One of the things I love about the world of wine is the sheer size and mystery of it. There are so many wines out there, and no matter how many times I taste what various winemakers do with a certain varietal, one day or another I come across a wine that makes me reassess what I think a particular grape can taste like. Perhaps I will feel differently when I’ve been seriously drinking wine for 40 years but I hope not.
This particular wine was one of those where I thought I knew what it would taste like, even when the gentleman that served it to me warned me that it was a very different animal. I realized I had underestimated his qualifiers as soon as the bottle arrived and a bit splashed into my glass. But I am getting ahead of myself. The tasting notes come later.
I thought I was ordering a Chenin Blanc. I’ve had Chenin Blanc several, but not many times before. There are a few producers in California that make straight Chenin Blanc but it’s most often used (both in the US and abroad) as a blending grape, however in France there are a number of wines made with a larger percentage of Chenin Blanc. I find the varietal generally pleasing. At its best it can have the body and depth of a Chardonnay and at its worst it can be dull and lifeless like the worst “wines in a box” of yesteryear.
So while I’m not a dedicated fan of the varietal, I like to try it out occasionally. In this case I was also intrigued to know that it was made by Nicolas Joly, who happens to be one of the biggest European advocates for biodynamic farming in addition to being the head of his family’s estate Clos de la Coulee de Serrant. Joly is an odd character, forever arousing controversy in the viticultural world. I plan on talking about him a bit more in a piece I have slowly been writing about the biodynamic movement, so let’s leave his biodynamic guru role to the side for now, and talk about one of the other interesting aspects of him more germane to this wine.
Joly happens to preside over one of only three special cases in the appellation system of France where an appellation has been granted to a single vineyard. Along with Romanee-Conti in Burgundy and Chateau-Grillet in the Rhone, the 17 or so acres that Joly and his family own in Savennieres make up the entirety of the appellation. Joly has been managing the family estate since 1977 but the land has been producing Chenin Blanc for literally centuries, ever since the Cistercian monks planted the grape there in the 12th century.
These wines are noted for their distinct character and complexity and perhaps even more so for their ability to age effortlessly for decades. This one that I drank was but a young thing, and I’m tempted to pick some up and see what 10 years would do to it.
In an interview with Wine Spectator, Joly once said that “Making Chenin Blanc is like raising a difficult child,” and he goes to quite painstaking lengths in the production of this wine and the two others produced in the appellation. They are of course from biodynamically farmed vineyards, which have been farmed in that manner since 1980. The wine is fermented with native yeasts on its lees (with all the stem bits, seeds, etc. from the crushing process), with no temperature control or cold soaking, unfined, and aged in mostly old, neutral oak to avoid “imparting foreign flavors to the wine.” The wine is racked (poured from one barrel to another) at a far more frequent rate than most winemakers are willing to suffer through, and Joly claims that in particular the exposure to air is good for biodynamically produced wines. He even goes so far as to suggest that his wines be decanted a full 24 hours before serving (but stored while decanting at cellar temperature).
I don’t know in what quantities this wine is produced, but given its availability, I would guess there’s quite a bit of it.
This wine is a surprisingly cloudy brown-gold in color, reminding me of the hue of minerals like citrine quartz or topaz. Its nose seems right out of an old haunted house, a combination of ancient leather books, browned butter, and dog carried in from the rain, yet somehow despite these aromas normally associated with age, you don;t get the feeling that this is an old wine (although perhaps I am subconsciously influenced by the date I can see clearly on the label). On the palate it is just as unique, with dominant rich flavors of wet blackboard, chalk dust, and if you can believe it, roast turkey. The rich mouthfeel of the wine is kept from becoming syrupy by a modicum of acidity. The finish is substantial but not impressive. Truly, this was one of the most unique wines I have ever had, and encourage anyone to try it for that reason, however, I suspect that many will not like it.
After that description? It may sound strange but I think this wine would be an excellent pairing with stronger flavored seafood, shellfish, and even sushi. Go crazy, make an Uni (sea urchin) souffle and try it out.
Overall Score: 9
How Much?: $23
There’s at least one merchant out there on the Internet that carry this wine, and probably more if you hunt for other vintages.