It's arguably the most spectacular debut in the Loire in a long, long time. However, Ivan Massonnat's Domaine Belargus on the Layon goes back in large part to the groundwork of Jo Pithon. By the late 20th century, Pithon had made his own domaine one of the leaders in Anjou Noir, initially predominantly with noble sweet Layons, then in this century, due to changing consumer habits, with dry Anjou Chenins. In addition to grandiose sweet wines from Quarts-de-Chaume, one dry Anjou in particular stood out: Coteau des Treilles. It’s from an old south-facing site in Rochefort, up to 70% steep, that Jo had re-cultivated around the turn of the millennium with a lot of passion and insane labor after it had lain fallow for over 50 years. The first vintages of Chenins grown on a geological mess—magmatic rocks, schists, pudding stone and ancient limestone—were promising and motivated Ivan, who immediately fell in love with the hillside, to invest in the Loire. The two men became friends, and eventually Ivan acquired the domaine along with its vineyards and made it the center of his passion to return the best Anjou Noir sites to their former glory with unique, terroir-driven, absolutely world-class Chenins. Ivan also acquired some of the best sites outside the Layon Valley, such as in Savennières. In addition to Coteau des Treilles, his three vineyards in Quarts-de-Chaume are also among the highlights of the Layon, as the Quarts-de-Chaume AOP is the only grand cru site in the entire Loire Valley. Here Ivan, who is actively supported by Jo, produces not only exquisite sweet wines but also phenomenal dry Chenins, which must be sold under the Anjou appellation but are still allowed to communicate their parcel name. The 2019s from Domaine Belargus are absolutely world-class in their generosity, tension and precision—the Mount Everest of all Chenin Blancs from the Loire—but they will not be released until after the 2020s, i.e. in 2023 at the earliest, perhaps even later. This brings us to the premiere vintage of 2018, from which the Anjou Coteau des Treilles is perhaps the greatest wine, although it may need a few years of bottle aging to show off its invested talents. It is a deep, powerful, intense and solemn, fine and seamlessly textured, almost silky and already harmonious wine with plenty of concentration and finesse and the warmth of the vintage as well as the terroir. The immense complexity and length of this Chenin reveals a rich mineral substance that makes Treilles a giant in the making. A must investment for all fans of Chenin Blanc and generally the very great white wines of this world!
By the way, all wines from the domaine are farmed according to biodynamic criteria and aged for a long time on the lees in wood. They are only brought to market when Ivan deems them ripe. Even then, they are not yet ripe enough, but they are highly promising.
Weissburgunder, a.k.a. Pinot Blanc, Traisental, Neumayer: three names, three question marks? Well, Pinot Blanc is known, but who really loves it? Or even believes that this variety, like its relative Chardonnay, can produce world-class wines? Well, it can. And not only in South Tyrol (Alto Adige) and the southern Palatinate but also in the Traisental, which is located south of the Danube in Lower Austria and flows into it a few miles to the east. The soils here are calcareous conglomerates, with oxidized iron added in the best, stony sites. This works and produces particularly exciting wines that need some time of bottle aging to open up. From his oldest vineyards (planted since 1968), Ludwig Neumayer, who is notoriously underrated in many places, produces one of the best Pinot Blancs of planet wine year after year. Since it comes not from just one site, but from the meagerest plots of two neighboring "Erste Lagen" (Rothenbart and Zwirch), he sells it under an appropriate fantasy name (which is, incidentally, also used for a brilliant Riesling and a Grüner Veltliner) that expresses the precise, stony-mineral character of this wine. The wines from stone are Neumayer's longest-lived and grandest creatures; they are as superior in complexity and substance to the "Erste Lagen" (1ÖTW) as a great grand cru is to a first-class premier cru. Aged on the full lees in stainless steel until the end of May of the following year, the Weissburgunder displays an intense and elegant bouquet of ripe and stewed white fruits with sur lie and chalky mineral notes. The palate is elegant, refined, salty, extremely persistent and very terroir-driven. Above all, it shows that great terroirs don't care what variety is cultivated in them, as long as it subordinates itself and still shines with class.
The idea of modern wines is to express origin and vintage as naturally as possible in elegant, balanced wines. The singe-vineyard, single-vintage wine is an expression of this idea. In addition, however, there are other ideas for producing great, distinctive wines that are independent of the vagaries of the vintage and rather embody a distinctive house style. Krug's Grande Cuvée is one of the most famous representatives of this school. Now Michael Moosbrugger at Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal (Austria) has released three unusual but highly exciting wines that communicate neither their specific origin or their vintage, nor even the grape variety, which is actually considered a sacred cow in German-speaking wine regions. For the 850th anniversary of Schloss Gobelsburg—which belongs to the Melk Monastery founded by Cistercians and has been run by the Moosbrugger family of restaurateurs from Lech (Arlberg) for the past 25 years—castle manager Michael Moosbrugger has not only opened a fabulous wine cellar with cross vaults that does honor to the old monks for eternity but has also created a new edition: Tradition Heritage. The first edition bears the number 850 and includes three cuvées: The Cuvée 3 Years is a blend of several vintages aged in large oak casks and racked several times, the youngest of which is three years old; it is based predominantly on Grüner Veltliner from the Renner vineyard with some Riesling from the Gaisberg and comes from the 2018 (95%) and 2016 (5%) vintages. The Cuvée 10 Years is a blend of the same sites and varieties from the 2010 vintage, also raised in large barrels, while the Cuvée 50 Years is made up of reserve wines from the last 50 years, some aged in bottle and some in casks before the cellar team created the assemblage. What all three cuvées have in common is that their respective individuality, co-determined by the aging of the wines, embodies above all the tradition-conscious yet timeless house style. All three cuvées are fascinating, but my favorite is the Cuvée 10 Years, whose flavorful richness and vitality comes with finesse, tension and great elegance. It is also a great wine because it is neither Riesling nor Veltliner, neither Renner nor Lamm nor Gaisberg nor Heiligenstein, but a celebratory, highly complex yet finessed, ageless Schloss Gobelsburger from a great, if hidden, vintage.
A Wine from a Producer That Exemplifies Sustainability:
If one tries to reduce the wines of the Loire to a common denominator, they are all united—whether white, red, rosé or sparkling—by their lightness and finesse accompanied by invigorating freshness and beguiling fragrance. Powerful, concentrated wines, as they came into vogue worldwide in the 1990s at the latest and also into the top ranks of points, are found here even more rarely; although recently, due to weather conditions, such representatives have been successful more and more often, especially among the red wines. Some Cabernet Francs even seem to adapt to the type of Cabernet that is cultivated outside the Loire, from Bordeaux to Tuscany to South Africa, Canada and, of course, California. Although pure Cabernet Francs are still comparatively rare outside the Loire Valley, they do exist—and they have little in common with the wines of the Loire, but very much in common with each other. They are dark, dense, full-bodied and insanely concentrated. As a rule, these wines, which often seem polished and well-made, earn higher ratings than the often-pristine Cabernets of the Loire and serve—as recently demonstrated in Chateau Angélus's Hommage à Elisabeth Bouchet (100 Parker points)—as prime examples of accomplished Cabernet Franc.
My personal favorite Cabernet Francs, however, continue to be cultivated along the Loire, in the appellations of Bougueil, Chinon, Anjou and, of course, Saumur. If I had to name a domaine that is leading the way to the “Cabernet Franc of the future,” it is Château de Fosse-Sèche, which has been cultivating vines since the Middle Ages. Located outside of the village of Saumur, the estate has been run by the Belgian-born Pire family since 1998. The Chenin and Cabernet vines stand in a nature reserve on ferruginous flint soils, which, for all their finesse, gives them a fascinating edginess and tension. In order to let their Cabernet Franc express itself as purely as possible, no oak barrels have been used here for years, only concrete tanks and concrete eggs. In any case, naturalness is the top maxim here in every respect. The unique location of the estate, far from any industry, and the humanistic spirit of the Pire family were the best prerequisites for practicing ecological, biodynamic and sustainable viticulture in every respect from the very beginning, which includes the planting of trees and hedges as well as other crops and has thus created a biotope over the years that attracts birdwatchers as well as botanists. Meanwhile, Fosse-Sèche has become a true sociotope. Hardly anywhere else have I met such hospitable people who are willing to share their happiness and their love of pure, fine and energetic wines with the whole world. Here, you constantly meet fellow winemakers not only from the Loire but from all over France. People are quite happy to drink a Chenin or Cabernet Franc from Fosse-Sèche elsewhere as well. The 2019 Réserve du Pigeonnier comes from Cab Franc vines that are over 60 years old and yield a maximum of 11 hectoliters of must per hectare. Aged over 14 months in concrete eggs, it offers a deep, intense yet refined and floral bouquet of raw meat, dark fruits, stones and licorice interwoven with the unique iron-scented Fosse Sèche notes. The palate is medium-bodied but supple, concentrated and firm, yet nervously fresh and refined, very elegant and based on perfectly ripe fruit. The finish is powerful but pure, mineral and refreshing, thanks to the moderate alcohol content of 12%.
Christian Hermann of the Dr. Hermann winery (Mosel) shows that a Kabinett, light on its feet as it is, can be a terrific wine that goes with almost any occasion. He produced a whole series of great Kabinett Rieslings in 2020. The finest of them all, however, is his version of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr made famous by winemakers like Joh. Jos. Prüm, Dr. Loosen and Markus Molitor. Christian's 2020 Sonnenuhr Kabinett is a sensual, juicy and lavish yet almost unbelievably fine, hedonistic and complex Riesling from blue slate that you really couldn't ask to be more beautiful. Dr. Hermann's U.S. importer wanted 2,400 bottles of it right away, but unfortunately, there were only 600 liters. Not a single one of them went to the United States; even thirsty Europe, let alone Asia, was only provisionally supplied. Thankfully, this year the winemaker has leased his own, much larger parcel on the fourth floor of the Sonnenuhr ("Bickerd"), and next year he will enrapture many more palates with the 2021 vintage, which is currently fermenting. In any case, the moderate 2021 vintage, very small in quantity, promises to be an "outstanding Kabinett vintage" according to the winemaker. The grapes have hardly reached high ripeness levels, which is only good for Kabinett. Any excess is detrimental here. Even a Kabinett trocken does not need more than 9% or 10% alcohol to fascinate and stimulate. In the case of Christian Hermann’s Prüm-styled 2020, it is even only 8% alcohol, plus 58 grams of unfermented sugar per liter, which you can hardly taste due to the salty piquancy. Incidentally, Hermann's Sonnenuhr Kabinett comes from a small Class 1 parcel at the Wehlener Moselbrücke, called "Im Quärtchen." It really doesn't always have to be Champagne. If you can't find the 2020 vintage, make a note of the 2021. Or otherwise find it among Hermann's competitors mentioned above.