Soings en Sologne, Sologne (Loire)
Ever since I first met Claude Courtois and tasted his wines at the small ( but professional ) wine gathering in Groslay
[ picture above ], near Paris , I wanted to visit his estate . He lives and works in the middle of Sologne , which is a wooded region in the middle of the Loire valley . I had heard about him before discovering his wines , but was really impressed by his wines at Groslay , especially his whites , some very atypical and outstanding . The man himself is a personality, entirely passionated by the work on his vineyard and the resulting wines . Speaking with him is exciting, as he does'nt use velvet gloves to express his views ..
So, one day at last, when we could arrange a mini tour in the Loire Valley with B. and Haruko ( this was last week ), we began with a visit at his "Les Cailloux du Paradis" winery . Haruko joined us outside a subway station near the peripherique early in the morning, and we headed south of Paris to the toll motorway, down to Blois . His vineyards are about 210 km south of Paris in the beautiful Sologne region known for its extensive forests, thousands of ponds, royal chateaus, and wild animals. By 11 am we were there , at a short distance from Soings en Sologne . Just the time to get out of the car, kneel down to play with Caramel , his dog , and he was there .
Claude Courtois' domaine is in the middle of a mix of vineyards, woods , orchards, and wild flower fields . 6 hectares of vineyards altogether . You just walk to the vineyard plots on a dirt track from his house and chai .
He settled here 13 years ago (12 harvests ago) . The region has an arid and poor soil . Clay under a
few inches of earth . The clay layer begins at a depth between 5 cm and 25-30 cm , depending of the spot . Not very suitable for agriculture , and a lot of stones , too . When he arrived here, a soil analysis stated the place was on its way to desertification, due to bad management of the soil ecology . In some spots it was bare and void of any vegetation . It was still rich in potassium and calcium but lacked the humus that is so important to the microbic life in the epiderm of the ground . The surface was close to white . he needed years to bring this soil back to life . Now, he says , you can see these fallow fields he keeps between the plots, with the vibrant interaction of insects and wild flowers . He points to the many sorts of leguminous plants there, which is a good omen of revitalization of the outer layers of the ground and the presence of humus . The soil has also gained a basic side that allows the wines to be less acidic . He saw the evolution in his different millesimes along the years .
In the vineyard, Claude Courtois keeps grass every other row . The first plot we see is an old Gamay one, with 60 year old vines . What he does between the rows is not exactly plowing, but something more like subsoil splitting, to aerate without crushing the outer layer .
We walk past an orchard , then Claude courtois shows us an old Sauvignon plot . This is the cuvée "Quartz" plot . Caramel, the dog, runs freely between the rows back and forth( he knows the place, that's what he wants to say )
About the yields, he says here he harvests 20-22 hectoliter/hectare ( very low indeed ) . Only hand harvest . Speaking of the rules , he says it is sad the INAO did not allow a Sologne Appellation , as wine has been made in this Loire Valley subregion for centuries . Also, he does not understand why you can't freely plant different grape varieties, even the ones that are known to have been planted and cultivated here long ago . Punitive suits are the risks for transgressions . Biodiversity : All his plots have either a wooded plot nearby , or an orchard, or an empty plot with wild flowers . Even a 150 year old big chestnut tree where he says he often hears a woodpecker .
At some point we walk in a 5 year old Gascon grape variety vineyard plot [ second picture above ] . This now minor grape variety was very widespread before the phyloxera : 9000 hectares in the Yonne departement alone ( in northern burgundy ) . We head back to the chai and cellar now .
__1 White . From a cask . Cuvée Quartz 2004 . Sauvignon . Will stay another year in casks ( 18 months usually ) .While we taste , a small noise comes from the glass bungs every 30 seconds or so . The wine is alive ...
__2 White . Plume d'Ange 2004 . Sauvignon . Will mature 24 months . Will be on the market nov 2007 . Very mineral . Acidity is modest but like for his other wines, the mineral side is there, and "holds" the wine Nice fullness .
__3 Red . Cuvée des Etourneaux 2004 . From the old Gamay vines we saw first . . Will have a 18 or 24 months maturing time . 28 months if you count decantation . Slightly perlant at this stage .
__4 Red . Pinot Noir . Clear colour . Delicate and deep, Haruko says. No name yet .
__5 Red . We went to another cellar to taste this wine . This is Racines 2004 . Nice nose, fruity . Different grape varieties vinified together . Stone and clay side . Will mature 18 to 24 months . The goal is have a very stable wine, as he adds no SO2 in the wine . He jokes about the cellar wich is not that cool in summer and gets cold in winter . But the wine has this substance, this "matiere", and it stands just fine . Air conditioning dealers don't like to hear that, he says, as it goes against the trend and the certainties of the modern wine industry ...
__6 Red . Just 7 months for this wine, and already a well structured frame . This is Syrah . Will need 18 months at least . He worked 15 years with this grape variety and loves it : Rustic, no diseases , enough of tannins . Last year : 13,8° . The wine is not for sale ( not authorized around here ) . Just for personal use or for friends . No fining , no SO2 . Directly in bottles as is ( will be bottled march 2006 ). He says that as the vineroots go deep in the soil here, they get this sugar side with the potassium underneath .
__7 Red .While pouring from the wine thief, he says : This one is something great : The most beautiful of the domaine, he adds . This is the Gascon grape variety, on a soil suited for reds . And as at this stage it is still young, you guess what it can give after some time, say 18 months . Old cask , so old he does'nt count anymore, he says . The cask is not there to oak the wine, not even a hint of oak ...
__8 White ( we moved to a 3rd cellar ) . Or Norm 2004 . Beautiful ripe nose . Ananas . 24 months in casks, plus decantation time . Bottled in 2007 . Very nice ending . Great wine indeed . This is the one I marvelled at when tasting it for the 1st time at Groslay last march . His friend Carlos , who is caviste in Poitiers and joined us for the tasting, says it is even better than when he tasted it the other day . This wine is a Sauvignon, which makes the thing even more outstanding . In fact , its name "Or Norm", sounds like "out of the norms" in french ( hors normes ) , but reads like gold ( or ) . Colour : Nice yellow, turbid at this stage .
__9 White .This one, he says, will be something in 20 years . Romorantin (grape variety) 2004 . Nice nose , really . Fills gently the mouth and the palate. Will be over 13° when finished . The 2004 wines we taste generally had an average of 13° . This is the best millesime so far, he says . When he poured the wine in our glasses, he tried to have us guess which variety that was . Not easy to recognize .
__10 White . The future "Evidence" cuvée 2004 . Grape variety that can come with 3 names : Menu Pineau , Petit Verdet, Orbois . 30 months in casks . Will need 1 year , 1 1/2 year to "eat" the sugar : Spring 2006, this will be a nice dry white .
__11 White . Sauvignon . Very turbid white at this stage . Nose : Citrus, ananas, white peach . Pomelos at the end . Excellent, B. says . So good in the mouth, where it persists . White flowers aromas .
__12 Red . For the last wine, he brings us in a room that he would like to arrange as a tasting room where you also could eat some local products . He opens a bottle of Nacarat after bringing several goat cheeses on a plate . He likes goat cheese , he says there was a time he had 25 goats and made cheese himself . Nacarat is the name of the cuvée , and it means "light red" . As we sit down and relax, enjoying the wine with some goat cheese , we notice that this red has the uncommon virtue ( for a red ) to pair nicely with it . Wine full of fruit , made through short fermentation . Mostly Gamay , with a little bit of Pinot Noir, plus something else ( undisclosed ) .
He says that more and more he realizes that if you don't rush the nature, the soil, etc... , it bouces back to you through beautiful wines .