Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Old Coulée de Serrant: Thoughts on a Friend's Birth Year Wine

To celebrate a good friend's birthday, the other night we shared a bottle of wine from his birth year, the 1973 Château de la Roche-aux-Moines Clos de la Coulée de Serrant. This wine was made by Nicolas Joly's mother Denise - for a succinct history of the vineyard take a look at the Wine Doctor's profile.

We decanted this wine and drank it slowly over the course of the evening. A wine like this provides pleasure on many levels. There are obviously the sensory pleasures of smelling and drinking the wine, but there is perhaps even greater pleasure in doing so in the company of another person, particularly one who knows and loves wine as much as Peter does.

The wines of Nicholas Joly are quite controversial and I have absolutely no desire to engage in that debate. I've had very good bottles, and not so good bottles, and I've not had enough examples of Coulée de Serrant to say anything. Drinking this particular wine provoked some interesting conversation (I was part of it, so grain of salt necessary) and I want to share some of the issues we discussed.

--This isn't a Nicolas Joly wine. It was not made using biodynamic farming principles, and I have no idea what Denise Joly did in her cellars. Peter suspects, actually, that this wine is was made under what were standard practices - pesticides galore in the vineyards, who knows what in the cellars.

--Coulée de Serrant is one of France's and the world's greatest terroirs. It is the apex of Savennières, and some would say, of the potential of the Chenin Blanc grape (although many Huet lovers would argue for Vouvray).

--The wines of Savennières and of Coulée de Serrant are made differently now. The wine we drank does not list the alcohol level on the label - that law wasn't yet in existence. But it felt to us that it was 12%, maybe 12.5%. Joly's wines from the same terroir are higher in alcohol now, and I do not know of a Savennières producer whose wines are routinely under 14% in alcohol.

--Is it a drive for phenological ripeness in Savennières that fueled this uptick in alcohol? Is it the changing climate? Even Damien Laureau, currently my favorite producer in Savennières, who in fact has a plot of vines that are adjacent to the Coulée de Serrant, his wines are 14%. Is this a stylistic preference or a climatic necessity?

--If it is stylistic, it would be a shame that everyone in Savennières bought into the notion that bigger and more powerful is better. And obviously I'm not limiting that to Savennières...

--What happened to quality in Savennières? That is a rhetorical question. As recently as 5 years ago I loved wines made by Closel and others. I've had nothing other than Laureau's wines in recent years that I like. And as good as Laureau's wines are, they require more thought than other wines regarding pairing with food. Why have the great wines of Savennières become not as great?

--Will these higher alcohol wines be as long lived as the leaner wines from the '70s and '80s?

--The wine we drank was amazing, one of the greatest white wines that I have ever had. It was a distilled rendition of the rocks and soil of Coulée de Serrant. It had nothing whatsoever to do with fruit - there could not have been any less fruit in this wine. 0% fruit. It was pure mineral with amazing intensity and focus, driving throughout and after the finish. And with nothing extraneous, only the vital components present - lean and muscular. Shocking to me too was the vibrancy - this wine is 37 years old and it had great energy and vitality.

--I wish I could have tasted it when it was young to understand its progression. Will any of the Savennières I have sleeping in my cellar become wine like this in 30 years? I don't know, obviously, but I would say that sadly, it is not likely.


TWG said...

Savennières are dry wines so alcohol levels have crept up along with climate change, etc.
The wine is 37 years old so who knows how it tasted young, let alone how you would compare it with today's wines.
Heck you'll be 30 years older when you taste the wines in your cellar, who knows how you'll be tasting then?
You have the opportunity to drink today's wines and those same wines in the future as well as some older vintages. If you had the opportunity to taste the 1973 when you were young you would be a few decades older. Not a bad tradeoff.

Unknown said...

It's tricky stuff, the modern changes. Things have gotten ripe, sometimes too ripe, since 2004. But the old style of harvesting pretty young on reasonably high yields and dosing with significant SO2 gave wines that aged brilliantly and were pretty unfriendly in their first decade. I think the last bit has been tough for the AOC.

But as in many areas, producers who try to work well and get lower yields from organically farmed and well-tended vineyards sometimes wind up with high alcohols (see Zind-Humbrecht as a classic example). It's a real quandry. I've told Savennieres producers that maybe they needed higher yields?

Unknown said...

But happy birthday to that 1973! Didn't realize.

Wayne Young said...

This blog is TOTALLY up my alley, as I love old white wines.

The only way to really know about the slowly raising levels of alcohol in these wines is to have all the particular information regarding climate, harvest, training system and clonal selection. I'm not sure of the age of the vines used to create the 1973, and if the SAME vines (almost 40 years OLDER) would create the same wines today. My suspicion is that in the ensuing years after 1973, those vineyards were replanted... and with what? Different clones, different rootstocks.

I'm interested to know if anyone has TRIED to "reproduce" this type of low alc, hi acid wine in a modern vineyard using detailed information from decades past regarding yields/training. Is it even possible, or has clonal selection and climate change forever altered how these grapes will ripen?

Unknown said...

This post really grabbed my attention. First, 1973 was my birth year and I just had a 2005 "Les Clos Sacres" to celebrate. Clearly, I need better friends! Ha-Ha.

I wonder what Nicolas thinks of his mothers wines (Pre-BioD) and what if any of his mothers practices he continues (vineyard or cellar), because even that 05 "Les Clos Sacres" was a mineral and honeycomb beast. Granted there is little "Coulee" fruit in the "Les Clos Sacres" (depending on vintage), so there must be some commonality?

Picking early obviously means, less fruit, and right now, the mass consumers tastes are "fruit forward" wines. In 1973 Loire, France, I doubt they were even considering this style and I doubt they were drinking the 73's in '75. More like '83 or '88.

Is the age of drinking older white wines dead? I certainly hope not, but it is a style that is in short supply globally.

Thanks for your posts Brooklynguy, always a treat.

Unknown said...

I am sipping a 1987 Clos de la Coulée de
Serrant right now. Indeed it is never about fruits. Chenin Blanc always require a different mindset, definitely an acquired taste, but it grows on, very quickly. The 87 is a substantial wibe, rich, full, packed with mineralsvand acid. Cant say it is well balanced in the common sense. I have to conclude that this is a food wine, possibly something laden with umami perhaps?