Recently I’ve rediscovered my love for the fine red wines of the Central Loire, which are made from pure Cabernet Franc. The best two appellations for red wines in the region are Chinon and Bourgueil, which face each other across the mighty river (as do many of the great pairs of Loire appellations; Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray and Montlouis…). At their best, both Chinon and Bourgueil produce wines that can be very long lived, typically with a lovely blackcurrant leaf perfume and succulent raspberry fruit. Ageing transforms the wines, bringing more complexity (say with earthy and mushroomy characteristics), but hopefully still with a bright core of fruit.
I’ve always loved them in the past, but in the last couple of years I’ve been a bit put off some older bottles that have clearly been fine, but overlaid with a veil of farmyard stink. This is down to Brettanomyces, better known as Brett, a naturally occurring yeast that I talked about in this post. Some Brett isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for my money too much is definitely a fault, masking both varietal character and terroir.
Anyway, I’m very pleased to say that I’ve re-found my love for these wines through three older vintages of Bourgueil I drank last week on consecutive nights. All were completely clean (no Brett, very pure expression), but not in the least clinical or dull. Full of character, elegance and terroir they were all lovely wines and although they were between nine and fourteen years old, not one was in the least bit over the hill. Far from it.
The first was a bottle of Bourgueil ‘Les Vingt Lieux Dits’ 2002 from the excellent Domaine du Bel Air. I bought it from the producer about six years ago for the sum total of €7. What a joke price! I was nervous when first nosing it, fearful of the whiff of sweaty saddles (another Brett smell) or it being dried out and too old. Fortunately my faith in cellaring it for a fair while was handsomely rewarded; the only smell was one of great purity and elegance, with bags of fruit still present but with the additional nuanced layers of complexity that come with age. The crisp acidity and mellowed tannins made for a well structured, medium-bodied wine with great length that was perfect with a light casserole supper. Delightful.
The next day we ate out at Season, a fairly new sitting-room sized eaterie in Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park, London N4. The restaurant focusses on seasonal food (so it’s not a misnomer then) with a very small menu matched by an equally tiddly wine list, both changing very regularly. They try to get in wines that are asnatural as possible, a term being coined for wines made with the least possible intervention; this principally means organic or biodynamic grape cultivation, fermentation with wild yeasts and very little if any SO2 (an anti-oxidant) added. Season also have an excellent and laudable policy of putting a fixed mark up on their wines instead of the much more usual percentage, which makes the more expensive wines on their list superb value compared against nearly all other restaurants. Amongst their six or so bottles of red I was fairly astonished to find a bottle of 1998 Bourgueil from Domaine de la Chevalerie. I hadn’t had their Bourgueil before, but at £26 from a London restaurant with fourteen years bottle age, it had to be worth a go. I was also very interested to see how it compared with the ten year old Bourgueil from the previous night. Waiting to nose it whilst it was being opened in front of me I was again somewhat fearful that it might be faulty (sending back wine is no fun) or just too old and dried out, but I’m glad to say that like the wine from the night before it was fresh, invigorating and although coming to the end of it’s plateau of optimum quality, it was still hanging in there. With more developed secondary flavours, it still had lovely lip smacking fruit and was just heavy enough to match the slow cooked rib of beef we had. A great choice to go with some excellent food. Season is a splendid little restaurant with decent food and a very enlightened attitude to wine – I would strongly recommend taking a trip there.
By now I was getting a real Bourgueil groove on, so back at home the following evening I decided to make it a three way comparison by having a bottle made by the excellent grower Pierre Jacques Druet. Pierre Jacques is a great guy and a fantastic wine maker, whose wines I’m very familiar with from various buying trips to the Loire. He still owes my sister-in-law a magnum next time she goes there, but that’s another story. Anyway, I was delighted to find out about a year ago that they got in some of his Bourgueil at Majestic, a particular cuvée called ‘Les Cent Boisselées’. Quite surprisingly it was a 2003, which at nine years old was a complete steal at about £10. What other high quality red wine are you going to be able to buy at that age for a tenner? A pound a year storage and one quid for the wine! Amazing value. 2003 was a particularly sun-drenched vintage; it was too hot for top red wine in many regions of France but was excellent in the central Loire, which often has problems due to lack of heat, not too much. The Druet Bourgueil was very similar in quality to the 2002 from Bel Air; displaying an elegant, slightly haunting perfume with a rich core of lip smacking fruit that was packing an extra richness due to the vintage. An absolutely splendid wine.
So after three days I’ve finished my Bourgueil Binge. All three wines were really good, offering a near unbeatable quality to price ratio, but if forced to choose, on this particular occasion the Bel Air just pipped it for me. Do try a Bourgueil or a Chinon if you get the chance; they offer far better value than Bordeaux or Burgundy and from a good producer with a with a few years bottle age they can show considerable class and style.
[Postscript: having just checked Season’s website I can no longer recommend going there to drink the Chevalerie Bourgueil as they have already changed the wine list! However, they now are now listing Domaine Leon Barral Faugères 2007 instead. Also listed at £26 this is a stonker that’s also at a fantastic price for the quality – go and have some!]