…And I’ll get to it at the end. In the meantime, no spoilers. No cheating. No peeking, no snooping, no shaking the box beneath the Christmas tree under penalty of a bitch-slap.
I have had a pathological aversion to spoilers ever since seventh grade when that nasty little prick Joe Paolella came up to me when I was standing in line for Star Wars and whispered, “Darth Vader is actually Luke’s father.” And later, when Paul Zack sent me an email right before I left to see Sixth Sense that read ‘Bruce Willis is dead—that’s why the kid can see him.’
That sort of stuff spoils everything for everyone, every time. Especially wine columns.
But I Digress…
Anyway, Saumur is the topic of today’s harangue, in particular, Saumur-Champigny—a smallish appellation created in 1957 dedicated to producing red wine in the white heavy Loire. Like the ABC of Loire Rouge—Anjou, Bourgueil and Chinon—Saumur-Champigny relies on Cabernet Franc as its raw material. This grape, the third wheel in Bordeaux, and frequently an understudy only allowed to perform when Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot calls in sick. In the fertile limestone soils of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol in may excel, but throughout Bordeaux, it is generally treated as an also-ran.
Interestingly, not only did our subject also-ran begin the race in the Loire, Cabernet Franc (then known as Bouchet) is one of the parent grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, developed when it was bred genetically with Sauvignon Blanc in the 17th century. In Bordeaux, it’s a case of the Luke Skywalker out-performing Darth Vader, but in the Loire, which is farther north than Bordeaux and considerably further from the meliorating effects of the ocean, Cabernet Sauvignon—which buds late—rarely ripens.
Blues for the Reds are Green
The problem is—and thus, the titular blues—is that Cabernet Franc doesn’t always ripen in the Loire either. When fully flavor ripe, Cabernet Franc offers lyrical floral and spring berry flavors in a youthful, light package. It’s rarely overtly tannic and, like most cool-climate reds, shows shivery acids.
Unripe, however, it shows a pronounced vegetal undertone that is most easily described as bell pepper.
Whether or not you like this quality in your wine, it’s one rarely sought after by your winemaker. Like brett, it’s an occasional occupational hazard.
Saumur is one of those French growing reasons where the terroir, so vital to the endgame, is fairly easily laid out: A plateau made of the Loire’s distinctive metamorphic rock tuffeau rises at the town of Saumur town and continues for seven miles to the village of Candes Saint-Martin. This offers vines not only elevation, but well-drained underpinnings that provide such remarkable drainage that some of Saumur-Champigny vines—as in a few isolated pockets across the globe—managed to escape the phylloxera plague of the mid-19th century. Not all, obviously, but at least a handful within one of the vineyards from which Thierry Germain draws a quartet of wines released under the Domaine des Roches Neuves label.
Germain is considered one of France’s leaders in biodynamic winemaking—his logo shows him in silhouette casting a long shadow that morphs into wine vines. He nurtures them individually, by his own words, ‘observing and listening to them’, becoming indispensable to the farming where pesticides are not.
He began his career in Cab Franc country—Saint-Émilion—which explains his affinity for the varietal. He moved to the Loire in the early 1990’s, where he became as student of the great Charly Foucault of the benchmark Saumur-Champigny vineyard Clos Rougeard.
Focault, sadly, passed away in 2015 at the age of 66.
They are big shoes to fill, but Germain has forged his own Focault-sized reputation in Saumur, and although he is too involved with foliage to rest on laurels, it is fair to say that his wines are iconic examples of Cabernet Franc grown anywhere—a purist’s dream. He harvests thirty parcels by hand, restricting yields to half what the law allows, and often to half of the half. In his view, these vines are essentially allowed to grow wild, producing a miniscule number of quality fruit clusters. Depending on the parcel, many of these clusters he ferments whole using native yeasts, as they do in much of Beaujolais; thereupon, he ages the juice in massive foudres in order to minimize contact with oak. The resulting wines are remarkably fresh and grapey—a word, ironically, used rarely to describe wines. They offer juicy elegance braced by sharp, refreshing acidity with tannins as a background note.
The four I tasted were all from 2015 vintage, and reflect Germain’s imminently accessible style, though each with a slightly different and personal profile. By tethering himself to the needs expressed by the vines themselves, he has drained the juice of anything green and vegetal, leaving us with a shimmering image of Cabernet Franc.
Domaine des Roches Neuves, Saumur-Champigny 2015
Cuvée ‘Franc de Pied’ ($65): The sandy soils of this three acre plot give a distinct, explosive floral nose to the wine—the technique of 100% cold, whole cluster maceration lend it an almost Grape Kool-Aid youthfulness. The wine is not terribly complex, but easy and enjoyable—a perfect expression of ripe Cab Franc picked at an optimal moment to reflect the balanced bloom of youth.
Cuvée ‘Clos de l’Echelier’ ($59): A mingling of styles, ‘l’Echelier’ involves whole-cluster fermentation of only half its harvest, resulting in a wine that reflects both the Beaujolais-nose and the earthier, Saint-Émilion concentration. Crushed stones and raspberry enliven a meatier wine that comes from soils with slightly more clay than ‘Franc de Pied’, leading to a sensuous grip from nose to finish.
Cuvée ‘Marginale’ ($59) A striking intensity of flavors, beginning with a bouquet that’s like sniffing wild violets in the spring. Less overtly carbonic smelling, with a deep cherry, almost Burgundian profile, it is velvety in the mouth with a sense of sophistication that elevates it above a certain fun quality inherit in the others. ‘Marginale’ is made only in exceptional vintages, and only from restricted yields.
Cuvée ‘Mémoires ($69): Sweet fruit is prominent, though as always, in a bone-dry package; the acid level is pronounced, making this a wine for the cellar, though not indefinitely—a couple years should tone it back a bit. Tannins are light and slightly chalky. The parcel from which the wine is drawn was planted in 1905, and is on original European rootstock.
In conclusion, class, the cure for the greening of the grape seems to be a balanced combination of terroir and technique. Toss in optimal hangtime, and vanished are the Saumur wine blues.
Now, go in peace.
And for those of you who intentionally defied my advice and read on ahead, like my Irish grandmother used to say, “Go ndéana an diabhal dréimire de cnámh do dhroma ag piocadh úll i ngairdín Ifrinn”—“May the devil use your backbone as a ladder while picking apples in Hell”.
Oh, and ‘Rosebud’ winds up being the name of the sled.