Savennières, Loire Valley
Today dear readers we travel to an absolutely tiny region in the middle of the Loire Valley which produces very age-worthy and unique style of wines (for the region at least) from one of the lesser-known white grapes. Today Savennières is developing into one of France’s central learning grounds in the viticultural practices of Biodynamics, which is amazing when you consider its tiny size! So let’s get into it!
The tiny appellation of Savennières is located near the middle of the very large Loire Valley wine growing area, in the region of Anjou. More specifically it is located on the very south-west edge of the town of Angers, after which the greater region is named. For much of its history, Savennières made sweet or off-dry wines, which were the most popular style for many centuries. It was not until the latter decades of the 20th century that producers and consumers alike began turning towards the drier style we know today. Savennieres now stands proudly as the only dry white appellation in Anjou’s sea of sweet wine. Surrounding appellations such as Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume and Coteau du Layon are the most famous sweet wine production areas in the Loire, and some would argue they match the quality and longevity of Sauternes and Barsac located 300km due south in Bordeaux.
Savennières on the other hand is the Loire Valley’s equivalent to Chablis; the wines from here today are watery-green in colour and shockingly high in acid, and the wines can actually be quite hard to enjoy at less than 5 years of age. This is due to the fact that Savennières is one of the few mono-varietal regions of the Loire- 100% of production is white wine made from Chenin Blanc, a variety renowned for its sharp acidity and aromas of white flowers, beeswax and lemons. This is very rare in the relatively wet and frost-prone section of the Loire Valley (as well as southern neighbour Bordeaux), where it is most common to plant a spread of varieties. This spreads the risk of every vintage- some varieties that are planted are later ripening to avoid the frost, while others are early ripening to dodge the late season rains. This means that even in tough vintage conditions, the farmers who work the land will get a crop. Here in Savennières however, the Chenin Blanc grape has found a safe place to grow comfortably.
Savennières is located right on the banks of the Loire river, which assists in moderating the harsh spring frosts by creating a constant movement of air. The soils of this appellation also assist; the whole region is planted on south-east facing slopes made up of a mix of schist, slate and a bedrock of sandstone. Schist and slate are warmed by the sun and allow grapes to ripen better, while not holding onto any water (which is why kitchen bench-tops are sometimes made of slate!), while the sandstone bedrock absorbs the water and forces the vines to dig down deep for water and nutrients. Botrytis infection is still a risk in this region of course (just ask the neighbours!), but this combination of microclimate and soil (a.k.a. terrior), along with some careful viticultural practices, have given Savennières the chance to stand out from the crowd. The wines are often aged oxidatively to build flavour and texture in them, and give them a distinctive pale amber colour and flavours of walnuts and a touch of honey.
Within Savennières there are 2 sub-regions or Crus; ‘Coulee de Serrant’ and ‘La Roche aux Moines’. In all honesty, these are more small vineyards than actual separate appellations; however they are unique enough to warrant sub-division.
‘Coulee de Serrant’ is all of 7 hectares, all of which is owned by the Joly family. This vineyard has made wine for many centuries, with records showing it was planted with vines in the 1130s. Wines from here were apparently coveted by the French court before the Revolution, being a particular favourite of Empress Josephine, who was introduced to the wine by her lady-in-waiting, the Countess of Serrant. Goes to show, it’s not what you know but whom! Apparently Louis XIV, the Sun King, attempted to visit the property in the late 17th century, though his expedition became stuck in mud en route and the journey was abandoned! Today this is one of the only entirely Biodynamic vineyards in the Loire, a process started back in the early 1980’s. The Joly family have become one of the standard-bearers for the entire global Biodynamic movement- burying cow horns, harvesting on particular lunar phases, no pesticides or fungicides, a full focus on compost and soil health- the whole hog! Recently winemaker Nicolas Joly has been in the news due to his move to possibly remove his Coulee de Serrant vineyard from the entire Savennières appellation by refusing to put the appellational name on his bottles. This was due to perceived regional governmental favouritism of larger companies, which negatively impacts small, biodynamic producers like himself and his neighbours. See below for a few wines we have for sale from this unique and very rare producer.
‘La Roche aux Moines’ translates to ‘the monk’s rock’, which is due to the fact that vineyards are thought to have been established in the 12th Century by Cistercian monks, the remains of whose monastery still sit at the foot of the vineyards. It is the most recent Cru to be named in this region, awarded its status in 2011. Whilst bigger than neighbour Coulee de Serrant, the monk’s rock is still only 22 hectares of vines- small by even Burgundian standards. With the global success and fame of the Joly family, the majority of growers here work using either organic or biodynamic principles. In fact, part of the legislation put forth upon the awarding of its Cru status was that it is in fact illegal to use chemical herbicides!
Based on the high quality, age-worthy style and high prices, Savennières has recently lodged an appeal with the French Appellational board to become a Grand Cru region. If successful, this would be only the second appellation of this highest quality designation in the entire Loire Valley, with the other being Quarts de Chaume, located literally across the Loire River from Savennières.
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles