon, drying the botrytis and roasting the berries. Up until the Second World War, the priority of production lay in these world famous sweet wines, the dry being produced as an after-thought with what was left on the vines. But after 1945, a vicious cycle set in: the decline in demand for sweet wine led to an increased use of chaptalization to reduce production costs while increasing yields. Chemical fertilizers began to be used alongside harvesting-machines. The best terroirs of the slopes were abandoned. Clones were replanted on the richer flat soils. The grapes were harvested without distinction and their weaknesses were compensated by oenological tricks in the cellar. The complicated vintages of the 50s-60s-70s exacerbated the problem. In the early 1980s, Chenin plantations fell in favor of Cabernet, Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The production of still wines was in serious crisis, its value decreased to almost nothing. All attention was directed to the high volume yield of sparkling wine. Fortunately, some winegrowers fought against this movement.

The reactions

The first reactions appeared in fact in the 60s. Winegrowers in Savennières, under the impulse of Mme de Jessey, grew tired of cheating perfection through the use of chaptalisation. They changed the specifications of the appellation to authorize the production of dry wine, which made the aoc a leader in the style. The second wave came on the other side of the Loire in the Coteaux-du-Layon where producers of sweet wines also rejected chaptalization. By implementing back “ tries” during harvest they were able to improve not only the quality of their sweet wine but also that of their dry wines. The third wave finally came in the 90s with the pioneers of organic and biodynamic agriculture who, deciding to intervene as little as possible in the cellar by reducing the doses of sulfur, turned almost exclusively to the production of dry wine on the historic terroirs of Anjou so famous for their liquoreux. And here we are today, with history being written: the quality production of dry chenin in volume is not even 40 years old. What is the best style? With or without botrytis? With or without malo-lactic, in barrel or vat, oxidative or reductive aging, spring or long aging? - everyone explores their terroir potential which is revealed by respectful agriculture. What a magical moment for the wine lover!

This diversity of styles is obviously linked to each winemaker, but also to the variation in terroir. This part of the Loire, between Muscadet and Saumurois, is known as Anjou Noir due to the dominant color of its metamorphic schistous soils with volcanic veins. They are very complex: being among the oldest soil in France (some plots older than 400 million years) they have had time to be degraded, altered, covered, in addition to being deformed - the slopes of Layon are on a fault that appeared during the eruption of the Alps. The result is a multitude of microclimates depending on the proximity of rivers and hillsides, with a wide variety of soil ranging from light wind sands, to sandy clay rich on the plateaus, to slopes of purple, gray, and slate schist crossed by veins of poor volcanic rocks, charcoal, etc.. And Chenin Blanc is magnificently transparent to express the fullness and complexity of this diversity. Here too we are just discovering all these variations as more and more single vineyards are made, and parcel names claimed (some even recognized since the 18th century).

So there is something for everyone, from fresh, light chenin to lemon thiols, to powerful, root, tannic, and more terpenic bottles. There is only one catch - many bottle their wine as Vin de France, not agreeing with the current Anjou AOC’s rules. Also, unfortunately, none of these estates are producing more than a couple of thousand bottles of each cuvée, so we feel really happy to offer you some today!

A child of the region and an experienced cyclist, Stéphane Bernaudeau is a very discreet, calm and determined winemaker who spent more than ten years alongside Mark Angeli before gradually creating his domain in 2000. He now tends 2.5 hectares of old vines. His historical plots are located near Cornu (part of the commune of Martigné-Briand where the Anjou Noir meets the Anjou Blanc): Les Nourrissons, 30 long rows of legendary centenary vines; Les Terres Blanches, 45 acres of vines over 80 years-old upstream Layon on white clay; and since 2014 Les Onglés, a 2.5 ha frosty plot on schist looking at the Nourrissons on the other side of the Layon. In 2019 to remedy the problem of recurring frost, Stéphane decided to take over two plots of almost 1 ha of old vines in Bonnezeaux and to rent 1 ha of Les Onglés to a young winemaker. This way he could diminish the risk of losing his crops, while keeping the same amount of vines to tend without changing his approach. In the vineyard, Stéphane originally applied strict biodynamic but today is farming with his own, more practical philosophy.

Harvests are manual, whole bunches are pressed in a vertical press, the juices spontaneously ferment either in 228 liter barrels of several wines or in Vicard foudres (15 hl) in two small rooms adjoining his house. The malos usually happen but are not forced. The wines are aged for one year on fine lees without racking nor batonnage nor analysis. 20 ppm of SO2 are added after malo and 20 ppm before bottling. Bottling, manual until 2015 is now done by Christian Braud between October and December. On the labels, you will find the vintage at the bottom right, as well as the yields, which have unfortunately been minuscule in recent years due to frost. From 2000 to 2004, he willingly chose botrytised grapes to make his dry wines. Today there is no botrytis in any cuvée, as he thinks botrytis brings too much honeyed, heavy aromatics and structure (even though he recently enjoyed a 2001 Nourrissons). Over the years Stéphane has rightly established himself as an inescapable reference of the region with his different plot vintages with strong identities.

Originally from Alsace, Bruno is a force as a farmer, and as someone who wants to support a sustainable, socially-responsible way of managing vineyards and wineries. After working for 13 years alongside pioneer biodynamic and low-intervention masters Jean-Pierre & Chantal Frick, he managed Domaine de la Pinte in the Jura from 2008 to 2016, converting it to biodynamics. At this time, he also became involved in Le Nez dans le Vert, an association of same-minded vignerons. For four years now he has joined Mark and Martial Angeli as a partner at Domaine de la Sansonnière. But in parallel he decided in 2017 to develop an ethical negoce - Béret et Compagnie - inspired by the forgotten potential of the sweet rosés of the region, ensuring organic or biodynamic growers the right price for their grapes. The main focus is Zéro Pointé Ze Bulles, a cuvée created by Philippe Gourdon, but he also bottles a tiny bit of dry chenin under the label Tous les Ch’nins Mènent à Rome from biodynamic vines in Thouarcé (Bonnezeaux) which is almost exclusive to the New York market .

Stéphane is without a doubt one of the most elegant and meticulous new vignerons in Anjou. Working for more than 15 years in the international construction business and discovering wine thanks to his in-laws, Stéphane Érissée decided in 2008 to change career and life to be closer to his daughter Jade. He learned the craft alongside remarkable vignerons like Chambers Street favorite Cyril Fahl (Clos du Rouge Gorge) and Charly and Antoine Foucault (Clos Rougeard / Domaine du Collier). In 2011, he started Domaine Andrée (named after his grand-mother) by acquiring 3.7 ha of multiple plots of vines farmed organically for the last 25 years by the previous owner, in Saint-Georges-sur-Layon, a commune between Martigné-Briand and Montreuil-Bellay, just at the edges of Anjou Noir and Anjou Blanc. There, the terroir is very special: it is a vein of charcoal crossing the Layon, inspiring the names of two of Stéphane’s Cabernet Franc cuvées, Les Mines and Carbone. He also farms organically some Grolleau Gris and Noir, and of course some Chenin with a very specific character! Stéphane is as precise and meticulous in the cellar as he is in the vines. Located a thirty minute drive away in Saint-Cyr-en-Bourg near Saumur, he vinifies in a beautiful underground tuffeau cave. Fermented in carefully selected larger oak formats from different coopers (some new), he believes a great wine takes time and trusts in an appropriate length of aging (12 months for the grolleau, at least 18 months for the Cabernet and the Chenin) on fine lees. These decisions are inspired by the wines of Richard Leroy, Stéphane Bernaudeau and the Foucaults. He carefully uses sulfur, at crush (max 15-20 ppm), after settling (max 15-20 ppm, if any, depending on the vintage quality) and if needed at bottling. Stéphane is always searching and relentlessly thinking, yet relying a lot on his intuition. The wines remarkably achieve an impressive serenity for such a young domaine, with the range showing a beautiful mix between limestone structure and schist aromatics.

Within a decade, Thibaud Boudignon has became an important figure in the rebirth of dry chenin in Savennières and Anjou Noir, despite being a newcomer to the region, arriving in 2007. A top judoist in his youth in Bordeaux, he understands discipline and time are needed to reach quality and mastery, and he is very demanding with himself. After working at famous wineries in France and Australia (Lafite in Bordeaux, Charlopin in Burgundy), he came to manage Château Soucherie, a historic estate in Beaulieu-sur-Layon whose quality was not up to its reputation. He was also attracted to the region by the potential of dry chenin on schists, as he loved what his friend Antoine Foucault was able to do on tuffeau. As he implanted organic viticulture and reshaped winemaking at Soucherie (putting it back on the map), he started to look for parcels to start his own estate in 2016. Finally, since January 2020 he just works for himself at his domain.

Thibaud acquired or rented progressively the 7ha he is today working with: on the left bank of the Loire a plot called Les Gâts in Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay on grey schist and rhyolite where he produces his Anjou and Anjou À François(e), and in Savennières first working with a sandy plot called Les Fougeraies on the plateau above the Clos Saint-Yves, and now with three vineyards he replanted, two historic clos in La Possonnière - Clos de la Hutte and Clos de Frémine, and a small rented plot in Savennières near le Château de Varennes, La Vigne Cendrée.

The meticulous organic work with biodynamic practices in the vineyard with his two employees Camille and Thomas is carried on in the cellar. After making the wines between a tiny cellar in Savennières and Château Soucherie’s - a twenty minute drive apart, and difficult to protect the wine, he finally built in La Possonnière, by Clos de la Hutte, an ecological, modern and very-well thought cellar using sustainable material, gravity, thermal energy and water recycling. It allows him to be hyper-precise in his vinification: hand-harvest, whole-cluster in pneumatic keeping only the cuvée - like in Champagne so no settling, the must goes directly in barrels - demi-muids, cigars, hogsheads, foudres from multiple coopers with some new with light toast, spontaneous fermentations and aging on fine lees. Because of the temperature of the cellar malo does not occur, and then is blocked with sulfur (total though is now always below 50 ppm). The wines are neither fined nor filtered unless there are more than 1.5g of residual sugar. Thibaud has a very specific vision of Chenin on schist, and even if his search for a crystalline expression may not be liked by everyone, he is a force to be reckoned with, as his style is also evolving to a more hands-off approach as the vines continue to reveal more their terroir. An impressive vigneron for sure!

2017 was the first vintage of Olivier Lejeune, revealing right away a real talent, something quite unexpected from a young vigneron born in northern France who worked 10 years in South East Asia selling video games. Tired of the exhausting life of a salesman in polluted megalopoles, he decided to radically change his life. He moved to New-Zealand to learn viticulture at Auckland University, quickly to unlearn it by working with biodynamic estate Felton Road in Central Otago. There, an intern told him about the Loire, and as Olivier was thinking about coming back to France to start his estate (New Zealand was unaffordable), he wrote to Mark Angeli who answered him, offering an internship during the 2015 harvest (a good, easy one). Meeting all the growers of the movement was the tipping point : in 2016 he moved for good to Anjou with his family, and in 2017 was able to buy two plots (Le Clos des Plantes et Les Cailloux) in Mont Benault, a hill of the Coteaux du Layon between Faye d’Anjou and Beaulieu-sur-Layon made famous by Richard Leroy. As he was building his young domain starting from scratch Olivier had to work also full time at biodynamic Château de Passavant - locally at the forefront of non-edging techniques, and used winemaker-friends’ equipment and cellars like Benoit Courault or Nadège Herbel. He is still today impressed by the solidarity among vignerons. Despite terrible vintages due to dramatically low yields, Olivier is today keeping a high spirit, farming more hectares in Mont Benault, including a new chenin plot he just replanted. Farming with biodynamic and agroforestry practices, his winemaking is very hands off, using a vertical press, spontaneous fermentation and aging on fine lees as long as he can. The wines see around 20 ppm total of sulfur. Olivier’s wines have already great depth and texture despite coming from vineyards he had to revitalise - without the sign of a remarkable vigneron.

On another note, Olivier pays great attention to the name of his cuvées and their label. The one for Poeisis was made by Magdalena Kaczan, a Polish artist. He saw it one day and asked this artist if he could use it, with the addition of the vigneron and his vine. It is a symbol of harmony and respected biodiversity. You can find on each of his labels the name of the different artists and their contact.
The trio of La Grange aux Belles planting in
the Roche de Mûrs. Picture : Grange aux Belles


And to complete today's selection we wanted to feature wines from some of our favorite producers: the new specatcular single-vineyard cuvée La Roche de Mûrs 2018 made by the trio Marc Houtin, Julien Bresteau and Gérald "Jesse" Peau at La Grange aux Belles as well the superb 2017 Savennières Roche-aux-Moines produced by Tessa Laroche.

Pascaline Lepeltier

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