Vine vs. nature in a mocro-terroir of Touraine
by Andrew F. Bell American Sommelier
Sitting on the terrace of a café meters away from the birthplace of Louis Pasteur, I plot the route to a late lunch 500 km away in St Nicholas de Bourgueil. While the drive was pure countryside, the sun brilliant kissing the foliage in what turned out to be a rare yet awesome day for the region.
Tucked within Touraine, Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil emits a quite charm with its sweeping hills speckled with gravel and tuffeau. The men and women of the area are hardworking farmers with a love for Cabernet Franc. The vines are not as densely planted as those of Burgundy but when mother nature smiles they produce a richly diverse expression of a grape that most think as a blending agent.
As in Arbois, detailed last month in this column, Saint Noicolas de Bourgueil experienced weather demanding treatments to keep the vines healthy this year. The problem here was hail storms that hit long before harvest, lowering yield to a disastrously low level. One producer I visited lamented about about losing 10 to 13 hectares. He assured me he was not alone in his plight this vintage, so drink Cabernet Franc for the foreseeable future!
When it came to the wines, the level of purity in fruit was remarkable. I am always speaking about tasting methodology but on this occasion, I just simply enjoyed the juiciness of these wines and the pretty purple flowers that emanated from the glass. The beauty of cabernet franc when well grown is a combination of elegance and power. There was not a notion of bell peppery under ripe elements of referred to as Pyrazines. This rind like, vegetal, element are often descriptors that are associated with fruit that has not had direct access to the sun towards the end of the growing season. On this trip more than one producer described an attachment to their enjambeur ( a tractor which rides over the height of the vine) which removes the foliage from the fruit field. This allows the sun to hit the fruit directly through to harvest. One producer gave a quick lecture on the chemistry of the vine. If I understood the French correctly, the direct sun allows sulfur to deplete more quickly in the vine before harvest. This allows for a greater ripening of the fruit and avoiding the green monster of under ripeness.
Once you have the quality of fruit you want as a grower, the wine making is pretty straightforward. Most everyone destems, using the simple berry for texture. Most of the wines I tasted went through a five-day cold soak (or pre-fermentation maceration) allowing for an extraction of fruit, tannin and aroma before the heat of fermentation fixes the color.
Most of the wines at the entry level and even mid-range had a judicious use of oak, meaning oak as the material for the container not a primary player in aroma or flavor. The result is a wonderful sense of earth and soil wrapped black and red fruits.
The absence of heavy notes of vanilla, caramel and butterscotch are a welcome vacation from many wines who have seemingly lost their way. The scents of lavender, lily and lilac is profound and help bring a levity to the earthy components. As these wines open the layers of nuance are seductive. St Nicholas has a reputation to be a lighter expression of Cabernet Franc, overshadowed by its ‘cousin’ Bourgueil which may be overshadowed by Saumur Champigny. Regardless of your preference power wise, the expressions of St Nicholas de Bourgueil are worthy of your attention.