07 February 2014

loire salons 2014: la dive bouteille, les penitantes, la renaissance des appellations, les vins anonymes

If ever you wish to experience an almost out-of-body sense of superfluousness, visit the January Loire salons and tell the natural winemakers you meet that you are a journalist. Of hundreds of winemakers present, only a vanishingly small percentage are subject to the conditions that would warrant paying you any attention whatsoever, i.e. they use the Internet, have wine to sell, and are aware of the commercial value of positive press. I've illustrated the scarcity of this demographic in a handy bubble graphic after the jump.

I never take it personally. Since at present I have the luxury (or misfortune, depending on when you ask me) of not buying and selling wine for a living, I kind of just moon around the various tastings and do my best to make the sort of fleeting interpersonal connections that become useful at later dates, such as when I'm trying to secure interviews, or volunteer for harvest work, or plan bike trips around tasting appointments. "I'm the guy who stared at you and waved from across the restaurant in Angers! Who said hello with from behind the restaurateur accompanying your Canadian importer!" etc. (These are fictitious examples, but not far from reality.)

I leave it to readers to judge whether this constitutes a useful perspective on the Loire salons. This year I accompanied my friend J to La Renaissance des Appellations, Salon Les Penitantes, Les Vins Anonymes, and La Dive Bouteille. What follows are some scattered takeaways.

The Superflousness of the Natural Wine Journalist

The Universe Is Expanding

Everything is getting bigger. La Dive Bouteille had a spacious new home in the troglodite caves of Caves Ackerman; Salon Les Penitantes covered two floors. The dinner after Les Vins Anonymes - arguably the smallest of the tastings - exerted such a gravitational social pull that I wondered how all the attendees would ever fit in the Collegiale Saint-Martin. (I hadn't been tempted to go to this year's dinner, because I'd heard last year's event had all the organisation of the Katrina response. But perhaps I'll go next year.)

Anjou vigneron Damien Bureau

Slow Dive-r Down

La Dive Bouteille, in its former home in the freezing catacombs beneath the Château de Brézé, acquired a reputation as the worst possible environment for assessment of wine. I didn't mind; it was never really the point. Now, in attempting to rectify the situation, Sylvie Augereau and co. have created exciting new problems. It's true the location is more convenient, and there's less parking on sodden fields. But the caves themselves aren't as atmospheric, and certain large chambers just smelled extremely bad, apparently the result of poor spit-bucket drainage.

What's worse, the caves had been insensibly tarted up with ludicrous props, such as the immense cellotape spiderwebs spanning the Loire room. [Update: I'm told the spiderwebs are part of a ludicrous permanent exhibition at Caves Ackerman, and so not the fault of Augereau & co.] The Beaujolais vignerons had it by far the worst, wedged into a corridor lit only by a montrous, luridly pink lamp-construction made of wineglasses. My friend the NYC importer Zev Rovine memorably described the effect as, "Wine prom." (Take a moment to imagine you are at a dimly lit high school prom and Jean-Claude Chanudet is your date. That is how disturbing it was.)

I suggest that next year they take the déco budget and devote it to plumbing and aeration.

Chenin Redemption

Natural Chenin as a category has perceptibly improved from what it was even three years ago. Across the board, wines were tasting cleaner, tenser, less oxidised. I used to complain, for instance, about the unpredictable cidery tones of Jean-Christophe Garnier's wines. Tasting through his range at Les Vins Anonymes, there was just one I didn't like, his afterthoughty, acidless sparkling Grolleau Gris rosé. Everything else was keen as birdcalls, way more savvy than I remembered. I do hear he's using minute amounts of sulfur now. Take that however way you want. I prefer to think that he and neighboring winemakers are just mastering their craft.

Like an idiot, I only took a picture of the wine of Garnier's that I didn't like. 

The strides taken by natural Chenin producers were also amply demonstrated by the highlight of my weekend, an informal dinner with Anjou vignerons Kenji Hodsgon and Mai Sato, Nicolas Bertin, and Philippe Delmée. Kenji blinded us on everyone's wines, plus a few by their neighbors. The quality on display was astounding. (Kenji & Mai's magnificent 2012 Cabernet Franc "Ô Galarneau" was another of this year's showstoppers for me.)

Nicolas Bertin and Mai Sato

Clockwise from left: Joshua Adler, Philippe Delmée, Kenji Hodgson, Nicolas Bertin, Mai Sato.

Wine Bar Renaissance

Two superb new wine bars seem to evidence a rejuvenation (in the literal sense - making young again) of the towns that host the Salons. In Angers, on Philippe Delmée's recommendation, we stopped for an apéro at A Boire et A Manger, a newly opened wine bar near the train station - and promptly ran into our friend Anne-Hélène, formerly of Le Garde Robe in Paris, who'd come to Angers to help her friend Alex open the place.

We shared a hilarious beer aged in futs from Jean-François Ganevat's Savagnin by Brasserie des Voirons.

Meanwhile, in Saumur, the caviste Aux Saveurs de la Tonnelle has taken on some young partners to offer a truly astonishing range of wines at retail (i.e. not restaurant) prices at the riverside wine bar La Tonnelle.

J and I popped by for a last glass after a meal at Bistrot de la Place and wound up staying for a few bottles, because we ran into friends from La Contre-Etiquette, Le Galopin, Simone, Le Mary Celeste, and Bar du Square in Beaune. To give you an idea of the splendour of this wine list: a whispery but profound 1998 Chamonard is 37€ including corkage.


There were a few big firsts at La Dive Bouteille this year: South African wine, American wine, and sake. My homeland was represented by Montebruno from Oregon and by Dirty and Rowdy from California, neither of whose wines I got the chance to taste that day, despite my best intentions. Representing the entire genre of rice-wine were two fellows from Holland who founded Yoigokochi importers, focusing on additive-free sake. I ran into them at Bistrot de la Place and they were kind enough to let me taste through a few bottles, something which had proved all but impossible in the distracting crush of La Dive's entryway, where their stand had been and where they'd futilely attempted to present an entire portfolio's worth of sakes to several thousand people from two ice buckets.

I liked the sakes. Couldn't tell you what I tasted, because I wasn't taking notes, and because I have no experiential index with which to cross-reference anything anyone tells me about sake. Like Greek wine, it's something I'll need to read a few books about before I feel confident pronouncing any opinions. The Yoigokuchi guys proposed their sakes with specific cheeses, something I couldn't help finding slightly ridiculous, given that much of the population of Japan is lactose-intolerant. I don't discount the possibility of finding beautiful, heretofore undiscovered pairings through cross-cultural exchange. (Who objects to German rieslings with Japanese cuisine? Beaujolais and fried chicken?) But I don't see a substantial market emerging for sake in France, particularly at an event like La Dive Bouteille. The buyers who'll bite are at flashy pairing menu places, and even then, I'd argue it would still be lame and stunty to insert a random blast of sake in an otherwise French pairing line-up.

Similarly, as much as I like the individual projects, it seems fairly pointless to expose just two US winemakers. European natural wine buyers have little or no aesthetic frame of reference for wines from California or Oregon. That's because there is presently no market for US wine in France, which in turn is because quality US wine, even in the US, is overpriced relative to its European counterparts. It wouldn't stand a chance here. The only parties I can see benefitting from offering two US winemakers to the European market entirely out of context are those two US winemakers themselves, who will look slightly cooler in the US press.

As far as La Dive is concerned, it's the same with the US wine as with the sake: if we agree that natural winemaking favors the inherently communal concept of terroir, rather than the more individualist, auteur-focused winemaker culture that obtains in most modernised New World regions, then we should admit that European natural wine buyers, and in turn their clientele, can learn very little from the isolated examples of one winemaker or one importer.

Basically I think the growing Italy / Spain / Georgia / Elsewhere contingent of La Dive should be spun off into a separate tasting and presented in a context sufficiently broad to allow these nations' wines to be more than just the sort of thing Paris restaurant staffs buy in minute quantities to sell to each other on Sunday and Monday nights.

Picking Favorites

In no particular order, some other standouts from the weekend:

François Saint-Lô. From what I understand, it was only his second vintage. No less than two very knowledgeable friends insisted I taste his wines, and they were right: his Cabernet Franc and his Chenin are both stunning. The Cabernet Franc in particular was shimmeringly elegant, a real see-through dress of a red wine. 

Lilian Bauchet (right), with agent Camille Riviere. I'd previously found Bauchet's Fleuries a little stolid, but his 2012 is positively singing. Where previous vintages merely tasted like muscular natural Beaujolais, this one possesses the lithe charms of very good Fleurie. 

A debut line up from Le Petit Domaine, a Languedoc Rousillon estate whose Syrah in particular caught my attention. This is the young couple's first year showing their wines. 

Baptiste Cousin (left), son of Olivier. This was his first year showing wines, under the Le Battossay label. His Chenin was forthrightly off-dry. I think I would have liked it better if it didn't have feet on the label. (There's something obscurely wrong about associating feet with sweet wine.) His Grolleau, however, was in fine form - I think I enjoyed it even more than when his father made it. 

Cedric Garreau (right), with importer Joshua Adler. Before touring the former's vines we tasted his recently-bottled Chenin, which we'd previously only tasted from fût. I was astounded at how perceptibly the Gar'o'vin house style translates to a white. The "Lunatic" possesses the same buoyant, healthful, grinning fruit profile as Garreau's reds, only transposed to a white spectrum: grapefruit, ginger, scallion. It's just a shame there's so little of it. 

Related Links:

My wrap-up of the 2012 salons
My piece on the 2011 Dive Bouteille
My piece on the 2011 Renaissance des Appellations

A 2013 visit to Kenji Hodgson and Mai Sato
A 2013 visit to Cedric Garreau
A 2013 visit to Nicolas Bertin and Geneviève Delatte

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