Last summer I had the pleasure of visiting Domaine du Closel, a small, celebrated producer in Savennières in the Anjou-Saumur region of the Loire Valley. The appellation Savennières is known for dry white wines from the Chenin Blanc grape.
Chenin Blanc is primarily grown in France, South Africa, and California and can be made in varying styles from bone dry to sweet. However, it is in its birthplace of Anjou-Saumur and specifically Savennières that it arguably produces its most profound and finessed dry styles.
Savennières is located on the steep northern banks of the Loire river. The best plots of land to grow Chenin Blanc are the ‘coulées,’ flat plateaus or elevated ground intercut with small valleys or water runoffs along the banks of the river. These plateaus have well drained soils made up of mostly schist and a lot of exposure to the sun, an important factor since Chenin is often slow to ripen and needs a long growing season. Despite being slow to ripen, Chenin Blanc also has a tendency to overproduce. Furthermore, it is susceptible to mildew. For these reasons it needs careful attention during the growing season.
Not only is Chenin Blanc difficult to grow, but the wines that it yields can often be equally difficult to understand and/or appreciate. Savennières are often described with tough adjectives— harsh, elusive, cerebral. Indeed, they are generally more complicated and hard to unravel than say a fruity, straightforward sauvignon blanc. Because of their high acidity, Savennières are capable of aging and transforming for decades, tasting vastly different depending on their age. When young, the wines can be very tart and electric, with flavors of orchard fruits like apples, quince, and pears. They also exhibit a distinct chalk-like minerality and earthiness, often described as moss, chamomile, or straw. As the wines age they retain a firm tautness, but the fruit and floral aromas change from young and fresh to dried, the earthiness deepens, and a nutty, almost cider-y quality develops. In years when the weather conditions are just right, the grapes can be affected with a beneficial fungus called Botrytis, which can give the wines additional aromas and flavors of honey, ginger, lemongrass and marzipan. If this isn’t complex enough, there is also variation between vintages and stylistic choices made by each producer. All of these factors make it very difficult to know what you’re going to get in a bottle of Savennières.
Evelyne de Pontbriand, the owner of Domaine du Closel, tries to approach this complicated wine with straightforward techniques and common sense simplicity. She farms parcels in the famous coulées of Clos du Papillon and Les Caillardières and relies on a mix of new science as well as organic and biodynamic processes to grow her grapes. With new technology she is able to pinpoint the exact few days in which she should pick her grapes for an optimal combination of acidity and ripeness, but she also follows the natural rhythms of nature and lunar cycles which are essential principles of biodynamic farming. She is a big proponent of listening to the land and believes you can be in tune with what it needs by spending time just walking through the vineyards. She feels the same about making the wine. After a basic fermentation, she allows the juice to do what it wants, feeling that this results in the wine expressing its truest and most balanced version of itself. For instance, some of her wines will go through malolactic fermentation, but she never induces it. With these simple techniques she has taken what can be a very intractable grape and is able to make wines that can reach a fascinating complexity and power. Her wines are also very drinkable young, with brighter fruit and balanced acidity.
As a sommelier, I’ve found the easiest way to make Savennières more inviting is to serve it with food. Young or aged, Savennières always shines with simple preparations of high quality ingredients. The fresh acidity goes well with fish such as halibut or snapper and it also pairs well with foods that bring out its natural earthiness, like mushrooms.
A few nights ago it was time to drink the bottle of 2011 Domaine du Closel ‘Clos du Papillon’ that I brought home from the trip. I decided to follow Evelyne’s advice and paired the wine with branzino. I also served a mushroom and goat cheese tart and a simple salad with mixed herbs. The recipes are below.
For more information about Domaine du Closel, visit their website http://www.savennieres-closel.com
In Los Angeles, Domaine du Closel is distributed by Louis Dressner and Farm Wine Imports
1 whole fish such as snapper or branzino, gutted and scaled (I always have the fishmonger do this for me)
1 lemon cut into rounds
Sprigs of fresh thyme
A few garlic cloves, sliced thickly
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Salt and olive oil the fish, inside and out
Place half of the lemon slices, thyme, and garlic cloves into the cavity of the fish.
Line a tray with aluminum foil and arrange the remaining thyme, lemon (minus one piece) and garlic in the center of the tray and lay the fish on top.
Squeeze a bit of lemon on top of the fish.
Fold the aluminum foil up around the fish. Place in the preheated oven and roast until the fish is just cooked through, about 25-30 minutes (depending on the size of the fish). Serve immediately.
Mushroom and Goat Cheese Tart
Recipe via Bon Appetit
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 ounces button mushrooms, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large shallot, minced
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 sheet frozen puff pastry (half of 17.3-ounce package), thawed
1 large egg, beaten to blend
3 ounces soft fresh goat cheese (such as Montrachet), room temperature
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons whipping cream
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and sauté until soft and dry, about 5 minutes. Add remaining 1 tablespoon butter to skillet, then shallot. Sauté until shallot is soft, about 4 minutes longer. Add nutmeg. Season mushroom filling with salt and pepper. Cool.
Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll out puff pastry onto lightly floured surface to 12x15-inch rectangle. Cut one 12x5-inch rectangle, two 11x1/2-inch strips and two 5x1/2-inch strips from pastry. Place rectangle on prepared baking sheet. Pierce all over with fork. Using pastry brush, brush all strips with egg. Place short strips, egg side down, atop ends of pastry to form raised crust edge; place long strips, egg side down, atop long sides of pastry. (Mushroom filling and tart shell can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover separately and refrigerate.)
Preheat oven to 400°F. Bake tart shell until golden, about 15 minutes. Maintain oven temperature. Spread cheese evenly over bottom of hot tart shell. Top with mushrooms. Sprinkle with thyme, salt, and pepper. Drizzle with cream. Bake until heated through, about 10 minutes. Serve hot.
Green Salad with Herbs
Head of washed and dried butter lettuce
Hand full of fresh herbs, cut up (I like the combination of mint, basil and thyme)
Toss all ingredients together and serve with a simple vinaigrette of high quality olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon.