Vicomtesse Evelyne de Pontbriand is owner, viticulturist and winemaker plus tasting room manager and tour guide at Domaine du Closel - Chateau des Vaults. This female operated winery is housed in a large rambling 1850’s farmhouse –chateau set in huge gardens.
Our driver can’t find the place so Eveleyn’s ninety year old mother Michèle drives out to us through country lanes and village streets.
Michèle inherited Chateau des Vaults from a childless uncle when she was in her fifties and set about improving the reputation of its wines and landscaping the gardens in order to benefit from tourism and it now attracts more than 12,000 visitors annually.
Evelyne de Pontbriand walks us briskly up the hill, crossing the road on a private bridge, to her high vineyard of 100+ year old Chenin bush vines to give a master-class on terroir. Pointing out the brows of distant hills she explains that we are on the first and highest of three ridges perpendicular to the Loire River, remains of ancient volcanoes which means there is a variety of soils. The hills used to be topped by windmills and it is the wind, not insects, which pollinate vines.
We are in the Savennières region and Evelyne is the President of the Savennières Appellation Controllee, just as her mother was before her. As you’d expect, Evelyne is bullish “Savennières is the Grand Cru of Loire Valley white wines,” she states. Although we are standing in a field of ancient Chenin Blanc vines Evelyne says “We don’t make Chenin—we use Chenin to make Savennières.” She says that putting the grape variety on the label is unnecessary. “Varieties are tools to produce Savennières —to show the terroir.”
“Surely it helps the consumer to know what sort of wine to expect,” I ask. She shakes her head like a teacher with a particularly dim student. “Tasting French wines is not complicated,” she explains. “It is like walking through the landscape,” and she gestures at the hills behind her and the river valley winding across the land in front, “and tasting that land, that terroir!”
I like Evelyne, I like her no-nonsense way of dismissing the arguments of those that don’t buy into her ‘tasting the land’ message and those who scoff at her explanation of bio-dynamic farming. The farm has organic certification and she is working towards bio-dynamic certification. She sprays ‘teas’ of natural herbs on the vines, but also sulphur. “Sulphur is not a chemical, it is natural,” she says.
Back at the farmhouse we sit for a tasting. But these are indifferent white wines selected for group visits. I step out to the tasting room where Michèle is talking to some German visitors and pour myself tastes of some red wines.
Here the quality and individuality come through and I buy some bottles. When I get home I will be able to close my eyes and walk across the land with Evelyne.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle.
Disclosure: Peter F May travelled to and in the Loire at his own expense and paid full price for all his accommodation, meals, tastings and wines.