08 February 2011

loire road trip, pt. IV: la renaissance des appellations, angers

I was remarkably intact the day after Catherine and Pierre Breton's off-the-chain bacchanalia in Bougeuil. Not bushy-tailed, by any means, but relatively steady on my feet, considering how little we had eaten - just fugitive handfuls of pommes frites, tartes flambées, and pork ribs all night - and what lakefuls of random wine we'd consumed. My friends J, C, and I sat through a pleasant pokey breakfast in our chambre d'hôte, attacking the weak coffee and yogurts while the proprietress, apparently unfamiliar with hangover etiquette, regaled us with an unrelenting news-anchor-like monologue concerning minute local regulatory controversies, unusually high rainfall, broken fence-posts, etc.

C, a born chatterer and native French speaker, is a tremendous asset in these scenarios. J and I mostly kept our heads down with ours mouths full and spent time petting the menagerie of cute characterful dogs our loud expository hostess had collected. At some point our gallantry failed us and we just wandered off, leaving C to extricate herself from a lengthy explanation of local flora.

We had a wine tasting to get to. The annual Renaissance des Appellations in Angers is the biodynamics-focused satellite tasting to the bigger and less explicitly bio Salon des Vins de Loire. Unlike La Dive Bouteille, a tasting held in the catacombs beneath the Château de Brézé, to which we were headed the following day, Le Renaissance des Appellations is not a public tasting. With 100+ vignerons packed into the Grenier St. Jean that day, presenting mostly biodynamic wines, there was far too much to taste in one day, let alone write up in one fell swoop. But we started with the tasting's lone Austrian stand, the renowned biodynamic Nikolaihof estate.

Located in Wachau, Nikolaihof are either Austria's first biodynamic wine estate, or Europe's first biodynamic wine estate, depending on which source you read. In any case, winemaker Chistine Saahs apparently married into a whole family of committed Rudolph Steiner devotees at a young age, and she and her family have been total, all-encompassing practitioners of anthroposophical science ever since. Even anthroposophical medicine.* We didn't discuss this slightly alarming idea at the Renaissance that day, we just tasted her wines, which were about as gentle and refreshing an intro to another day's sipping and spitting as we could possibly have hoped for.

The wines, mostly Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners, are all glorious, perfectly mannered, and subtle. Across varietals, across vintages, across degress of residual sugar, they all share a perfect religious stillness, a hymn-like quality. Of the lineup we tasted that day, I was most intrigued by a 1993 Grüner Veltliner "Vinothek," which had only been bottled in 2008 after 15 years' barrel aging. It was pretty oxidative, as you might expect, but the characteristic white-pepper spice of the varietal was still clearly felt, lending the wine a sort of Austrian Manzanilla character that was surprisingly profound.

Christine Saahs herself seemed like a delightful lady too. Although her English was great, she brightened considerably when C, who is half German, began responding to questions in their mother tongue. C mentioned she was famished, at which point Mme. Saahs very kindly gave us two vouchers for plates of warm beef stew, ordinarily reserved only for the vignerons. She said she was going out to lunch, so she wouldn't use them.

We supplemented the stews with some tasty but slightly overpriced tartines from the little tartine bar that was set up for us non-vignerons.

After our snack C decided to take advantage of the relatively cushy environs of the tasting - tables, chairs, heating, etc. - to get some reading done. J and I began tasting in earnest, although we found it tricky keeping up with one another, since we were seeking quite different experiences. J, having attended the same tasting last year, was looking for strange new things he hadn't yet tasted. Whereas I was still looking to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the more renowned producers.

J, for instance, had no great interest in tasting the wines of legendary biodynamic winemaker / philosophical ambassador Nicolas Joly. In this he (J) proved prescient, whether by accident or not. I've always enjoyed Joly's wines, from the basic Savennieres up to the monopole Coulée de Serrant, finding them all strange and beastly and fun, like a Where The Wild Things Are of Savennières.

But the 2009's I tasted last weekend were kind of a washout. All lacked acid in a big way, leaving their bruiser alcoholic strength sticking out like stegosaurus plates. (Joly famously recommends drinking bottles of his wines over the course of a week, one glass per night, in order to see them open up and evolve. No one follows this patently silly advice. But perhaps this is what happened with his samples? Maybe they'd been opened in mid-January? Otherwise I'm sort of at a loss to explain them.)

We tasted until the late afternoon, by which point C was bored senseless and J and I had garishly red teeth. I expressed some interest in poking around the town of Angers a little, in search of coffee or engaging architecture, but my friends reminded me it was Sunday. Even in Paris there's little to do on a Sunday; on a Sunday in a smaller town you might as well be on the moon.

* This is an interesting thing to consider, for one such as myself, who reveres and respects the various lunacies of biodynamic viticulture, but considers most other homeopathic or herbal systems just so much quackery. Why is it I'm willing to believe in natural remedies for wines, and not so much for people? An insufficient answer: because the vivacious, vital qualities of biodynamic wine often prove the wisdom of its production methods, whereas the people I know who dig herbal supplements always seem to be the most sickly of my acquaintances. 

Related Links:

Loire Road Trip, Pt. I: Domaine Guiberteau
Loire Road Trip, Pt. II: Clos Rougeard
Loire Road Trip, Pt. III: Café de la Promenade, Bourgeuil

A rave on Nikolaihof wines @ StyneOnWine
A profile of Nikolaihof and the Saahs @ WineAnorak
A more in-depth piece on Nikolaihof by David Furer @ Wine-Pages

Lincoln Siliakus' account of the 2011 Renaissance des AOC tasting @ TerredesVins
Sarah Ahmed's old-school skeptical account of the 2010 Renaissance des AOC tasting @ TheWineDetective 
(What the hell is with these people? What's next, TheWineLawyer? Oh.)
An account of the 2009 Renaissance des AOC tasting @ Jim'sLoire

A 2006 visit to Nicolas Joly's estate @ WineTerroirs

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