The March wine tasting at our neighborhood “Natural” wine shop, Le Temps des Vendanges, featured two winemakers from the Loire Valley, one from St Chinian in the Languedoc, and one from Gaillac, one of the closest wine appellations to Toulouse.
First stop was the Domaine Plageoles table with its Vins de Gaillac. This is an estate that I know well, having done a grape-harvesting internship there for the 2010 vendange. Bernard Plageoles, the sixth generation of Plageoles to make wine in Gaillac, was at another tasting, but generation numero seven, in the form of his son Florent Plageoles, was on hand.
I know Florent well from the month that I spent harvesting grapes with him. Another grape harvester, Florent’s, as they say in French, petite amie, Sandra, was also there. We caught up on our latest activities—I know that Florent has a lot of ideas about wine tourism in the Gaillac region, so I was interested to hear about that, and he also told me about a recent trip that the two of them had made to New York City. It turns out that it had been the first trip there for both of them, and like all young people who travel to this iconic American city they were bubbling with excitement.
The reason for their trip, they explained, was to deliver some Domaine Plageoles Vin de Voile wine to the wine writer Alice Feiring. Now they had my attention. The Vin de Voile made by Bernard Plageoles is one of my favorite wines. Made with grapes from the Mauzac grape variety rescued from oblivion by Florent’s grandfather, Robert Plageoles, this wine is aged under a “veil,” or “sous voile,” for seven years in oak barrels. Honey colored, and featuring a pleasantly oxidized nose filled with nutty, dried fruit and spiced apple aromas, this wine has an extremely long finish, reminiscent of the Vin Jaune from France’s Jura region. I guessed that they were probably delivering this wine for one of the tastings that Feiring does in New York.
That guess was right, and they told me that she was as interesting and passionate about French wine as her writing suggests. And that the dinner in her apartment, which is, they said, located on the top floor of a charming brownstone in what was once part of NYC’s Little Italy neighborhood, was one of the highlights of their trip.
“Oh, oh,” I asked excitedly: “Does she really have a bathtub in her kitchen?” [For those reading this who don’t read Feiring’s blog, or books (and you should, because she is a great writer), she often refers to her unusually located bathtub]. And, this is what I love about the French; both Florent and Sandra didn’t seem to be the least bit phased about someone having a bathtub in the kitchen. And, when I think back to some of the French apartments that I’ve visited, particularly in Paris, it really isn’t that surprising a concept. So, it appears that Alice Feiring may be a bigger Francophile than me. I just might need to relocate my bathtub, or start wearing a beret and go around carrying a baguette under my arm.
I tasted through a selection of 2010 white and red wines from Domaine Plageoles. They were of particular interest to me, since I had helped to harvest the grapes that went into them. And, regardless, it’s always interesting to taste these single-variety wines, which are made from the local grape varieties—Mauzac, Braucol, Duras and others, that you cannot find elsewhere. My favorite was the Braucol rouge, a well-balanced red with red fruit aromas, silky tannins, and refreshing acidity.
I rarely pass up an opportunity to taste vins doux (sweet wines), but I had to forgo the Domaine Plageoles Mauzac Roux and Muscadelle as my youngest son’s basketball game was in a little over an hour, and I was determined to visit the three other winemakers in attendance to taste their wines.
Thierry Navarre from St Chinian, a wine appellation north of Béziers, has the broad smile and rugged good looks of Jean-Paul Belmondo. If you don’t believe me, just check Navarre’s website to verify the resemblance to this French film star.
His firm handshake is that of a winemaker who takes care of his own vines, and I really wish that I had had more time to taste all of his wines that he had brought for this tasting. What I did taste reminded me of how expressive the schist of St Chinian is for both whites and reds.
The white Terret that Navarre makes from the Terrert gris, a white grape indigenous to the Languedoc region, has an expressive, slightly oxidative nose and a refreshing acidity. This Vin de Table, with its apple-citron flavors, would be great as an apéritif or served with cheese.
Two of his red AOP wines made from Carrignan, Grenache and Syrah grapes, Le Laouzil and the La Cuvée Olivier, had outstanding structure, spicy flavors and superb balance. All of his wines also represent great values, as they are priced from €8-14. I made a mental note to plan a future visit to St Chinian.
Stop number three to taste the wines of Christian Venier from the Cheverny appellation in the Loire Valley was somewhat disappointing. The first two wines on offer, a white Chardonnay and a red made from 40% Pinot Noir and 60% Gamay, were very pale wines, lacking in body and material. There was virtually no nose for either the white or the red, and the finish on both was very brief.
With time running short, I almost didn’t taste Venier’s third wine, a 100% Gamay called La Roche. It would have been a mistake if I had bypassed it, as this wine, a Vin de France that didn’t qualify for the AOP with its single-varietal composition, was everything that the first two weren’t. Translucent, yet concentrated, with rich, red fruit aromas, the aptly named La Roche (“the rock” in French) is very crisp and chiseled, with a clean mineral character. This wine has a good complexity, and you might think that it was 100% Pinot instead of Gamay. Venier told me that it comes from one parcel of old vines that are planted on clay soil. With a price of just over €11, it represents, once again, incredible value.
As it turned out, the last of the four winemakers had the wines that interested me the most. Benoît Courault is from Anjou, also in the Loire. With a head of curly, unruly blond hair and matching beard, Courault appears to be as natural as his wines. He works organically, plowing his six hectares of clay-schist soil with a horse. He told me that the 60-year-old vines are planted in such a way that it would be impractical to use a tractor.
Courault purchased the property in 2006 from an elderly vigneron who had never bottled the wine, selling it instead in bulk. It’s fortunate that the property was purchased by someone like Courault, who had spent time learning about winemaking in Burgundy (Chambolle-Musigny) and in Tavel with one of the Rhone Valley’s leading natural winemakers, Eric Pfiffering.
Each one of Courault’s wines (all from the 2010 vintage) was interesting in its own right. He uses long maceration times for both the whites and reds. The Gilbourg white (100% Chinon Blanc) was fermented and aged (for 12 months) in three-to-five-year-old oak barrels. The nose is fresh and smells of white, spring flowers. There’s also a touch of honey, which is even clearer when you taste the creamy, buttery texture of the wine. There are many levels of tastes—besides that first impression of honey, there are also ripe peaches and cinnamon and musk, all framed and somehow brought into sharper definition by an amazing acidity.
A red, 100% Cabernet Franc made by Courault, Les Rouliers, also has a pure nose, fresh fruit notes, and an elegant interplay of fruit and silky tannins. The freshness and complexity in this wine, and its strength and concentration, suggest that it will be even better in several years.
Courault’s wines are slightly more expensive than the others that I tasted. The white is priced just under €19 a bottle and the red costs around €15. That he is able to make such an elegant 100% Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley, an area infamous for rustic and vegetal wines made from this grape, says a lot about his terroir, and his vineyard management and wine cellar skills. This is a rising, young star in the natural winemaking area, and I look forward to tasting future wines that he makes.