Friday Focus; Quarts de Chaume, Loire Valley
In the dead centre of the Loire wine growing district, half-way between the region’s two major cities Nantes and Tours, sits an unassuming, tiny wine region of only 35 hectares that produces some of the most powerfully rich and sought-after sweet wines in all of France. Now, you may not have ever heard of this region before, and the reason for that is twofold; one, the greater district this region is located in is the Anjou, which is mostly known for entry level reds and Rose from Cabernet Franc and whites from Chenin Blanc- many people paint the whole region with the same brush, thinking all wines that come from this region are simple, cheap and cheerful, and best drunk immediately. The second reason this tiny appellation may be unknown to the majority of the wine-drinking world is that due to its size and the style of wine it produces, which requires tiny, shrivelled, concentrated berries- the gross production of the entire region only amount to a few thousand cases for the whole vintage! The majority of this is consumed domestically- not much of it reaches Australian shores- or any other shores for that matter!
There are several factors that make Quarts de Chaume unique amongst such a diverse group of regions in this part of the Loire Valley. The first is the undulation of the land; the whole region sits in a south-facing amphitheatre which is basically a sun-trap, allowing the grapes to ripen fully in this fairly cool part of France. Second is the soil; the vines grow on a very unique soil made up of brown schist covered over in dense carboniferous material, which is very free-draining, but also mineral and nutrient rich, which gives the vine more life and the wines more power. Thirdly is the grape variety used; this region, very unlike the majority of French winegrowing regions, is totally monocepage; meaning only one grape variety is grown in the whole region! Chenin Blanc, the oft forgotten hero is king here, prized for its ability to balance the intense sweetness of wines made from it with searing, knife-like acidity. The last factor is vine age; as I mentioned above, the vast majority of wines produced in this region are fairly cheap and cheerful, meaning when a vine gets old and less-productive (usually at about 30 years old), it is ripped out and replaced immediately. This isn’t the case in Quartz de Chaume- the vines are ancient here, with most around 70 years old. This vine age produces fewer grapes but those that are produced are more concentrated and rich in flavour.
This tiny region is also one of the Loire Valley’s most old-fashioned. The Loire Valley is seen as one of the foremost French regions in regards to integration of technology- many of the mass-production Sauvignon Blanc producers are now using tractors to harvest their grapes, huge stainless steel tanks to ferment their juice and -shock-horror- screw caps to seal their bottles! Quartz de Chaume on the other hand has gone the opposite direction, and enforced this in their appellation rules. Not only must all grape bunches be harvested by hand, but each berry must be harvested individually! In a very similar way to how they harvest in Sauternes, each berry must reach the right stage of infection by the fungus Botrytis Cinerea before harvesting, which sucks out the moisture and concentrates sugars, flavours and the all important acid. Several passes or ‘Tries’ are taken over several days or weeks to allow the fungus to infect each berry until it is perfectly desiccated and ready for harvesting.
The grape ‘must’, which is the name for the juice just before fermentation begins, is legally obligated to have a minimum of 298g/L of grape sugar. That is a lot of sugar! The resulting wines are characterized by a honeyed, floral nose with hints of tropical fruit. To balance this, a huge amount of natural acid is required- thankfully something the Chenin Blanc grape has in spades! One producer attempted to buck the trend of old-fashioned winemaking by importing a very high-tech and modern piece of equipment to increase the concentration of their wine a few years ago. The cryoextractor is a machine which dunks sub-zero tubes of saline solution into wine- this attracts water molecules onto the surface of the tube as ice crystals, which are then pulled out of the wine and washed off the tubes in preparation for another dunk. This process removes water from the wine, increasing the concentration of sugar, flavour and acid just like the Botrytis Cinerea does naturally on the vine. The appellation control board were not too happy about this ‘un-natural’ method, and have completely banned its use from 2019.
Interestingly enough, this tiny region is the first in all the Loire Valley to use the term Grand Cru on their wines. The wines of this region are seen as so much higher quality than all surrounding areas (many of whom attempt to ride the coat-tails of this region by producing sweet wines and using the Chaume name) that from 2009 it was allowed to differentiate itself from all competitors by putting ‘Quarts de Chaume Grand Cru’ on the bottle.
Wine Sales Manager