Chenin blanc gets no respect, and there’s a reason: Most wines made from this grape are insipidly sweet and characterless.
There are exceptions. The Loire village of Vouvray is home to fruity but racy wines made from chenin blanc that are definitely not insipid and go down quite nicely in the summer heat.
But it is rare to find bone-dry chenin blanc except from Savennieres, the tiny area geographically close to, but vastly different from, Vouvray. The soil in Vouvray is mainly limestone while slate dominates in Savennieres. As a result, winemakers produce markedly different wines from the same grape, which vividly illustrates why the French name their wines by locale instead of grape variety.
Domaine Baumard and Domaine du Closel are two of my favorite Savennieres producers because they make consistently excellent wines. Nicolas Joly is another major name in the area because he owns one of its two best vineyards, Coulee de Serrant, but his wines are, in my experience, inconsistent. Sometimes they are magical, other times disappointing, but always expensive. In 2002, a great year for all Loire wines, Joly made three Savennieres, including the Coulee de Serrant (about $80). The least expensive of the trio, the Les Clos Sacres, is simply stunning.
Joly is a vocal advocate for biodynamic production, an agricultural method articulated by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, that ties the vine’s growing cycle and vinification steps to astrologic events. Although many of the tenets sound crazy such as hanging deer bladders from trees in the vineyards others, like transferring the wine from barrel to barrel only during certain phases of the moon, probably stem from generations of cellar experience.
Whatever the reason, Joly’s 2002 Les Clos Sacres has the quintessential elements of great Savennieres, a unique combination of honeylike ripeness but without sweetness intertwined with an alluring minerality. It’s a versatile wine for food because it complements a steamed lobster but can also stand up to tuna and wasabi.
Joly, Savennieres, Les Clos Sacres, 2002 (about $33). Distributed by Martignetti, 800-872-9463.
July 21, 2005.