Savennières. The name for me has always oozed mystery and majesty. And class in a glass. Its very sound suggests something serpentine like the Loire river winding off into the distant verdant countryside. No hard consonants, all sibilance and soft sounds and elongation and curlicues.
My first ever encounter with a wine from this appellation was in the late 1980s, one Clos du Papillon from Domaine des Baumard. The bottle had a butterfly on it and this symbol seemed to represent everything about Chenin from this region, a grape variety capable of embracing so many personalities and therefore so difficult to pin down. The wine might be bleached-bone dry with tongue-arching acids or a honeydew rich demi-sec, even moelleux. Either tight as a Cistercian, or hedonistic as a sybarite.
Only a handful of growers were operating and commercialising the wines at the time. And there were tiny crus within the appellation, one being La Coulée de Serrant, a monopole owned by Nicholas Joly, and the other La Roche aux Moines. The names alone conjured the fabulous singularity of monk-mapped terroir.
I have been following the wines of Monique (and now Tessa) Laroche for a long time. It would be fair to say whilst being true to vintage and the special microclimate, the wines themselves have subtly changed in style, probably as a result of the vineyard’s full conversion to organic farming (with some biodynamics) followed by a much more natural/low-intervention approach to the winemaking. Tessa now even makes a zero-added sulphur version of the Savennières.
All the above is context to explain the warm place reserved in my heart for these wines. The other day, having lunch at The Draper’s Arms with proprietor Nick Gibson, we opened a bottle of the 2021 vintage and the wine sang like a nightingale with a bomb up its ass.
Words become irrelevant as utterances and are simply expressions of feelings. Everything dissolves into wow, the inarticulacy of happy acceptance.
First, a word about epiphanies. In wine terms, these can be solitary explosive moments of joyous realisation or, just as often, a bottle shared in the right circumstances at the right moment with the right person and a slowly emerging sense of enjoyment. When you are drinking with another person, one who loves and appreciates wine as much as you, then their spontaneous positive reaction to a wine can trigger yours. It’s honest unalloyed enthusiasm generating loads of endorphins. By the same token, those individuals who are negative or over-analytical to a fault, can sully the enjoyment of even the most transcendent wines.
What was it about the experience of this particular bottle of Savennières that exalted it other than the agreeable and receptive company mentioned above? Epiphanies are a loose aggregate of time, place, people, and mood. Even weather may help to generate the conditions to trigger a rapturous response to something. This day we were sitting outside in the pub garden while the atmospheric conditions alternated between thirty-second rain showers and spells of hot sunshine. I don’t know why this put me in a good mood, but it did. Then the moment itself, the first sip/gulp and the instant and mutual realisation that this wine was special. Other wines were on the table, having been broached, really good wines in their respective ways, you talk about them, but you don’t talk about them other than to refer to this one again. More than a mention.
The next stage is to communicate the epiphany by trying to put the taste sensations (and feelings) into some form of words.
This is where one feels that wine language is too prescriptive for its own good and trivialises what is in the glass. And metaphors and similes – created even with the best of intentions – can sound contrived and self-parodic. Here goes nothing. The wine is gold. Liquid gold in the sense that it scintillates by glinting, glimmering, and listening and holds the sunlight. The nose suggests not one fruit or fruits, rather the fruition (or culmination) of a long ripening period. If I can be fanciful, then it evokes a sensation of harmony, and more fanciful yet, of dry honey forming a connective tissue between the beginning and the end of the grape-growing season – from spring (bursting vitality) to autumn (ripe realisation). And lashings of petrichor to boot. The palate? Everything I want and need. Foremost, strength, the feeling of power without being powerful, of something simultaneously mouth-coating and tensile, charged, sinuous and silky.
The wines of Savennières are notoriously high in acidity. This particular wine incorporated that characteristic into its weave, so that all the flavours and sensations were bound, no wound, around a spine of liquid minerals. What I have written (which is what I felt) suggests a beautiful tension of opposites, a wine that is currently entirely in its own skin yet indicates that you can return to it in a decade when age may gently soften but not diminish its firm vitality nor take away its supporting scaffolding.
Great wine, experienced on the pulses, transports one to places. They can be real places – and the time(s) you visited those places. Or can be places in your mind, happy places associated with beautiful feelings.
The magic in these moments is born from an ineffable balance when all the components of the wine in question are in harmony and this sensation of completeness emerges the moment that the attendant tasters are most receptive. The wine, for want of a better word, “hooks” you. Once you have acknowledged that it has become a vessel for something more than the product of fermented grapes, you might then slough off your tasting persona (that which evaluates wine in a linguistically conventional manner) and explore the sensations more intuitively, more poetically even. Words become irrelevant as utterances and are simply expressions of feelings. Everything dissolves into wow, the inarticulacy of happy acceptance.
We give this whole jumbled experience a name. Savennières-La-Roche-aux-Moines is the embodiment on this occasion. In that instant the wine had the potential to transform an everyday act of drinking to a next-level realisation. An epiphany.