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A Wine That Even Critics Don't Understand
But you, savvy reader, should be seeking out Savennières.
Several years ago, during my brief stint writing for a points-scoring wine publication, I attended a dinner in New York hosted by the magazine’s staff and attended by their team of wine critics. All of us were supposed to bring a wine from the regions we covered. I’m not naive, and I realized the decision of which bottle to bring to this dinner of established, renowned wine critics would be sternly judged—especially since I was relatively new to the gig.
Since I was covering the Loire Valley, I decided to bring a 2016 Coulée de Serrant—a chenin blanc from a tiny appellation in Savennières that is considered one of the greatest white wines in France, produced by Nicolas Joly, who some consider to be the “godfather of biodynamic viticulture.” I had rated this wine 96 points and called it “profound, challenging.”
When I arrived at the restaurant, the sommelier took my wine, gave me a big smile and thumb’s-up when he checked out the label, and placed it next to the other critics’ bottles. It was mostly a pleasant evening, tasting amazing wines from Italy, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere. About halfway through the courses, the Coulée de Serrant was opened and poured. The younger members of the editorial staff buzzed about the wine—some said it had been their favorite white of the evening. Several of the other critics seemed to like it, too. The sommelier leaned in and said he loved the wine. But my eye was on the senior critics. At first, they didn’t seem to object. Then just as I thought about breathing easy, the most senior one, a specialist in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, and other prestige regions, wrinkled his nose at the wine.
“What do you think?” I asked him.
“Eh,” he said, swirling. “Is it a little…off?”
“What do you mean?” I said. “I don’t think it’s corked. We’ve all been drinking it.”
“No, not corked,” he said. “Just a little…off.”
All around, I watched as the other staffers swirled and, in real time, reconsidered their reactions to this wine. Another of the critics said, “Yes, I can see what you’re saying.” Others went silent.
I knew there was nothing wrong with this wine, so I said, defensively: “Well, do you drink a lot of Savennières? Do you ever drink chenin blanc?” I knew this critic didn’t cover Loire wines. Perhaps like a lot of wine people of his generation, Loire whites were a blind spot. Or perhaps, like many of his generation, he didn’t like the idea of biodynamic wines. Or perhaps, just as likely, this was just some sort of wine-critic hazing.
We’ll never know, because he ignored my question. “Yeah, this is off,” he said to the table, vaguely waving his hand. The matter had been decided. This particular bottle, which the magazine published as rating 96 points, was not up to this one particular senior critic’s standards.
Years later, dear reader, I can tell you this: The senior critic at that team dinner was full of shit. The 2016 Coulée de Serrant wine was amazing, and likely still is if you can find it. But, to be fair, it’s a weird wine. In general, chenin blanc at the very top end can be strange. Savennières, with its difficult-for-Americans to pronounce name (sah-vehn-nyair), is a very different drinking experience. Maybe even experienced, senior wine critics have trouble understanding it.
Eric Asimov, the New York Times’ critic once wrote, “Savennières is a demanding wine. The characteristics that make it so distinctive and beautiful require attention and thought, which is perhaps more effort than many people would wish to devote to a beverage.” Savennières is simply not for everyone.
Savennières is a small appellation in the Anjou region of the Loire Valley, with only 146 hectares and a very small number of wineries. As small as it is, there is even a smaller sub-appellation, Roche aux Moines, that covers only 22 hectares and is worked by only nine estates. Coulée de Serrant, the other sub-appellation, is only seven hectares and owned solely by Nicolas Joly. In Savennières proper, the most famous vineyard is probably Clos du Papillon. Honestly, if you memorize those three place names, you’re good to go with Savennières—mainly because you’re not going to find a whole lot of it in the U.S. The other reason to memorize those names is because the label design in Savennières isn’t really going to help you much—mainly basic line drawings of châteaux on white labels.
So what makes Savennières so strange and special? Many consider it to be the ultimate expression of chenin blanc, grown on schist and volcanic soils. First of all, these are big white wines with great power and intensity. You definitely get the whole spectrum of the fruit basket here (stone, orchard, tropical, et al). It’s not uncommon for some vintages, in these days of climate change, to push 14 to 15 percent alcohol by volume. That level of alcohol would seem to fly in the face of current trends.
Yet at that same time, these wines are incredibly complex, precise, energetic, and not flabby. There are often unexpected herbal notes, and always some underlying salinity, smoke, or chalkiness. When I taste Savennières, I always find myself using less common primary descriptors: beeswax, honeysuckle, flower water, wool sweater, sage, almond paste, grilled pineapple. But above all, Savennières has the dictionary definition of what wine people call “tension.” There is something ineffable about it, a texture that’s hard to explain.
And by the way, it’s okay if you can’t totally explain a wine that you like, even if you’re a wine professional. I told that story, about the older critic attempting to humiliate me at the team dinner, to point out two important things about wine. First, even someone with lots of knowledge and a massive ego (such as, ahem, yours truly) can suffer from moments of doubt about wine. More importantly, no one—not even the most influential critics in the world—can know everything there is to know about every wine.
Four Savvy Savennières Picks
When you start exploring Savennières, two vineyard site names often pop up: Clos du Papillon and Roche aux Moines, the latter being its own appellation. I’ve recently tasted a handful of great bottles at various price points from these two places.
Unbelievable value for a beautiful wine that brings so much complexity and drinkability. Swirling notes of honeysuckle, fleshy yellow apple, white peach, balanced by fresh herb and crisp minerality. Great introduction to Savennières.
Domaine des Forges is one of only nine estates that work in 22 hectares of Roche aux Moines. This one dances on the austere side of chenin blanc. Beautiful aromas of beeswax, Meyer lemon, and an attractive hint of wool sweater, with subtle flavors of apricot and melon. But it’s the complex texture that’s key here, leading to a long chalky finsh. As with Le Close du Papillon, this is exceptional value for such a unique single-vineyard white wine.
Domaine aux Moines owns 12 of Roche aux Moines’ 22 hectares, and winemaker Tessa Laroche is one of my favorite Loire producers. This is a big, charming, ripe chenin blanc with a nose of beeswax, grilled pineapple, ripe pear, and a bit of melon. In the mouth, it’s rich and bright at the same time, a burst of tangerine along with the pear and pineapple, and a subtle, underlying smokey note carrying through to the chalky finish.
A stunning wine and worth the splurge. Unique, gorgeous nose of orange flower water, sage, marzipan, and ripe pear. The floral and herbal notes carry all the way through the palate, bright and lively with intense orchard fruit, toward a crisp, mineral finish. (This source looks it has 2015, 2010, and 2006 vintages in stock for $48, worth a shot for those curious to taste aged Savennières.)