A Wine Like a Cat

The restrained pleasures of Savennières.

Too many wines these days are too eager to please. Like puppy dogs, they stick their adorable wet noses in your face and furiously lick you until your heart melts (or you toss them aside). Occasionally, it’s nice to drink a more catlike wine—a wine that might rub up against your leg but otherwise keeps its distance, a wine that makes you chase it. When my taste buds are in need of some elusive pleasure, I often reach for a Savennières, a white wine from France’s Loire Valley that is truly feline in its aloofness. Made from the protean Chenin Blanc grape, Savennières tend to be mineral-rich, gloriously austere wines that can last for ages. Many of them are also absurdly cheap relative to the quality they offer.

The Savennières appellation is in the Anjou-Saumur region of the Loire, near the city of Angers. Overall production is small: According to the Loire Valley Wine Bureau, only around 17,000 cases are produced annually.  (By way of comparison, Mouton-Rothschild produces 25,000 cases of its grand vin per annum—and that’s just one Bordeaux château.) The appellation’s limited output is a function both of its postage-stamp size—it has fewer than 130 hectares of vines—and the relatively low maximum yields that are permitted. It can reasonably be assumed that the wines get their piercing minerality from the dark schistous soil that blankets the vineyards.

Savennières was once among the most prized French wines. Louis XIV was apparently so smitten with a wine from the La Roche-aux-Moines vineyard that he decided to journey to Savennières to see for himself the source of this elixir; unfortunately, the royal coach got stuck in the mud en route and had to turn back. The same vineyard also produced what became a house wine in the court of the first Napoleon. However, the most celebrated Savennières comes from another vineyard, Clos de la Coulée-de-Serrant. Legendary 20th-century French food writer Curnonsky, dubbed the Prince of Gastronomes, famously declared Coulée-de-Serrant to be one of the five great white wines of France, along with Château d’Yquem (the famous Bordeaux sweet wine), Montrachet (the grand cru Burgundy), Château Grillet (a wine from the Rhone Valley), and Château-Chalon (a wine from the Jura). Coulée-de-Serrant makes headlines for a different reason these days: Its current owner is Nicolas Joly, the godfather of biodynamic winemaking, an ultra-organic, quasi-mystical approach to viticulture that has won the adherence of acclaimed wineries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thanks to Joly, Coulée-de-Serrant remains an iconic name in French viticulture, but the Savennières appellation as a whole no longer commands anything like the attention and respect that it enjoyed 50 and 100 years ago. Outside the Loire, the wines are largely ignored in France, and they don’t fare any better elsewhere. Interestingly, the appellation’s descent into obscurity more or less coincided with a radical change in the kind of wines it turned out. In the past, most Savennières were sweet or semisweet. Since the 1960s, however, the wines have generally been vinified dry. Could this explain their diminished popularity? Hard to say. There isn’t much of a market these days for sweet wines, nor is there great demand for bracingly dry white wines. To drinkers accustomed to ebulliently fruity, abundantly oaked Chardonnays, the typical Savennières will taste like a mineral-and-acid bath. It doesn’t help that the wines take years to reach full maturity and are, even then, pretty austere. Jacqueline Friedrich, an American writer residing in France and the author of A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire, describes Savennières as “the most cerebral wine in the world,” and that’s no asset in an era when consumers generally prefer the easy-sippin’ stuff. It may just be that Savennières is not a wine suited to the times.

That said, there are many oenophiles who adore Savennières. They like the way the wines taste (a heady blend of citrus and white fruits, honey, beeswax, flowers, and minerals) and how well they pair with certain foods (such as fish and poultry), and they also cherish them for their distinctiveness. In a world suffering no shortage of tutti-frutti wines, Savennières stands out (certainly, there aren’t many white wines for which prolonged decanting is considered imperative; some Savennières producers recommend aerating their wines for as much as 48 hours before serving them). And better days may lie ahead for Savennières. According to importer Joe Dressner, whose Loire portfolio is unrivaled, there is now a movement afoot in Savennières, led by a new generation of ambitious vintners, to harvest later in order to produce riper, more approachable wines. Warmer growing seasons are aiding this effort. For an appellation that could use a few more fans, these are encouraging developments.

The Loire has had a run of good vintages lately, and 2005 may be the finest of the bunch. Although it has plenty of richness, the 2005 Chateau d’Epiré Savennières ($14.95) is stern and unyielding at the moment. It is a terrific bargain that will deliver substantially more happiness with a decade of cellaring. The 2005Domaine du Closel Savennières la Jalousie ($24) offers good value, as well: It is a taut, subtle wine redolent of citrus fruits and apples, with an appealing waxy texture and excellent structure. The 2005 Jo Pithon Savennières La Croix Picot ($36) is a step up in price and is currently more accessible than either the Closel or the Epiré; it is a full-bodied white brimming with tropical fruits and supported by superb minerality and acidity.

Domaine des Baumard is, along with Nicolas Joly, the best-known source of Savennières. The 2005 Domaine des Baumard Savennières ($25) is an open-knit, winsome wine that still possesses that telltale Savennières restraint. The 2005 Domaine des Baumard Savennières Clos du Papillon ($40) is a notch above the straight Savennières; it is both crisp and rich, which makes for a nice yin-yang sensation on the palate, and its exuberant fruit is buttressed by strong mineral notes and a refreshing core of acidity.

Nicolas Joly’s wines are controversial; some love them, some hate them, and others (like me) can’t quite make up their minds. Joly’s 2004Savennières Clos de la Bergerie ($48) exhibits the feral intensity that one often finds in the best biodynamic wines but doesn’t quite come together in the glass; it is a good wine, but one that ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Joly’s 2004Savennières Les Clos Sacrés ($30), by contrast, is a seamless, delicious effort, marked by notes of honey, peaches, and wildflowers and punctuated by good acidity and length. In fact, I preferred it to the 2004 Savennières Clos de la Coulée de Serrant ($80), a muscular, remarkably textured wine, but one that, like the Clos de la Bergerie, lacks a certain harmony and grace. In fairness, the Coulée de Serrant is still an infant; like most Savennières, it needs time to blossom. Lots of time.