Sparkling wine of Saumur in Loire Valley of France

December 21, 2010
About Wines from Loire Valley of France
Best wine supplier in Philippines discusses wine related topics

Anjou and Saumur Part 3
Saumur can make a fine base for exploring the vineyards of the Loire. It is peppered with hotels and guest houses, and I have enjoyed some splendid rooms in hotels along the quayside, sitting almost directly below the ancient chateau high on the hill behind. The hotel Anne d’Anjou was particularly memorable; I recall watching, from my window, staff from Les Ménestrels, the restaurant located in the garden behind the hotel, collect fresh herbs for my dinner that evening. Alternatively, there is a very good campsite just upstream of centre ville, on the right bank, which provides for a self catering and thus more affordable base. I have also taken this approach in the past, and from hotel or campsite I have struck out west to the vineyards of Coteaux du Layon and Savennières as well as their respective crus, and east to Chinon, Bourgueil or Vouvray, the leading appellations of the Touraine, all within easy-striking distance.
But it would, I am certain, be very foolish to concentrate only on those appellations that neighbour Saumur; to do so would be to deny ourselves a more immediate and certainly worthwhile vinous experience. Around Saumur there are red, white and even sweet wines produced, as well as large amounts of sparkling wine which are undoubtedly of great commercial importance, and which can also be of good quality. I personally feel that it is the red wines that lead here, and it is those of Saumur-Champigny that are the most mouth watering.
Saumur & Saumur-Champigny
Troglodytic dwellings in the tuffeau caves along the Loire, and the dolmens, small houses constructed from monolithic slabs of local stone, serve to remind us that human habitation in this region stretches back millennia. For much of that time, vines have been cultivated here. The dolmens are now abandoned, mere tourist attractions, but the tuffeau caves still play a vital role in the local economy. Many are, astonishing though it may seem, still inhabited; take a drive along the left bank of the Loire, upstream of Saumur, and you will see the clean lines of fully glazed windows, complete with net curtains, adorning the walls of rock as they spring skywards. There are even little chimneys, peeking out from the top of the cliff. Many of the caves, however, are utilised by mushroom and silkworm farmers, or for the storage of the local Saumur and Saumur-Champigny wines.

Although the vine has been cultivated here for centuries, if not millennia, the Saumur-Champigny we know today is very much a modern creation. Both the Saumur and Saumur-Champigny appellations were created in 1957, the latter being the more restrictive. There are just eight communes qualifying for Champigny, closely concentrated to the southeast of Saumur itself. The appellation permits only red wines from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pineau d’Aunis, although many are pulling up this latter variety, also known as Chenin Noir, in favour of the two Cabernets. Yields are pretty high at an average of 77 hl/ha across the appellation over a ten year period, but producers with a mind to quality will harvest at significantly less than this. Nevertheless, the figures suggest some producers focus on quantity, not quality. This was not the attitude of Paul Filliatreau, however, who in the 1970s was largely responsible for the creation of Saumur-Champigny as we know it; a vibrant, fresh, mineral-stony-perfumed red (when at its best) which makes lovely summer drinking or, less commonly, a darker, more serious, old vines cuvée which does well in the cellar for a few years. The former was a great success in Saumur’s closest and most significant market, Paris; good sales their meant Saumur-Champigny had finally arrived.

Encircling the vineyards of Saumur-Champigny are those of the Saumur appellation, covering 31 communes for red wines and 39 communes for white. The red wines are produced from the same varieties as Champigny, and the whites must be at least 80% Chenin Blanc, the balance Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, so this appellation mirrors that of Anjou to the west, although the styles of wine are undeniably quite different. If one was to name one wine that characterises Saumur as distinct from Anjou, however, it would have to be the town’s sparkling wines. This is a very significant industry, as illustrated by the huge swathe of vineyards included in the Saumur Mousseux appellation, covering not only the tuffeau vineyards around Saumur, but stretching west onto the schistous land around Angers, and there are even a few vineyards on the far side of the river. These cover 95 communes in all, with about 1400 hectares under production. Permitted white grape varieties include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (together these two must not comprise more than 20% of the blend) and Chenin Blanc (also sometimes referred to as Pineau de la Loire), permitted red varieties include Cabernets Franc & Sauvignon, Cot (the local name for Malbec), Gamay, Pinot Noir and Pineau d’Aunis; the red varieties must not exceed 60% of the blend. The appellation also allows for rosé, and as a point of interest these must be produced solely from the red grapes listed above.

A superior appellation to that of Saumur Mousseux is Crémant de Loire, a huge area spread across much of Anjou & Saumur, and also Touraine, but it seems appropriate to deal with it here. The range of varieties eligible for the wine differs slightly from Saumur; the white grapes included may be Chenin, Chardonnay or Menu Pineau (also known as Arbois or Petit Verdet) – note that there is no place for Sauvignon Blanc here. Also eligible are Grolleau Gris and Noir, the two Cabernets again, Pineau d’Aunis and Pinot Noir. Created in 1975, although the blend is less restrictive than for Saumur, the regulations for Crémant de Loire are on the whole much stricter; the rendement de base is lower, a stipulated 50 hl/ha compared with an average of 63 hl/ha. Add the plafond limité de classement (an increase of the maximum yield granted by the INAO on top of the rendement annuel, the actual permitted yield which is set on a yearly basis), which may be a maximum 20%, into the equation, however, and it becomes clear that Crémant yields may easily exceed those of Saumur. Other regulations do contribute to quality, however, including stipulated transport of the harvest in small récipients non étanches (non-watertight crates), pressing by helical or chain-based techniques are forbidden, maximum pressure is stipulated, and the wine must spend twelve months in bottle before release, including nine months on its lees. As a result it is a natural conclusion that wines bottled as Crémant de Loire are more set to give pleasure than those bottled as Saumur, but on tasting it becomes clear – depending on your preferred style – that there are naturally exceptions to this rather flimsy rule.

Finally in this Saumur run-down, the Coteaux de Saumur, the last appellation to bear the name of this town. Delimited in 1962, this applies solely to sweet wines, made using Chenin Blanc. The vineyards, covering 31 communes, run long the left bank of the Loire as it passes Saumur, and stretch out southwards in two arms. The wines are a very different style to those of Layon and Aubance, less voluptuous, more nervy, quite possibly reflecting the tuffeau underfoot, as opposed to the schist of the former appellations. The area cultivated is very small, an average of just 12 hectares over the last decade, with a typical yield of just 27 hl/ha. There is one last region worth mentioning, and that is Vin du Thouarsis, a VDQS centred around the town of Thouars, south of Saumur. There are only four registered producers extolling less than 20 hectares of vineyard, producing white, red and rosé. I must confess I have no valid experience of the wines.

The leading domaines of the region include Domaine Filliatreau, which has been instrumental in vitalising Saumur-Champigny over the last three decades, and continues to turn out excellent wines. Other leading Champigny producers include the Foucaults at Clos Rougeard, the Neau family at Domaine de Nerleux, the Vatans at Chateau du Hureau and Krishna Lester at Chateau de Chaintres. Also look out for Chateau de Villeneuve, one of the first examples of Saumur-Champigny I ever tasted, and very good it was too. Thierry Germain works hard to produce richly coloured, oak-influenced Saumur-Champigny at Domaine des Roches Neuves, wines which are worth experiencing, if nothing else. For straight Saumur and Coteaux de Saumur, stick to the list of names above. The best sparkling wines, be they Saumur, Anjou or Crémant, come from Domaine des Baumard and Bouvet-Ladubay.


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