PART 3: FROLICKING FREELY AT FERME DE LA SANSONNIÈRE
Places like Vallée de Cousse, the village where François Pinon resides, make me question if spending the majority of my time in a New York is really the way to go. I mean, look at this place!
Can anyone argue this DOESN'T resemble something out of a fairy-tale?
We arrived to François' house in the early afternoon, where the group was introduced to Emmanuel, the young man who has been working at the estate for a few years now. The guy is full of passion and enthusiasm, and it was nice to get to know him better.
It had rained heavily the night before, so the vines were soaked. Under the overcast skies, we drove up a nearby hill to visit a vineyard that goes into the Silex Noir cuvée.
This parcel was originally planted in 1944. François' grandfather must have been quite the optimist, planting a vineyard before the end of the war and all. Vouvray wasn't exactly out of the line of fire either, confirmed by the fact that an American jetplane gunned down in Montlouis crashed directly into this vineyard that same year.
"It happens less and less, but for many years, it was totally normal to find bits of wreckage while working the soil."
Silex Noir translates to Black Flint, and if you look closely, you can spot bits and pieces in the soil.
Kevin also found a piece of (not black) flint to show the group.
Though the vineyard was planted in 1944, the vast majority of the vines producing grapes today were replanted in massale in 1981.
"There is not a single clonal selection in this entire estate."
Our next stop was a clay heavy parcel that goes into 3 Argiles (formerly known in the US as Cuvée Tradition). It was really, really wet, so we couldn't venture too deep into the vines.
You could take a bath in there! The oldest vines here were planted in 1948, and none of them survived last winter's frost.
The rough winter led to a conversation about the ever increasing amount of dying vines due to esca.
Interestingly, according to Emmanuel and François, the fungal illness might not be the issue at all: there is mounting worry that the vines were already dying before anyone could tell, and the esca mushrooms snuck in later. Because esca does not effect every grape variety in France, very little research has been done up to this point. François half-jokingly pointed out that:
"If it's not affecting Champagne, then no research is going to be done."
François' theory is that the problem lies with omega grafting, since these mass deaths have been occurring in the 15-20 years since this technique has become the norm. Emmanuel elaborated that with a poorly executed omega vine, the graft is the equivalent of a clogged or corroded artery: the sap is still flowing, but not the way it should. Furthermore, the grafts might not be healing properly, permitting esca to sneak in and finish the job.
After visiting the vines, we drove back to the vinification cellar.
2012 was a very tough year for François, and he just didn't feel the quality was there to make a Silex or 3 Argiles. In such, 90% of the 2012 production will be produced as sparkling, the rest being a small amount of still Vouvray reserved for his French customers.
We tasted the base of what will be the 2012 bubbles (from grapes that are always used to make sparkling). The alcohol was just 10,5%, but François explained that this is an ideal level for sparkling production.
We then tasted from a parcel that would have gone into Silex Noir . I thought it was very good, but François insisted it was lacking depth and complexity. Ahhh, le perfectionnisme...
We then walked back to the storage/aging cellar, which is adjacent to François' house. Like many estates in the Loire, the cellar is built into the region's famous tuffeau limestone. Here, you can easily spot the many large chunks of black flint, which is unique to this particular area of Vouvray.
Kevin aptly pointed out is the exact subsoil of the first parcel we visited, since François' cellar is directly underneath it.
Everyone got to check out some old bottles of bubbles.
We then returned to the main tasting room, where François broke it down with a geological lesson on the region's soil composition.
As you could see in the pictures above, the tuffeau limestone in Pinon's area contain layers of black flint. Just like limestone, flint is a sedimentary rock left by ancient seabeds. Millions of shells and other organisms made up deep layers of limestone (or chalk), while more complicated chemical interactions between silica (contained in seawater) and organisms such as sponges created nodules of hard flint, which embedded itself into the chalk.
In Vallée de Cousse, these flint stones vary from very dark brown to black. The Silex Noir cuvée comes from vineyards where erosion has crumbled the softer limestone, leaving the harder stones on the surface. Some of Pinon's other soils contain flint, but the layer of clay (i.e decomposed chalk) is too heavy, so they remain in the subsoil.
After our informative lesson, it was time to taste currently bottled wines. François had them all decanting outside for us.
Before tasting, Emmanuel made sure we had rillettes to munch on.
We tasted all of the 2010's and 2011's, which were unsurprisingly great. What WAS surprising was a 2011 PET' NAT' attempt!!! That's right, you heard it here first! Emmanuel convinced François to give it a shot for fun; this, the fact that we saw Mr. Pinon at the Dive Bouteille and that he has the best collection of ascots in France = François giving Williamsburg's finest a run for their money!
The PET NAT itself was pretty austere, and they both agree they let the sugars go too far into fermentation. They might add a little moelleux to even out this current batch, and will try again in the future.
We then did a flight of Tradition, which for many years was the only dry wine François produced. 1997 was rich and honied nose, with a candied finish. 93 tasted "older", but still had a fresh nose and great acidity. At just 11,5%, it was holding up very well, and had a bit of botrytised grapes in it. A 93 Moelleux was delish.
We ended with a 1953 Moelleux made by François' father that was lip-smacking jolly good. Average American Consumer Joe Dougherty was able to correctly guess the vintage before it was announced.
Our next stop brings us to Chinon for a classy visit with Matthieu and Bernard Baudry! Don't miss it!