French is the only language I know of where the word for ‘winemaker’ has a feminine form: vigneronne. On a recent visit to the Loire valley, I was so thrilled to see the prominence of female winemakers in several wineries – especially in the Savennières appellation. These women don’t just work in the cellar – they run the show, which is wonderful to see in a profession that is conventionally so strongly associated with men.
There was, first of all, Domaine du Closel, in the charming village of Savennières. If you fancy visiting a winery not just for the juice but also for the setting, this one is a must. The domaine is located within the walls of the Chateau des Vaults, with incredibly beautiful grounds. Upon arrival, visitors are handed a map of the premises and before going anywhere near the wines, you are given the opportunity to wander about in the gardens (park, more like), and up a little footpath to the top of the hill, where the vineyards are. To breathe in the ambience, the history, the terroir. Very romantic, and done in very good taste. Not only is the chateau magnificent in its looks, it also produces lovely wines. To our disappointment, the lady of the house and head winemaker, Evelyne de Pontbriand, was away at a wine fair, but her very knowledgeable daughter Isaure talked us through the wines and the story of how the winemaking has been passed down from one generation of women to the next. As it turned out, Evelyne’s right-hand person in the cellar is also a woman, Pauline Lair, who has recently started working for Closel, having been converted to environmentally caring viticulture at a winery in New Zealand.
Isaure herself doesn’t get involved today, even though she has a WSET diploma, but she is very much at home in the wine world and was happy to pour for us one delightful Chenin Blanc after another. Chenin is the predominant grape variety of this region, and the Savennières appellation is for Chenin only, though some people do make other wines, including some reds from Cabernet Franc. Closel was the first stop on our visit and I was yet to discover how multifaceted and versatile Chenin Blanc is.
Recommended wines (certified organic and biodynamic):
La Jalousie 2016 – light and youthful, full of fresh fruit; made from grapes harvested fairly early and aged for nine months.
Les Caillardières 2016 – a denser, creamier Chenin; harvested later, matured for longer
Tessa la Roche is the owner and boss at Domaine aux Moines, on the outskirts of Savennières. She took the business over from her mother, Monique. With her open face and nonchalant pony tail, Tessa is a feisty woman and quite a character – someone who knows what she’s doing, and she does it more or less alone.
Like Closel, Domaine aux Moines is also organic, and they are converting now to biodynamic production. The grapes are predominantly Chenin, and the wines are all dry, fermented in stainless steel, although there’s some that’s made in old barrels. Botrytis (noble rot, a fungal infection that makes the grapes shrivel and can produce fantastic wines; think Tokaj or Sauternes) is avoided but a little bit of oxidation is encouraged at the time of pressing. Sulphites are not added, and the fermentation is carried out by indigenous yeasts. Here we tasted straight out of the tanks and barrels – the wines were still work in progress (2018 and 2019) and have not been bottled yet. They did taste very young and on the move, so to speak, but the apple flavours and slight bitterness of Chenin, together with that fantastic bite of acidity, created very enjoyable wines. Tessa also showed us a red she had made, which she described as ‘animal’. It did show animal, leathery, earthy characteristics – these made it chewy and intriguing.
La Coulée de Serrant is Nicolas Joly’s famed winery, which put the concept of biodynamic viticulture on the map for many wine drinkers. We are welcomed by his lovely daughter Virginie, whose little girl, the next winemaking generation, is also kicking about as we talk and taste. Considering what a legend (should I say superstar?) Joly is, the winery looks very ordinary, though again the estate is stunning, and if you decide to visit you must spend some time walking around in the gardens, which in this part of the world are not separate from the vineyards. The estate is all in one: it is where they live, grow the grapes, and make the wines. This seems to be the standard model for the typically very small Loire wineries, and one that makes them very attractive to me. The house of the Joly family is huge and majestic but has a rustic, aged feel, nothing pompous or overwhelming but lots of history. A house for living in, not for showing off. The reception area is more like someone’s grandfather’s kitchen than a renowned winemaker’s tasting room.
It was Virginie’s grandmother who first decided to make wine; then her son Nicolas took over, and now his daughter is playing a leading role. As we taste, Virginie shares with us her concern about the electromagnetic waves created by all the modern devices we use today. She believes these may well have a negative impact on the land and grape growth – as well as ourselves. Though admittedly there’s no scientific evidence for this, it’s an interesting idea, and a reflection of how much Virginie, and all the others I meet, care about the land. As if it were a beloved family member. With the physical proximity of the vineyards to the winery and the family home, this is not at all surprising.
Virginie’s father Nicolas decided to turn to biodynamic farming when he noticed that the pesticides and chemicals he was using in the vineyard were eliminating the flora and fauna of the area. His natural methods include using a horse for working the soil, and other unusual ideas. He started a revolution in winemaking, especially in France, and has written a number of books on biodynamic grape-growing.
The wines are fermented and matured in large-ish, old oak barrels (400-500 l), and the fermentation takes a long time – often several months. Unlike Tessa, Virginie likes to harvest with a bit of botrytis, which she says contributes to the typicity of their wines. The wines of La Coulée de Serrant all have some quirky, vegetal, spicy characteristics on top of the familiar apple compote notes of Chenin. Some have a touch of oxidation and can be deep gold in colour. All are dry.
It was quite exceptional to have seen three women-run wineries within the first few days of my visit. Strong and knowledgeable, with both feet on the ground, these women are putting their heart in the work they do. Matter-of-factly, without pretence, without fanfare. Care for the land and the environment is a given – it is how they do things, not a marketing strategy. Likeable, approachable personalities and good, honest winemaking. Chapeau!