Domaine de Chevalerie was pretty much every bit as awesome as the expectations I had developed. Devenish has been working with Chevalerie for a bit over a year and we were wowed by some very limited 2001 and 1996 Bourgueils they released to us. Laurent loves them and had thoroughly educated us about their 13th generation history, passion, biodynamic farming, and amazing cellars and then Brendon went to visit and brought back great stories last year. They are located in the town of Restigne, just down the road from Laurent and have vineyards up above the Loire on gravelly soils that offer excellent exposure and drainage. That improved drainage from the porous gravel produces wines with more tannin and dark earthy qualities. Nearer the river the soil is sand and clay which hold more water and produces softer wines that are more suited for drinking young.
Anyway, when Laurent and I got over there Pierre and his daughter Stephanie Caslot were just preparing some bottles of the not yet released 2011 vintage for submission to a magazine tasting. Stephanie was pretty focused on getting the samples corked, as she is in charge of sales, and Pierre was all smiles, ambling around waving his arms and making jokes. He was an unabashedly happy guy, overjoyed in life in general it seemed, but the warm weather and spring in particular; and at having people to taste with. He looked just like farmers I know in Maine; round belly, gregarious, rough hands, and full of life.
Once the samples were taken care of Stephanie, Laurent, and I walked down the sloping driveway that leads into their massive wine cave beneath the winery. Originally excavated as a subterranean quarry in the 1100's it is now a huge (nearly an acre) cavern under the winery. This surplus of space allows them the luxury to hold wines indefinitely; until they really feel the wine is properly matured and ready to drink.
I don't know how long we were in the cellar. Chevalerie has at least 5 different unique terroirs that they produce and bottle individually, but there are also blended cuvees and experimental wines each year. Considering they're still holding vintages from the mid 2000's and earlier it was a lot of wine to taste through. I'll try to cover the high lights.
First up was the 2011 domaine blend. This is Chevalerie's more approachable drink now wine that comes from some sandy vineyards sites. The Caslots come up with a different name for it each year that in some way encapsulates the vintage. This year it is named “Bonnaire”. I forget why. It's something about being happy. I think. Despite only just being bottled it was delicious, bright, vibrantly cherry flavoured, pretty, and smooth. And the label is great. See the first picture for a preview.
Then we tasted a selection of the 2009s that were still aging and drinking pretty young at this point. One was from a more sandy site and was more elegant, another was from a gravel plot that was lower and had some tea flavors and more tannin. The Breteche vineyard was big but already showing it's trade mark developed fruit and smooth texture. The 09 Chevalerie was darker, smokier, and serious. It was fun to be able to taste all these unique vineyards and see their separate characters developing. I was really interested in a vineyard called Busardieres that I hadn't tasted before. Apparently it has more limestone in it and produces wines that are brighter, racy, and more aromatic. The 09 Busardieres had more raspberry and a kind of wintergreen like white heat in the aroma.
Then the 08s. They were all more developed with better integrated tannins. The Busardieres in 08 had a foundation of sweet fruit, but then hints of pine and aromatic herbs that jumped out. I wrote that the tannins sheathed the wine like the wings on a beautiful jeweled beetle. I might not have been spitting everything at this point but I remember the wine and stand by that analogy. I think the 08's were more aromatic and racy across the board; even the Chevalerie.
In comparison to the 08s the 07s were bigger and more powerful, more confidant and forceful. The Chevalerie 07 had a killer perfume like aroma of plum and cherry with an undertone of charred wood and smoke. Some how the tannins were still powerful but seemed to also have finess to me. I'll be importing some of this. The Busardieres also struck me and was noticeably darker with some coffee aromas.
The 2006 Chevaleie showed even more definition in the flavors. There was a subtle aromatic spice to the aroma and a supple fresh cherry. The Busardieres in 06 had softer tannins, some dark licorice loitering behind the fruit, and a hint of dry chalk. Then the tannins that I had thought were softening ambushed me on the finish and strangled me. Last was a late harvest version of the Breteche, I guess to experiment with riper grapes and possibly a more international style. Pierre said the fermentation for this had taken 2 years! This late harvest Breteche was an animal; literally. It was furry, spicy and had a tobacco aroma. I thought it was sexy, but the tannins just would not let go. They hung on and I could still feel their dry sensation for minutes afterwards.
At one point an elderly french couple came into the cave to taste with Pierre. The woman spoke some English and when it was explained I was an American wine distributor she began asking me about Parker and America's taste in wine. We had a good talk about American's evolving interest in wine and their growing inquisitiveness. She said she and her husband had been coming to Chevalerie for about 30 years now to buy wine. They didn't buy bottles, they just brought 10L plastic tanks to fill up with whatever they liked and then bottled it themselves. Pierre filled the tanks himself from the different specific barrels they picked out. It was a great demonstration of the differences between America and France's wine cultures.
I eventually stumbled out into the fading sun shine with Laurent. I could have just lain down in the vineyard to nap. Instead we jumped into the car to go visit Pierre Gauthiere and Domaine Bel Air, just down the road! More on that later....
Being able to make wine in the way that Chevalerie does is both a rarity and a luxury. Unlike many wineries they have that huge cavern underground providing the space. Much of their land has been in the family for 100s of years so the capital investments of buying and building the original winery were paid off long ago. Probably most importantly though they're acknowledged as one of the best and so people seek them out looking for excellent older Bourgueil and are willing to pay for it. Irregardless, Chevalerie is in a unique position that allows them to produce beautiful wines free from many of the headaches suffered by other wineries. This is a gem and in many ways embodies what Devenish seeks in a wine.