By Patrick Hilyer
On a recent visit to Saumur on the River Loire I came across a real treat for any wine-lover – Gerard Girardeau’s famous delicatessen and ‘vinoteque’ on Rue St-Nicolas. Gerard’s championship pieds de cochons, Perigourd truffles and foies gras share the shelves with some rare liquid treasures. All the top wines of France are available chez Gerard – a vertical flight of Cheval Blanc, magnums of Mouton, bottles of Pétrus, Yquem, Haut-Brion, Grands Crus from the Cote d’Or, all from vintages going back several decades. He also has an impressive collection of fine red wines from the Loire, the oldest of which is a 1900 Bourgeuil – discovered in a wax-sealed vessel and rebottled at its original domaine with a drop of the ’89 vintage for colour. He is as passionate about this region’s wines as he is about their aristocratic Cabernet cousins from Bordeaux; and in particular the deep, juicy reds of Saumur Champigny.
À la mode in Parisian restaurants and bistros, these are thoroughly modern wines; ideal with a wide variety of foods and ready to drink early. However, some of the best vines produce a wine that can age well, even up to 20 years or more for the top crus. Given time they develop a fine and complex bouquet marked by both the fruit and the oak. The best way to discover the wines of this sub-region is to go there. As Saumur is only about 150 miles from the channel ferry ports it’s a convenient stop-off for wine loving holidaymakers on the continent.
I spent a hugely enjoyable weekend in Saumur and found the warmth and hospitality of its vignerons as refreshing as the deep, fruity and complex wines they produce.
The soft limestone that forms the bedrock of this appellation is known as tuffeau. The rock provides two very important resources to the winemakers here – an excellent chalky subsoil which nourishes the Cabernet Franc vines, many of which are over 50 years old, and the unique underground cellars or souterraine caves in which the wines are aged. My first glimpse of these caves was on a mild Saturday morning at the end of March in the village of Varrains, just a few kilometers east of Saumur.
Domaine des Varinelles
The Daheuiller family owns and works Domaine des Varinelles which was created in the mid-nineteenth century. The house, winery, cellars and a small parcel of their 42 hectares of vines are clustered together around a smart courtyard in the centre of the village. Right: Maturing Saumur Champigny Vieilles Vignes at Domaine des Varinelles.
When I arrived there was a fire of vine roots glowing in the cheminée and the tasting table was already set up with opened bottles, tasting glasses, the ubiquitous spittoon or crachoire and even plates of little snacks. It certainly pays to telephone ahead rather than arriving unannounced!
Four wines from several vintages revealed the breadth and quality of Laurant Daheuiller’s wines. The Saumur Champigny Vieilles Vignes is the top wine made from vines of up to 70 years old aged in 100% new oak for 12 months. The award winning 2003 has a deep ruby robe with purple tints and concentrated aromas of black fruits. A good, firm attack and a deliciously long finish supported by the characteristic Cabernet tannins make this a wine to keep.
The 2002 has developed a sweet aroma of blackcurrants and a nice black-olive bitterness, the 1996 (the best 1990s vintage) has mellowed and expresses a lovely balance of fruit and oak. The 1989 shows just how well these wines can age – the bouquet is very much more complex and pronounced with intense cassis and spice aromas. Also enjoyed were the Cuvée Tradition, Larival and the experimental Laurientale. Following the tasting M. Daheuiller senior took us on a guided tour of the winery and cellars after which we were offered an aperitif of sparkling Saumur.
Domaine La Bonnelière
Visiting the cellar of André Bonneau at Domaine La Bonnelière is like descending into Aladdin’s Cave; thousands of shiny coins pressed into the soft tuffeau walls and ceiling glitter in the candlelight and a plaster Saint Vincent looks down from his glowing niche like a benevolent genie. André bought the estate in the early 1970s and now runs the family business with his two sons Anthony and Cédric. The younger son Cédric (pictured right) conducted the tasting of three different wines from the domaine including a vertical of their old-vines Saumur Champigny from the best vineyard – les Poyeux.
The Cuvée des Poyeux is made from vines with an average age of 35 years. A third of the wine is aged for 10 months in second-year oak barrels. The 2003 is a deep, dark ruby with a nose dominated by red fruits and is already drinking well. The 2002 is a softer wine with a slightly smoky finish. Best of the flight is the 1989 which, like Les Varinelles, shows how well these wines develop in the bottle. The colour has matured into a deep oxblood with bright tawny tints. First impressions on the nose are of fresh mint and oak, then the fruit, especially cassis. The tannins have softened into an elegant, silky-smooth structure and a lively acidity balances stewed fruits and a hint of wood smoke. The wine is still packing a punch after over 25 years in the bottle. Bonneau’s generic Saumur is a very acceptable wine as is the Champigny Cuvée Tradition, both of which offer great value for money.
All of Cédric’s wines were tasted a bit too cool, within the tuffeau beneath the vineyard. However, the warmth of the Bonneau family’s generosity really showed itself by the friendly welcome and Cédric’s easy-going, unaffected manner. The gift of a bottle of the 1989 Cuvée des Poyeux – straight from the bin and still unlabelled – was a final, unexpected treat. On reviendra, as is often heard here – we will be back.
Domaine des Roches Neuves
On the outskirts of Varrains, Thierry Germain (right) owns 22 ha of organic vines at Domaine des Roches Neuves. This domaine recently achieved the unofficial classification of cru exceptionnel from Revue du Vin de France.
Thierry is a passionate winemaker and an enthusiastic communicator. His blend of new and traditional methods produce an outstanding wine – much praised on both sides of the Atlantic. He employs malolactic fermentation and grows his vines organically but he eschews micro-oxygenation and over-extraction. A 21st century exponent of his cherished Saumur he still finds time at weekends to open his door, and a few bottles, to the buying public.
These wines sell out fast and I bought the last case of Terres Chaudes 2003, an excellent wine with a dark, inky robe and primary aromas of red currant above a subtle oak; it should age superbly. The whites too are superb. The Saumur Blanc Insolite 2003 releases pink grapefruit aromas above a sophisticated oak – like a top-class South African chenin blanc crossed with a fine white Burgundy. The 2004, as yet unreleased, is still in its infancy with fresh-bread aromas and a more pronounced mineral character.
A short drive from Varrains brings you to Dampierre-sur-Loire where the ancient cave-dwellings can be seen all along the left bank of the river. Just up above the village is the hamlet of Chaintres and the winery of Paul and Fredrik Filliatreau. As with most wineries here, it is very much a family affair. Though retired, Madame Filliatreau senior still presides over the tastings and recalls vintages going back to 1967 when the family bought the estate. I asked her which of the vintage vins de garde she preferred and was told that the young, printemps wines where her favourite, bottled in the spring following the harvest.
Domaine Filliatreau has an almost confusing range including a delicious, young Saumur vin de pays, a Champigny Cuvée Printemps, an organic wine, wines aged in stainless steel and wines aged in oak, and two old-vine reds – Vieilles Vignes and L’Affutée. The Vieilles Vignes 2004 is still a little closed but has great promise and the 2003 was not available. The 2000 L’Affutée however was stunning. A deep garnet robe with a pale violet rim reveals black olives and a smoky, elegant oak over blackcurrants and cassis. A quick attack brings the silky tannins to the palate, although here the fruit is less pronounced.
Each of these properties offers some remarkable wines from a recent run of successful vintages. For wines that give such pleasure in their third or fourth year it may be too tempting to keep them for a decade or more in the cellar but, after tasting the 1989 and 1996 vintages, I know that these wines will reward a long, patient cellaring. The experience has inspired me to visit the other centres of fine red wine production in this oft-overlooked region – Anjou-Brissac, Chinon, and Bourgeuil.
Before leaving Saumur I bought some pieds de cochon from Gerard Girardeau. As he carefully wrapped my charcuterie I took a look at his business card. Next to a government health warning about the dangers of alcohol is the famous quote by Louis Pasteur – “wine is the healthiest drink known to mankind”. Against such a hero of French science, the health department’s advice seemed feeble and I was perversely given to thoughts of taking the cork out of a couple of bottles.
As he showed me to the door I asked him what he’d be drinking with his Sunday lunch. “A bottle of Château de la Grille ’89” he told me. “Is it your birthday, Monsieur?” I asked. “It is often my birthday!” was his smiling reply.
Addresses and public opening times:
Domaine des Varinelles
28 rue du Ruau 49400 Varrains
02 41 52 90 94
open every day except Sunday 8h-12h 14h-18h
Domaine La Bonnelière
André, Anthony and Cédric Bonneau
45 rue du Bourg Neuf 49400 Varrains
02 41 52 92 38
visits by appointment
Domaine des Roches Neuves
56 Boulevard Saint Vincent 49400 Varrains
02 41 52 94 02 fax 02 41 52 49 30
visits by appointment
Paul and Fredrik Filliatreau
Chaintres 49400 Dampierre sur Loire
02 41 38 16 44 fax 02 41 52 49 92
open every weekday 8h-12h 13h30-17h30 and weekends by appointment
51-53, rue St-Nicolas 49400 Saumur
9h-12h30 15h-19h30 closed all day Monday and Sunday afternoon