Wines of the Loire (2) – Saumur

This is the second of my posts on the wines of the Loire Valley and covers the appellation of Saumur.

Saumur is part of the larger Anjou appellation and growers can decide whether to name their wines Anjou or Saumur, although in practice Saumur is the name of choice. village vineyard view in le puy notre dame

There are appellations for red, white, rosé, sweet and sparkling. These are respectively Saumur Rouge, Saumur Blanc, Cabinet de Saumur, Coteaux de Saumur and Saumur Brut. Although all these appellations, “mirror”, the appellations of Anjou, nevertheless, the wines are distinctly different, this is primarily because of the different soils, almost purely limestone in Saumur and a much more varied, “terroir”, in Anjou. The result being that Saumur wines are, like limestone wines everywhere, more elegant when compared to the chunkier, more forsquare wines of Anjou. In addition to these appellations there is also the lieu-dit of Saumur-Champigny and our  village has just been awarded its own appellation of Saumur-Puy Notre Dame. Both of these appellations are for red wine only.   

Almost all wine is made from Chenin for the whites, Cabinet Franc for the reds plus a little Chardonnay for the sparkling.

So what are the wines like? Like all Anjou, Saumur has often suffered a bad press, surprisingly often from well known winewriters who really should know better. The impression is often given that the reds are very light, almost like super rosés.  This is simply not true. It may have been, about twenty years ago when, shall we say, there was a lot of unfufilled potential, but not now.  The normal colour of a good Saumur is a rich, deep ruby red with a typically Cabernet nose of  crushed red fruits becoming more complex over about three years, like most French red wine a good Saumur should have noticeable tannin in the mouth and a good vibrant length. Many winemakers make two or three different “cépage”, for example, one of my favourite domains in Le Puy, Le Domaine de la Paliene, will make three in a normal year.  The first has a maceration period of about ten days, is from youngish vines and produces a light, simple wine ideal for barbeques etc., like Beaujolais even being capable of taking a little chilling. The second cuvée is maceratied for fifteen days and therefore has an increasing depths of intensity and complexity.  The top level of wine has a maceration period of four weeks and is produced from aged vines from a separate parcel of vineyard. This is serious wine; elegant, complex and of superb length which will continue to mature for a least the next five years. 

Oak is usually used very sparingly for the red wines and surprisingly less and less winemakers are using it, believing that the quality of Saumur Red is quite good enough to stand alone and that oak fundamentally changes the nature of the wine. One vigneron put it to me in this way:-

“Why should we use oak in our wines, what faults do we want to hide?”

Therebye, perhaps revealing the reason for much, (but of course not all), of heavy oak usage. It should also be noted that, with the perhaps less elegant reds of Anjou, a judicious use of oak is often used in the better cuveés to the obvious enhancement of the wines.

Saumur-Champigny has long been the “cru” of Saumur.  The appellation is young only being granted in 1957. In the 1970’s light almost Beaujolais type Champigny swept the wine bars of Paris and the appellation took off.  As with all famous appellations over production is an ever present danger and the appellation should, in my opinion, be producing a much greater level of quality than it does.  But, as elsewhere, more and more wines of distinction are being produced and often producers will make their Champigny in the old light style and also a much better, more serious bottling. However, it has to be said that, even with a lot still to do, the wines are still very tasty and can only become even better. Several vignerons in the area are leading the way especially Filliatreau. 

Saumur-Puy Notre Dame has never had the problem of over-production and its newly awarded appellation is a reward for over 30 years production of good, stylish red wine.    

Whilst red wine is perhaps the better known of Saumurs’ still wine with currently about 60% of the production being red. I think that the appellation is capable of producing some of the best whites to be produced anywhere. More and more winemakers are starting to concentrate on the white variety and certainly almost all those I know well are starting to produce more whites at the expense of the reds. Perhaps this is a case of a region returning to its roots, as, for centuries, Saumur was reknown for its classic Chenin whites, particularly its Coteaux.

As with all wine there are both good and bad producers and different levels of quality. The trick is to know the former and to avoid the latter.  Chenin is a notably capricious grape both to cultivate and to use as a base material for making excellent wine. It tends to do both mediocre and superb very well indeed but it is not quite so easy to persuade it to do average. In addition, some years can go, “dumb”, after two or three years in bottle and then, suddenly, does a Lazarus and returns from the dead with additional layers of depth and complexity.  In the hands of a sympathetic winemaker, who understands its capricious nature, it can make truly great wine.  It can combine aromas of pineapple, apricot and grapefruit packaged in waxy honey together with a golden hue and zingy acidity.  Mouth filling wine that deceives with its silkiness and then leaves your tastebuds in a state of shock and which lingers in the mouth like a latter day Frank Sinatra, refusing to go away.  

This is what Decanter Magazine said about the Domaine de la Paliene 2003, which it chose as ,”Wine of the Month”, in December 2005:-

“Very stylish wine. Fine Chenin Blanc typicity with aromas of dried apricot and a hint of honey. Zesty acidity, fine balance and length”.

But, personally I think that the 2004 is much more elegant and a better indication of typicity than the 2003 which, because of the incredible summer temperatures in that year, was decidedly NOT typical.

Although Saumur produces the full array of both Loire and Anjou Rosés, the only one I am going to talk about is Cabernet de Saumur.  We will discuss the others when we come onto Anjou.

Cabernet, as its name suggests, is 100% Cabernet Franc, macerated overnight or sometimes just for a few hours just to leach some colour from the black skins. I must confess that I never tried it until fairly recently because I always thought that it was the Saumur version of Cabernet d’Anjou. This latter wine, to me, has always been an oddball and even though many people love it, the strange combination of sugary sweetness and green peppers has always defeated my understanding. You can therefore imagine my delight when I politely accepted a glass from the retired father of Christian the existing winemaker at the Domaine du Vieux Tuffeaux and found it delicious, dry, fresh, well balanced and a delight to drink, highly chilled, (8C) on a hot sticky day rarely, and somewhat surprisingly, for a rosé it also had a hint of rose on the nose and a distinct touch of mint on the finish.  The only problem, of which you should be aware is that, because of the continual series of good warm years, the winemakers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep down the alcohol levels, the 2005 coming in at a staggering 14%.  A real trap for those who think that drinking, what appears to be a very light wine, will relieve them of a possible hangover!!!!  Cabernet de Saumur is also one of the rarest of Rosés, the appelation only allowing about 50 hectares to be cultivated within the Saumurois producing a maximum of 400 hltrs.  Minute in commercial terms. 

In most of the Loire, sparkling wine is almost an afterthought, (which is not to say that there is not many, many excellent Cremant de Loire around).  But, in Saumur it is a major part of wine production. Saumur is Frances’ second largest sparkling wine producer after Champagne, albeit a distance second in terms of quantity.  The same geographical conditions which lead to the sparkling wine industry in Champagne also apply in the Saumurois. ie., limestone soils and masses of underground galleries which made storing and elevating the wine easy. Both regions share a fairly northerly position which lent itself to a secondary fermentation restarting in bottles of still wine after the cold winters were over. It should, however, be noted that in Saumur the grapes are always ripe whilst in Champagne it is almost always necessary to add sugar before the first fermentation, which is why young Champagne, released too early often has a green, unripe feel to it.  

Winemakers in the region will argue that sparkling wine was made in the region before the industry started in the Champagnois. It is certainly true that the girropallete, the machine that can turn hundreds of bottles at the same time and now universally used throught the world, was invented here.  It is also undeniably true that, until the appellation laws were tightened up, tanker loads of Saumur Brut, used to leave the region en route for Champagne. Even now disgruntled winemakers will occasionally mumble about certain unscrupulous individuals putting Champagne labels on Saumur bottles!

On the outskirts of Saumur, particularly at St. Hilaire, one will find the big sparkling houses, Bouvet-Laduby, Ackerman, Veuve Amiot and Gratien-Meyer.  Most of these are owned by Champagne houses, the  first three above, being owned by:- Taittinger, Rémy-Pannier and Martini-Rossi respectively. All provide both excellent wine and and excellent tours for the visitor. Bouvet-Ladurby is normally regarded as the foremost producer and its Cuvée Trésor is a very serious wine indeed – with a price to match.

The appellation allows up to eight grape varieties into the cépage but a typical mix would be 60% Chenin, 20% Chardonnay and the rest small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Grolleau Gris. There is also a Rosé and even a red both based on Cabernet Franc.  The red sparkling was originally introduced by Bouvet-Ladurby and is said to go particularly well with chocolate.  

Many smaller producers do not have the capital to supply all the equipment needed to make sparkling wine and, hence, tend to send their wine off to the Cooperative, the big houses or Langlois-Chateau for finishing. They will then send back three or four samples of the finished wine each topped up with a dosage of varying  sweetness after disgorgement. The winemaker will then choose his preference and the sparkling specialist will then convert the rest of the wine into that choice. I have been fortunate to be asked to sit on several “tasting panels’ to help decide this choice and it is really amazing the difference that 0.05% of sugar will make to a wine.

Locally both the Domaine de la Paliene and the Domaine du Vieux Tuffeau make excellent sparkling wine. The former on the premises, whilst the latter makes my favourite Rosé sparkler. Le Domaine de Gloriette is very highly regarded concentrating almost exclusively on sparkling wine, which is not surprising as its owner, Sébastien Crépaux is from the Champagne Region and still has the family vineyard in that region.

Finally we come to Saumur’s rarest wine, Le Coteaux de Saumur. This is a sweet wine made from 100% Chenin, it tends to be less sweet and less alcoholic than its Anjou brother, Le Coteaux du Layon, but is very refined and elegant, a little leaner and racier.  It has the reputation of being rare  because very little is made in bad years, (In 1983 only 23 hectolitres were made and I suspect that 2006 will be much the same).  Having said that, up to the unseasonal rain in 2006 we have not had a bad year for a long, long time and certainly since 2000, every vintage has been praiseworthy. Because of this the wine is probably more common now than it has ever been. It is priced on the expensive side, (for here!), which reflects the work that goes into it. We use a system of “tris” which can mean anything between three and five passes through the vineyard collecting only over-ripe grapes or those affected by noble rot. It is still a lot cheaper than wine of the equivalent quality from, for example Sauterne and, for me, the price does not reflect the huge amount of work that goes into it.  In fact I would stick my head out and say that, whist not denying the fact that both Champagne and Sauterne undoubtedly make the best wine in their catorgeries, (that is if you can afford to buy Chateau d’Yquem and the handful of top vintage champagnes!), the overall standard of both Saumur Brut and Coteaux de Saumur is higher than that of Champagne or Sauterne.  Although, of course, I am totally and unashamedly biased!   

Many people refer to Coteaux as, “Pudding Wine”, personally, I would never eat anything other than the lightest fruit based desserts with this wine.  It makes a superb pairing with fois gras, makes  an excellent aperitif and best of all, in my opinion, it is a culinery experience when taken with such French blue cheeses as Roquefort, St. Agur and Bleu d’Auvergne with the salt of the cheese and the sweetness of the wine making a superb combination. Locally, a very good Coteaux is also often taken as a “pause” between cheese and dessert at a formal dinner.