June 13, 2008

Dirt Search #1: The Battle in Nouy

This is rare opportunity. Two wines. Two winemakers. Same dirt. And celebrated dirt at that. The Clos Baudoin (clos, by the way, means the vineyard is surrounded by a wall) is an ancient vineyard in the Nouy Valley in Vouvray, and widely regarded as one of the best terroirs in the Loire. Until recently, the vineyard was owned by the descendants of Polish royalty. But in 2002, François Chidaine, a young and brilliant winemaker from across the valley in Montlouis, took over maintenance of the vineyards and production of the wines from Prince Poniatowski. In 2007, Chidaine took over the Clos Baudoin completely.

What a contest! In one corner, Chidaine, who makes brilliant wines. I've never had a bad one. And some -- like the off-dry 2005 Montlouis Les Tuffeaux -- verge on sublime. And by the 2006 vintage, Chidaine had fully converted the Clos Baudoin to biodynamic viticulture and resurrected the vineyard from a state of disrepair. Unfortunately, in the other corner, the Prince's 2001, was a product of that disrepair. Chidaine found himself in a position to take over the Clos Baudoin in some measure because the Prince was 80 years old, but also because his last vineyard manager had been unimpressive and the vines were diminished. The wines from the late 90s up to the final vintage, the 2001, are generally regarded as sub-par. So it isn't really a fair fight. But that doesn't matter, because we are looking past the wine-making, past the vine-pruning and seeking out the deeper mysteries of Clos Baudoin terroir that surely lurk in these two bottles.

First in the ring: The Prince.
Straw colored. On the nose, quince, dry grass and an oddly pleasant petro-chemical smell that seemed to rise and fade and return over time. In the mouth, this drinks like a wine with interesting parts that never really come together. Crisp, if indifferent, pear, an odd spice note (cumin?) and then the acid seems to throw in the towel and flee before a watery, mineral finish. Like gravel juice if there were such a thing.

Then Chidaine. Same straw color. Much bigger, brighter nose. Honey, clover, pear skins and marzipan. Fresh on the attack, with pear and white pepper, followed by a sweet, limestone finish. A little more residual sugar in this, but still dry. Beautifully integrated for a young Chenin. Be nice to have a cellar full of this one.

Very different wines, but quite clearly cousins. There is an unmistakable common character to them, but I would have trouble articulating the relationship with any specificity. Both do seem to have that same dilutive, gravel juice pause before the finish. Though in the Chidaine it is much shallower. And there does seem to be something of the Prince's petro-chemical aroma (as a child, I loved the smell of gasoline, which explains much) in the mineral finish of Chidaine's wine. Gravel juice and gasoline? Are these the characters that make this patch of dirt so famous? I doubt it. I know from reviews that the chemical smell was cited as indication of the Prince's decline, and so, also, of Chidaine's rise in Vouvray.

So where is the terroir? Surely it's there in that shared, cousinly character. But it isn't something obvious. Nor is it something precise and specific. Like Einstein's childhood fascination with a compass, always turning to the polar North, "Something deeply hidden has to be behind things."

Chidaine's 2006 Clos Baudoin was $26. The Prince's 2001 Clos Baudoin was $19
. I got them both at K&L Wines in Hollywood.


David McDuff said...

Very thoughtful post, David. Having visited both the Clos Baudoin and Chidaine's estate in Montlouis during the transitional years, I'm reasonably confident in chalking up much of the petrochemical element in the Prince's wines to a combination of dirty wine making conditions and a high reliance on SO2. However, there's an unmistakable element of it that comes from the moist, clay and limestone rich soil of the Clos itself. Thus, a hint of that petrol character remains in Chidaine's wines from the Clos, a mark of the terroir.

You can find my trip reports, if you wish, at:
Clos Baudoin (Poniatowski), Chidaine in Vouvray and Chidaine in Vouvray.

PS: I stumbled upon your blog via a comment on Brooklynguy's blog. I've also added you to my blogroll. Keep up the good work.

J David Harden said...

Thanks, David. I really enjoyed your referenced posts. As a big fan of Chidaine, I'm envious of the extent of both your bottle and barrel tastings. I was in the Loire recently, but unfortunately didn't make it as far East as Vouvray (we were in Sologne, but only for a short weekend). But I did hear that Francois and his wife have opened a retail store in Montlouis. On my list for the next trip to the Loire.