The weather was bright and sunny in the Loire, and being set to stay that way for a week, I arranged an appointment with Damien Laureau of Savennières whom I was supposed to visit since I met him along with his American importer Jon David Headrick. A recent post with detailed tasting notes by fellow blogger Brooklynguy reminded me these particularly beautiful Savennières wines. Here is a small Appellation area with a high ratio of beautiful wines and Damien Laureau made his own place there.
As you know, the Savennières Appellation is located in the center-left of the long-stretched Loire wine-region. This is Chenin Blanc country, and its dry wines can be characterized by an austere elegance in their youth and a strong minerality originating in the (mostly) schistic nature of the soil. Because of the size of the Appellation and the refineness of its wines maybe, there is an aristocratic feel here, you just don't decide to come make wine here, set up shop, and get approval of your peers overnight. Damien Laureau has been considered as an outsider when he came here and began to make Savennières wine out of rented vineyards in 1999. But he is now considered as one of the best vintner of the area and his wines are listed on the wine list of many good restaurants.
When I parked the motorcycle there, Damien Laureau was coming back from checks in the vineyard where there's a pressure with Cicadellidae (Scaphoideus titanus). They count their numbers to see if a spraying is necessary. they use thin-clay sprayings to combat these Cicadellidae, and also an organic pesticide. I remember that in 2005 he was testing such organic sprayings already. Technically, he is in organic-farming conversion and will ask for the label soon, but he already farms organic for a long time and the lablel is actually asked by some of his customers. His vineyards make up now a total surface of 6,7 hectares, all rented (he adds with a smile that he just owns his debts...).
We stop at Les Genets, the 80-meter deep vineyard lies along a small road and from this vineyard he makes both "les Genets" and "le Bel Ouvrage" because there are very different types of soils in this block, which yields very different wines, albeit all being Chenin Blanc. he knew for long that there were different soil compositions here but he ordered recently a soil study, with samples made in several parts of this vineyard to make a geological map. It confirmed the understanding of the soil compositions but he has a better picture of the underground nature of this vineyard now. the 40 meters on the front are more sandy, with schists of course too, and the clusters are bigger. Further, it's less sandy and more clayish, lots of stones too and the vineyard is less green, it suffers with these conditions and the clusters are smaller for example. This latter part of the vineyard makes le Bel Ouvrage. In 2005 for example on my first visit, he was already making the two cuvées from this vineyard but with a better understanding of the undersoil and the geological mapping that he ordered since, he makes a better selection for his cuvées. Looking at the stones and rock debris on the surface, he says that not all are schists [see the picture on the left for schists]. there are also many phtanite stones which are blue/grey stones and also brings minerality in the wine, with a harder side maybe. Les Genets, because of the different soil, is an easier wine to drink, with lots of pleasure very early. Le Bel Ouvrage will be different and will offer its best after a few years.
100 meters down from this first block, there's another block of 50 ares (0,5 hectare) which will go into the Les Genêts cuvée (also a sandy soil there).
We stop briefly at his La Roche aux Moines vineyard [picture above]. He will release a small volume of bottles from the 2007 vintage, the equivalent of two casks. The vineyard makes only 0,25 hectares or 25 ares and has a nice exposition (South-West) on a slope to the Loire river nearby. La Coulée de Serrant nearby is exposed on the South. The vines are relatively old, he thinks that they were planted in 1965 and he got it in 2007. There's a 35% missing-vine rate here so it'll be replanted accordingly next november too. He plans to change the wires and the posts here because the plants are too low and the foliage surface is also too small. The soil has lots of magmatic stones here (stones with lots of tiny holes). Yields here on a normal year is 50 hectoliters/hectare. Speaking of yields, in 2006 on the whole estate on average he had yields of 38ho/ha. In 2007 they made 17 ho/ha because of very bad weather conditions and in 2008 they made even worse : 8 ho/ha on average... 2009 should bounce back at normal levels.
__Damien Laureau Savennières les Genêts 2007. Bottled these days. very aromatic nose. He says that in 2007 they picked some grapes with Botrytis, which translated in the aromas. It was not a volontary move, the vintage was difficult and humid and they rushed to harvest before too much botrytis developped but some sneaked in. Concentrated, freshness too. He is happy to have this freshness in this wine because the malolactic fermentation was total with sugars entirely gone and a dry wine. They almost didn't filter this wine, they did a very basic and gross filtering here. When the malolactic fermentation is not complete, they make a filtration pauvre en germe, using a physical filter with 1,45-micron holes to retain the particules that could make the wine continue to ferment later in the bottle. This wine will cost about 14,5 Euro when it reaches the market later this year.
__Damien Laureau Savennières le Bel Ouvrage 2007. Botthed these days too, on the market around Christmas. The nose is less expressive, more nuanced. Minerality and dryness in the mouth. This wine is a baby which will already show more in about 4 months, after it recovers from the filtering and bottling. Now, it's still brut de cuve and austere. Price is 21,5 Euro.
__Damien Laureau Savennières Roche-aux-Moines 2007. The first cuvée of this vineyard. Aromas of very ripe grapes too, dry raisins notes. They made 450 liters (two casks) of 25 ares, so it makes yields of about 16ho/ha. Very nice mouth, very silky. He says that this wine finds its place more rapidly than the previous ones. Will be at 29 Euro
__Damien Laureau Savennières les Genêts 2006. Sample bottle. Bottled in semptember 2008. It had its 2-year elevage in vats plus one year in bottles. Lots of freshness on the nose. The fruit side has taken the back seat and the mineralty comes forward.
__Damien Laureau Savennières le Bel Ouvrage 2006. The mouth has this high-structure feel with a strong minerality, but well-handled by the elevage in casks.
__Damien Laureau Savennières les Genêts 2005. Very precise nose with spicy notes. Very seductive wine, with a pleasant minerality in the mouth too. The Genêts 2005 is much richer than the 2006 he says, because of the very nice weather conditions in 2005. He still feels a coherence in the respective minerality natures of the 2006 and the 2005, in spite of the vintage differences.
__Damien Laureau Savennières le Bel Ouvrage 2005. Here too, he notices the lesser presence of the fruit compared to his previous tastings of this wine (last Christmas), and the higher presence of the minerality. Beautiful. The empty glass yields William pear aromas, that's striking. There's a woody feel in the mouth (not in the nose) that I didn't feel in the other wines. He says that this wine has now its own structure and being made without additives or doctoring it can keep evolving in the bottles. He says that when he settled in this Savennières region, there was no malolactic fermentation done elsewhere, the winemakers would block it. He says that the first to let the malo ferm happen in this Appellation was Eric Morgat, a young vigneron like himself who began a bit earlier, in 1995. I suggest Nicolas Joly who may also occasionally let the malo happen, he says yes, maybe. Revieving my visit at Nicolas Joly's Coulée de Serrant, I read that they actually prevent the malolactic fermentation to happen most of the time. Damien Laureau says that in 2007 the malo was total and natural on all the wines (he would have preferred not because of the few Botrytis that he picked). the 2007 wines still ended to be very fresh, and having eaten all the sugar, they had a minimal filtering which allowed them to retain more valuable things. As he puts less and less SO2 year after year, the malo is free to start whenever the wines feels it. In 2006, the ph were very low, the acidity was rather high, which translated into the fact that there was no malo ferm in le Bel Ouvrage. About the option of no filtering at all, he tought about it for 2007, he could almost have tried it then, but the consumers in the restaurants should be educated and be ready for that. He could also print a note about it on a back label.
__Damien Laureau, Les Genêts 2008 from the cask (we walked back to the cask room). From the sandy part of the plot that he names face à la Loire. Very aromatic wine, the sand soil is why too. The juice saw only 4 grams of SO2 at the press stage, nothing after. It will go into vats for another year of elevage there. He will rack it without using a pump, to avoid any shock on the wine. He puts a tube in the cask and by air pressure on the surface, he pushes the wine through the tube out of the cask in 10 minutes. This way, there is no dissolved oxygen in the wine and thus no need to add sulphur.
__Damien Laureau, Savennières 2008, from the Face à la Loire 3-hectare block, but the rocky part of the plot (will go into Bel Ouvrage). Another cask. The wine is in the midst of its malolactic fermentation, so it has lactic notes and is also a bit perly, but it's still nice.
__Damien Laureau Savennières, same rocky part of this same plot, but another cask. Very nice ripe fruit on the nose, with a spicy something. Very refined in the mouth. At 8 ho/ha, he says with a smile that it indeed can be nice...
__Damien Laureau Savennières Chambourcier 2008 (the gness and Ryolite plot) , another cask. A bit of gas on the nose. He says that it may have not finished its alcoholic fermentation. On the mouth side, a clear, vibrant minerality, impressive and beautiful. He ponders the option to leave it two years in casks because of this exceptionnal minerality.
__Damien Laureau, Savennières Chambourcier 2008 same block but vines grafted on a more fragile type of root (the previous wine came from vines grafted on a Paulsen root which is very drought resistant). Tastes like bernache, the newly-fermented wine. Very turbid. He says that there's a certain roundness in this wine already.
Speaking of the casks here, he has several Taransaud casks but has more and more Damy casks, he likes the respect of the fruit that these casks provide. He buys used casks from this Damy cooperage which is located in Meursault, Burgundy. He plans to try also François Frères to diversify the cask origin.
About the sales and consequences of the economic crisis, he says that 2008 went fine actually, the orders having been planned before the full-blown financial crisis and Christmas having people drink good wine, but from january 1st 2009, export orders were down compared with a normal year (export at Damien Laureau is usually about 20% of the whole production). Happily, he has a large customer base in France in good restaurants, and he even joined recently another distribution structure, Bouquet de Loire, which was set up by Jacky Blot (I need to update and visit him again) and gathers about 30 Loire estates. This structure allows restaurants and buyers to make multi-wines orders, which facilitates both the purchases and the vigneron side.