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08.02.2006

1994 Domaine Aux Moines Chenin Blanc, Savennieres-Roche Aux Moines, France

South-central France has many distinguishing characteristics, but the one that cannot be avoided and ignored, and certainly cannot be underestimated, is the Massif Central. This huge upwelling of ancient granite, and the limestone and sandstone it sloughed aside as it rose, present a formidable obstacle for anyone attempting to drive from, say, Clermont-Ferrand to Nimes. As large mountain ranges have a habit of doing, it also drives many of the weather systems in the area, capturing moisture, and unleashing it in torrents.

Somewhere in a sub-range of the Massif Central called the Cévennes, a trickle begins amidst granite and limestone, that through a great deal of luck, topography, and perhaps force of personality, decides to do what streams of water rarely do, and heads due North. 630 miles later, after passing through a large part of France and making a hard left at Orléans, the Loire river heads out to sea on France's western coast at the port of Nantes.

The Loire in addition to being its longest river, is one of France's defining characteristics, and is intertwined in both its history as well as its geography. It often demarcated the boundary between warring factions of one sort or another. In particular it was one of the major fronts of the wars between the Roman empire and the Gauls -- the veritable barbarians at the gate -- as the Romans expanded out of Italy to establish their empire. As the stories go, this particular front existed for so long that the Romans (when they weren't busy catapulting cauldrons of boiling oil on their foes across the river) planted grapes in the river valley, to ensure their ability to provide their soldiers with their daily rations of wine.

No one knows for sure whether these were the first vines planted in the area -- certainly the Loire valley has hosted wine grapes since at least the first century BC, and quite possibly much earlier -- but we do know through their records that the Romans, and their immediate successors, planted Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc on the schist covered hillsides surrounding the river.

Whether through fate, destiny, or pure viticultural genius, this choice has resulted in one of France's finest and Aux_moines_scrre94.jpglargest growing regions for white wine -- and a region which produces some of the best, and least appreciated white wines in the world.

Today Vinography is hosting Wine Blogging Wednesday, and the theme for this month's virtual wine tasting event is the white wines of the Loire Valley. All over the blogosphere today, wine loving bloggers will be reviewing Loire whites. In a day or two, I will post a summary of all the wines tasted as part of this event and readers everywhere will be able to share in our collective exploration of some truly excellent wines.

Domaine Aux Moines is run by Monique and Tessa Laroche, who as a mother and daughter team are a bit of an unusual configuration, especially when it comes to owning and running an old respected wine estate. Of course many of us suspect that for many more Chateaux, it's the women who really are running things, in the case of Domaine Aux Moines there is no question. The Laroches are fond of saying "Wine is a feminine word. And in our case, it's also plural."

Mmes. Laroche preside over an estate that is unusual for more reasons than its femininity. For starters, they occupy one of the lesser known sub-appellations of the Savennieres known as Roche Aux Moines. Savennieres is not a large appellation to begin with, occupying about 350 acres in total, and the Roche Aux Moines sub-appellation is a mere eighty or so acres of that. Of those eighty acres, the Laroches own and work nearly twenty of them. The estate property is on some of the highest ground of this appellation, with soils rich in schist that make for extremely good drainage, and in my experience, a high degree of minerality in the wine.

The estate is also somewhat unusual for its production of a Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon red blend, but that is a wine to be discussed another time. The majority of Aux Moines' production is a single wine of 100% Chenin Blanc, and properly so, for it is here in Savennieres that Chenin Blanc shines like nowhere else in the world.

Chenin Blanc, or Pineau de la Loire as it is also referred to at times, is synonymous with the Loire valley, there is not much Chenin Blanc planted there -- far more is grown in South Africa. Chenin is an oft forgotten member of the great white varietals of the world. It is overshadowed by Riesling, Chardonnay, Semillon, and even its neighbor and direct descendant, Sauvignon Blanc in popular wine culture. Yet Chenin is one of the most versatile and profound white grapes in my humble opinion -- capable of making wines of great depth and complexity whether they be the molleux dessert wines of Vouvray or crisp, low-alcohol whites like this bottle. Chenin, in particular, is famous for its ability to age for decades, gaining in complexity, aroma, and deepening in golden hue.

Domaine Aux Moines produces very little wine. So little that I scratch my head at the numbers of acres they have under cultivation -- 2500 cases a year seems like an awful small number of bottles to be produced on twenty acres. It is possible that (in addition to practicing low-yield viticulture) the Laroches sell much of their crop to others and choose to produce only what they can completely control in terms of quality.

As mentioned, apart from their small production of red wine, and in certain years, a late harvest dessert wine, Aux Moines make only this single white wine from their 50+ year-old vines. It is fermented in steel and only small amounts are aged in oak to be blended back into the main wine. In keeping with the properties of the grape, and perhaps with their predilection for doing things their own way, Aux Moines regularly holds wine back for much later commercial release. To wit, this 1994 vintage is a current release, as are vintages stretching back to 1991 and forward to 2001. How a tiny producer like this can afford to not sell all 2500 cases of their production after bottling is a mystery that will not be unraveled here.

Tasting Notes:
Medium yellow gold in the glass, this wine has a sweet and seductive nose of cold cream, honey, mineral, incense and petrol aromas. Over a bit of time, the petrol character subsided and was replaced by aromas of warm candle wax and sawdust. In the mouth the wine is bursting with acidity and minerality almost to the point of being too racy, but never quite crossing the line. It is quite dynamic in its flavor profile including tart flavors of grapefruit zest and wet stones along with pungent flavors of old parchment and what I can only explain as what a pineapple would taste like without a trace of sugar. Finally there is also a taste that is a close analog to the smell of candle wax. The finish is long and steely, but its austerity never reaches the point of unpleasant.

Food Pairing:
The Laroches suggest a pairing with goat cheese, and I couldn't agree more with that recommendation. This wine both cuts through the tart creaminess of the cheese and adds another layer of complexity on top of it. Try it with this frisee salad with goat cheese croque monsieurs.

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $20

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.

Comments (3)

Eliane Wissocq wrote:
08.06.06 at 8:27 PM

I recently started working at a liquor store doing some freelance work such as Weekly Picks as well as ordering new different wines for a (small) "Boutique" section with the dream of generating interest in new wines or rather interesting wines that the average customer knows nothing about. Just as I was wondering if I had gone crazy choosing the wines of the Loire Valley as my next topic in a small mountain town where Blue Ribbon and Yellow Tail are the best sellers I read this article. Thank-you! May-be I do have some perception after all (I am still pretty green at this you see). It was a delight to read such comprehensive geographical / historical / factual article.
Loved the food pairing recommendations too! I grew-up on Croque-Monsieur, but never had one made with goat cheese or paired with Savennieres! So gotta go and make one.

HP wrote:
08.13.06 at 4:26 PM

"and what I can only explain as what a pineapple would taste like without a trace of sugar."

I found your review of the 1994 yesterday evening just hours after I had tasted the 2002. We were struggling to come up with words to describe the slightly sour, sharp taste that stood out. The best I could come up with was "green pineapple" (but none of the tasters coule recall having tried a green pineapple ...). I think your sugarless pineapple description is right on the mark.

Ram Hatley wrote:
03.18.10 at 9:01 PM

A little 2010 update. Found this one hiding out in a local Napa wine shop. One of the first wines to change my life was a well aged Savenniers. This is not for the novice but a nice treat for a true Chenin Blanc nerd (busted). Visually, the cork was developing a charming little bit of mold with a healthy amount tartaric acid crystal build up, in the wine as well. Definitely some funky wet dog, cat pee, petrol and woolly aromatics at first whiff (wife dumps glass into mine at this point. accepted) but that does blow off and reveal beeswax, pineapple and grapefruit rind and a nice emerging oily mouthfeel. The acid is still vibrant and the minerality is dense. The wine gets better as it opens up as well. I think this could even be a dumb period for this wine and that the best may be yet to come. Very cool find. Thank you for the well detailed info! I'm equally glad to have found a dry Chenin Blanc support group here. I was sold on this website as soon as I saw the advertisement for Jamie Goode's "The Science of Wine." That's one of the most important books on wine in print in my opinion. Cheers!

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