A red wine journey with Team South Africa 2019

Tuesday, 18 May, 2021
Jean Vincent Ridon
Team South Africa 2019 settled in the Loire Valley ahead of the World Championship in Chambord. For many the Loire is Chenin and Sauvignon, but the Loire hosts some fabulous red wines.

Led by Captain Anita Streicher Nel, Anton Swarts, Heidi Kritzinger, Cyril Meidinger and Chris Groenewald embarked to France in October 2019 for what was their last trip before the pandemic engulfed the world of wines.

The decision was made to focus on the Loire Valley, the longest French river, and potentially the source of the most diversified wine styles.

Although Sancerre is known for being the cradle of Sauvignon Blanc, rosé and red wines are produced from Pinot Noir in very confidential quantities. A bit more than 10% of the 3000ha are dedicated to Pinot, often on the richer, deeper soils.

South African adoptee Clement Jolivet, who works with Klein Contantia, welcomed Team 2019 at his family winery, named after his father Pascal Jolivet. The reds from Jolivet are not unknown in South Africa as you can find them on some restaurant lists. Being on the north of the 47th parallel one can expect a very fresh red fruit, sharp, tense and juicy style of Pinot Noir.

A different style of Pinot Noir was offered to us by Alphonse Mellot.  Alphonse’s Pinots are dense, intense and closer to a Côte de Nuits than one would expect. The cellar shows how much is invested to get the best from each berry, with hand sorting similar to what is found at the most prestigious Burgundy grand crus. The most unusual fermentation vessels can be seen, one of them looking like a cross between a washing machine and a flying sputnik is the new acquisition of the estate.

When you look at the care given to the grapes for the cuvées like Paradis or Grands Champs, you understand why they cost the price of a Gevrey Chambertin or Pommard!

Even if Pinot is lost in an ocean of Sauvignon in Sancerre, it doesn't make it less remarkable and with the price of top Burgundy ever increasing it offers an attractive alternative for the French Pinot fans!

Sancerre was not the only Pinot of the upper-Loire and when driving through Menetou-Salon, the team could experience a similar style, somehow lighter but very perfumed.

Days with Team South Africa are very intense, and they try to make every hour count. The next red wine stop was at the border of Touraine with legend Henry Marionnet. He built his reputation on very fruity Sauvignon from sandy soils, but he always had a soft spot for the traditional red grapes of Touraine, the Gamay. Gamay is known to offer juicy, fruity, fresh red wines in many parts of the world, although Beaujolais always comes up as the number one appellation for Gamay. But Tourainne is also very popular in France and most cafés in Paris will serve it over the counter as the wine of the day.

Henry Marionnet uses the carbonic fermentation method in order to achieve incredible fruitiness and dark bright colours for his Gamay. Carbonic fermentation is when the transformation of sugar into alcohol takes place inside the berry, away from the influence of oxygen, in a CO² saturated environment. It requires very gentle processing of the crop since the grapes are whole-bunch fermented. The first word that comes to mind with this red wine is: juicy! With this process Marionnet was the first in France to release sulphur-free red wines. Needless to say, his level of hygiene in the cellar is close to that of a medical laboratory.

Gamay and Pinot are far from being the only red grapes from the Loire. Beside Pineau D’Aunis which is a rare cultivar found in Touraine and Anjou, Cabernet Franc and its offspring are dominating the western side of the Loire (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are both crosses with Cabernet Franc as a parent).

Popular Anjou, Powerful Bourgeuil, Fruity Saint Nicolas de Bourgeuil, Saumur and the very fashionable Saumur Champigny, home of the iconic Clos Rougeard, are all producing reds based on a majority of Cabernet Franc.

The most famous appellation for Cabernet Franc, which for a long time reigned as the red wine on French royal tables,  may actually be Chinon. Although a very small quantity of white Chinon is made from Chenin, and even less rosé is produced, Chinon is the quintessence of age worthy Cabernet Franc wines, rivalling the best Saint Emillion. On the history side, Steen in South Africa was often named Chinon Blanc to show its French lineage. Chinon does not lie on the banks of the Loire, but rather on the banks of the Vienne river, a tributary of the lower Loire. The debate on whether Cabernet Franc originates from the Loire or from Bordeaux cannot be concluded, at least this is what the Bordelais say… in the Loire nobody doubts they are the Cabernet Franc cradle.

We were warmly welcomed by the local wine star, Matthieu from Domaine Bernard Baudry, often seen as one of the best performing Chinon producers. Focussing on terroir selections, the wines show different levels of approachability, from the fruity soft but still grippy tannins of the sandy alluvial soils to the more mineral and austere wines from the deep tufeau sub soil, a type of soft limestone known for bringing higher acidity into the wine. In the Loire Valley the use of recent oak barrels is not really seen as beneficial to these wines. All around you will see cement or stainless-steel tanks, some large old wood vats and some ageless barrels.

One clear exception is the Clos Guillot that is coming from a legendary demarcated south-facing slope with yellowish lime soil. It truly benefited from the polishing of newer oak. Very old vines on this clayish limestone soil offer an intensity explaining why 100 years ago Chinon was selling for more money than any Saint Emilion.

The wines were so good at Bernard Baudry that Chris Groenewald decided to import them directly to South Africa.

Team SA 2019 at Bernard Baudry

The west of the Loire valley is a very wet environment with rainfall over 850mm per year. With the strong chance of having heavy rains just before the harvest, the precocity of Cabernet Franc is perfectly suited to the area, often giving the winemakers the Indian summer period they need to reach perfect maturity. Global warming is challenging this delicate balance and some Cabernet Sauvignon is gaining space on the poorer sandy soils of the appellation.

The Loire is clearly not a white wine only region. It spreads from the volcanic soils of Auvergne with the Gamay and Pinot from Saint Pourçains and Cotes d’Auvergne up to the bodied Anjou 1000km downstream. The three main cultivars, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir are interlaced with French history, reminding the traveler that the Kings selected the area to settle, surrounded by castles as beautiful as Amboise, Chenonceaux, Cheverny or Chambord where the 2019 world championships took place.

In a time of global warming, the Loire can offer fresh, elegant, crunchy, textured red wines with a moderate alcohol at a perfect ripeness, something very unusual on our warmer shores of South Africa.

Team South Africa 2019 was the last team to fly our colours at the world championships. With the South African Wine Tasting Championship starting in July 2021, we can just hope that the travel restrictions will allow a Team 2021 to travel to Chateauneuf du Pape on the 2nd of October 2021, and finally bring the cup home.

Team SA 2019
Team SA 2019

Alphone Mellot with Team SA and the sputnik
Alphone Mellot with Team SA and the sputnik

World Blind Wine Tasting Championships
World Blind Wine Tasting Championships

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